Pandemic-proof retail design


In the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been considering what it could mean for the future of retail and restaurant design. To what extent will our learnings from the current crisis influence, accelerate or put the kibosh on certain features and formats? Here are our top seven take-outs:


There has been some speculation that public touchscreens, used to order and pay for goods, could spread COVID-19. But whether or not they are a hazard, heightened hygiene awareness may cause consumers to be wary of using them in future, and prompt brands to increase investment in mobile order and payment technology – as well as voice activation and gesture control.

Zero-waste initiatives

Recent years have seen an increasing focus on reducing packaging waste in the in-store environment. But when COVID-19 hit, stores started rolling out precautionary measures across a range of eco initiatives. For example, major coffee shops refused to accept reusable coffee cups, bulk / refill stores stopped allowing self-service, and in the US, some states banned reusable bags. Without evidence to the contrary that reusable coffee cups, bags for life and refill silo handles can be vectors for the virus, consumers may be more cautious in embracing such zero-waste initiatives in future. The holy grail will be to offer eco options that come with a hygiene guarantee.

Flexible fixtures

When eating out establishments were still open, those with tables and benches fixed to the floor were unable to flex to meet new physical distancing requirements, other than by, for example, asking customers to leave every other table free. It’s a similar story in the supermarkets regarding checkouts. In contrast, those with freestanding tables and benches were easily able to create a new layout which met the requirements but still maintained some sense of normality. Are moveable fixtures the way forward?

Digital comms screens

We’re not against digital screens, but they’re not always the answer and shouldn’t necessarily be the default solution for comms. But the right screens in the right places have come into their own during the current COVID-19 crisis. For example, McDonald’s well-positioned screens (see left) allowed the brand to clearly and prominently communicate important COVID-19 updates to customers. The crisis has highlighted the multiple purpose of screens – as a sales tool in normal times, and as an incredibly useful comms device when the time comes.

Contactless retail formats

Several of the world’s largest grocery retailers have experimented with contactless stores in recent years. On the face of it, this type of retail format offers a number of advantages during a viral health crisis. Take Amazon Go and its Just Walk Out technology, for example:

– It negates the need for contact between staff and customers, reducing the risk of spread.

– As it is less reliant on staff, the risk posed to ongoing operations from staff illness is reduced.

– It allows for a more efficient and faster customer journey, ensuring more people can get through the doors, faster.

– There’s less chance it needs to be adapted – for example, by installing protective checkout screens – thus avoiding additional spend.

It is, however, unclear (despite attempts to clarify with Amazon) why the majority of Amazon Go stores are temporarily closed, according to the Amazon Go website.

Back in the UK, M&S has developed its own contactless Mobile Pay Go technology, allowing customers to scan barcodes with their mobile phones and leave without having to pay at a till. It is reportedly doubling the number of stores that allow customers to use it.

Dark stores and dark kitchens

With many consumers forced to rely more upon mail order, home delivery and click & collect for their food, it could prompt them to re-evaluate the need to physically shop – or eat in a restaurant – when we emerge from this crisis. We may therefore see retailers and restaurateurs reassess their spacial requirements, ramp up their investment in delivery and click & collect capabilities, and build more dark stores and dark kitchens.

Protective checkout screens 

With protective checkout screens now installed in stores throughout the country, these could become a standard feature of new store specifications. After all, it’s easier, safer and likely cheaper to have them in situ in the first place than to install them when a situation hits. Whether they will become a more permanent in-store feature will, however, depend on many factors including the projected timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic, average lifespan of the screens and risk-benefit analysis (cost vs safety vs detriment to customer experience).


Drive-thru formats (or Click+Collect by another name, in retail terms) have slowly become more commonplace in the UK – for example Starbucks, Costa and Greggs already operate drive-thrus. Meanwhile, the supermarkets offer Clock+Collect and the UK’s first drive-thru farm shop opened in 2018. But COVID-19 may prompt more retailers and restaurants to consider drive-thru / Click + Collect as a low-cost and low-contact format which reassures shoppers, and provides added protection, particularly for the elderly and vulnerable.

Digital signage

Long term changes in store and restaurant design requiring substantial investment must be balanced against risk and future requirement. Whilst it would represent a large initial investment, digital signage does allow for greater flexibility in – and faster changes to be made to – store layout, customer journey and menus if the need arises. The down side of course is that when tech fails, it impacts the customer experience – and looks bad.

Tone of voice

The importance of tone of voice is something that’s often overlooked when it comes to brand assets. During the pandemic, it’s been very clear which brands have invested in creating a strong tone of voice. In doing so, they’ve been able to use it to communicate clearly and consistently across sales channels, and to reassure customers. This should stand them in good stead in future by building a rapport with customers now. Those brands which don’t already have their tone of voice nailed would be wise to revisit it, as they will need to rely on it as they seek to navigate their way through the ‘new normal’.

Where next?

Ultimately, format changes like those laid out above, will be decided when the customer insight and sales data starts coming through, more research is done into how COVID-19 is transmitted – and when we have a clearer idea of how COVID-19 will evolve in future.

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