As much as I would love to be able to gaze into my magic crystal ball and predict that in a month’s time everything in the world will be back to “normal”, we all know that can never happen. In fact, if crystal balls were even a real thing, we might not have found ourselves in this position in the first place. 

The truth is, we never could have predicted the massive global impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on so many aspects of everyday life – from health to business, the global economy and even something as simple as buying a coffee on the way to work.

Coronavirus hasn’t just turned our whole world upside down. It grounded the airlines that connect our world and, for those of us in the aviation and travel retail industry, there’s no denying that it’s been a difficult three months as services ground to a halt, almost overnight.

The good news is that we are starting to see light at the end of the runway. Soon, the sky will be lined with contrails once again and with that means more passengers coming through the airport. But one thing’s for sure, the “new normal” is going to be very different.

While it’s important to look forward, I want to start by taking a moment to rewind back to the last few months. The headlines splashed across our trusty industry trade magazines painted a pretty dire picture for the travel retail industry – things were going to change forever, consumers are not going to want to talk to people in store, no sampling will be allowed. And that made me quite sad because all the things that make travel retail so great – the people, the sampling, the amazing in-store experiences – seemed to be going out the window with the prospect of not being able to do any of that anymore.

You have to admit that, at the time, all the consumer behaviour analysis and insight into how things were going to change were reflective of how consumers were feeling at that present moment, which at points was pretty scary. But now, with everything moving on so quickly, I’m delighted to see that people’s views are slowly starting to change and they are feeling a little bit more confident.

It looks like we’re finally coming out the other side of it and, as we saw from the recent reopening of Dufry’s store in Heathrow Terminal 2, customers are more willing to get back to how things were. By this I mean the positive side of how things were. We know that change is inevitable but I believe it will all be change for the better.

One thing’s for sure, the craving for human interaction is something that will never disappear. Indeed, after being in lockdown for three months, I think we can all agree on that. And it’s the same in-store. People value human interaction and of course for brands and retailers, how they create that connection might look a little different for a while in the months ahead.

Now has got to be the time for travel retail to go back to basics. People do like to talk to people; even if it’s muffled from behind a facemask, with your hands covered in freshly applied sanitiser or even gloves, at a two-metre distance (or now “one-metre plus” where two is not possible). Yes, there are still restrictions in place and it might take some time to navigate through this, but the value of human-to-human interactions can never be outshone by technology. As things begin moving again, preparing your Brand Ambassadors with online safety training for a safe return to work is crucial before they step back on the shop floor in the airport. 

While they might not be able to hand out samples or spray eager shoppers with a spritz of the latest fragrance, there are still numerous other ways to create valuable brand experiences for duty free shoppers. Merchandising has probably never been more important to make sure a product is in the right place, looking how it should. 

Again, it’s about going back to the basics of emotional intelligence in order to connect with shoppers under these new circumstances. Brand ambassadors are well trained in knowing how to spot signs by reading people and their body language to approach them in the best way. It’s about reading the customer and knowing what they want before they even have to ask. While some customers might be open to having a socially distanced conversation about a brand or product, others might be less inclined and perhaps even a little nervous about this whole new situation. Knowing if they need to stand back or whether to engage is something that great brand ambassadors do best. 

We’re all learning to adapt to these new circumstances. It will still take some time but for travel retail, it’s time to go back to basics, hold back the bells and whistles, and utilise your most important assets – the people – to help instil trust and confidence with shoppers as we navigate this new post-COVID-19 world. 

By Leanne Nutter, Head of Travel Retail, Blackjack

A version of this article was originally published TR Business | July 2020