In February, candy maker Mars Wrigley and ShopRite began testing Smiley, a mobile robot (from robotics provider Savioke) that is traveling the aisles of a Monroe, New York, store to serve as both a checkout-display-on-wheels for impulse purchases and a roving safety monitor: The device (see photo) carries sanitation wipes and presents messages about social distancing when it detects too many shoppers nearby.
Welcome to in-store marketing, pandemic-style.
When you consider the fallout from the COVID-19 global pandemic across the retail landscape, it’s clear that the virus was not an equal opportunity assailant. “Essential” channels including mass, grocery, drug and home improvement all flourished – some earning record-breaking sales – while department stores and other discretionary channels like fashion floundered.
Likewise, the pandemic was a major boon to digital shopper marketing and a decided bust for traditional merchandising as concerned consumers shifted to online shopping: 77% of brand marketers increased spending on digital activity last year, while 43% decreased their allocations for in-store marketing, according to our 2021 Path to Purchase Trends Report (published in January). The shift came, in large part, out of necessity, as only 38% of the programs originally planned for 2020 ran as scheduled.
Success for many P-O-P companies during the pandemic was hit or miss, depending on the particular combination of retailers and product categories in their customer base, as well as which stage of production cycle they were in during when the pandemic first peaked in early spring.
In grocery channels, stores were initially focused on restocking shelves and less concerned with promotional merchandising, says Chris Cummings, national sales manager at Green Bay Packaging in Wisconsin. “If you’re a Target or Walmart operating during the pandemic, your number-one priority is the supply chain and getting big boxes of [essential supplies] out on the floor. It’s not a back-to-school program or Halloween promotion.”
“Overall, the pandemic reduced the programs that were run, as brands and retailers focused on the safety of employees and shoppers first, and then on maintaining their supply chains,” says Dan Sabanosh, director of shopper marketing at Great Northern Instore, Racine, Wisconsin. “Fortunately, we were able to weather the shift. [We had] a broad range of customers that included some decreases in activity as well as some increases in certain categories.”
“Some stores postponed orders, but then Target, Walmart and Costco all said, ‘No, we’ll take them,” says Mike Eckert, president of Design Phase in Waukegan, Illinois. “We were still manufacturing, shipping and installing at retail throughout the pandemic.”
So not all product categories were affected equally. “Impulse items [such as] candy, gum, mints and single-serve chips were heavily impacted in a negative way,” says Regina Bailey, senior director of retail/category strategy at Menasha, Neenah, Wisconsin. “Those manufacturers were looking for ways to interact with click-and-collect and curbside opportunities.” (Hello, Smiley.)
“The way people shopped the category changed over the past year, and we’ve adapted our consumer engagement strategies in response,” Mike Gilroy, VP of trade development and sponsorship at Mars Wrigley, told Progressive Grocer. “We’re working with retailers on new in-store merchandising opportunities.
Meanwhile, demand for merchandising in the wine and spirits category surged as on-premise drinking became off-limits legally and at-home consumption grew. “Off the shelf, freestanding merchandising has catapulted in the last six to nine months,” Jerry Fox, CEO of Bish Creative, Lake Zurich, Illinois, said in February 2021. “That’s true of CPG in general, but in particular for our clients in the wine and spirits industry,” which include Diageo and Constellation Brands.
So while there maybe have been a precipitous drop in secondary merchandising for a brief period at some retailers, the longer-term impact might not have been so dramatic: IRI estimates that CPG retailers have been carrying only about six fewer displays per store since September compared with the prior, pre-pandemic year. That’s significant, but not catastrophic.
“We are starting to work on lots of new opportunities for the second half of 2021,” says Jeff Rafalski, vice president of new business development at Vanguard Packaging in Kansas City, Missouri. “Opportunities are slowly emerging as brands look to position their strategies post-COVID.”
What’s more, although secondary display activity declined, the use of in-store signage surely didn’t. Retailers needed immediate solutions to communicate their new store policies and improved safety features (see photo below), such as social distancing floor decals and mask-mandate signage, says Eric West, SVP of strategy and operations at Integrated Merchandising Solutions (IMS), Morton Grove, Illinois. IMS also saw a jump in demand for signage about the BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store) and curbside fulfillment offerings that suddenly became critical.