For retailers, mastering COVID-19 means acknowledging consumers’ demands for more meaningful shopping experiences and brand interactions. In a virtual panel at Advertising Week, “Reimagining Retail for a Post-Covid Era,” Dr. Antonia Ward, global director of advisory services at Stylus, shares how brands can engage tomorrow’s customer by reimagining retail through the lens of racial and social justice, the current economic state and climate change—a necessary approach to empower communities and survive the pandemic.

The first step to cultivating community is thinking about how your brand can help consumers be part of the solution to achieving social and racial justice. Doing so will require retailers to change their localization strategies, as 63 percent of US Gen Z and millennials want brands to demonstrate local knowledge of their communities, according to Dr. Ward.

As far as brick-and-mortar retail goes, a more meaningful shopping experience starts with a store that has a point of view, says Dr. Ward. For example, in February Vans opened its first community-driven retail store in Downtown Los Angeles, a two-story, 11,500 square-foot space that celebrates Los Angeles’ skateboarding culture and community.

The ground floor features Vans shoes, apparel and accessories, as well as a dedicated shake shop with hard goods from other local brands. The second floor houses a gallery, lounge and workshop space called Studio808 where shoppers can experience hands-on art and design workshops, free of charge. According to Vans, Studio808’s aim is to educate and uplift underserved members of the community.

“It’ll be necessary to decentralize responsibility for brands to evolve from global to regional, from ‘cities’ to ‘communities’,” says Worth Darling, director of innovation at Vans, per Dr. Ward.

As consumers demand action beyond headlines and black Instagram squares, retailers can cultivate community by enabling conscious consumption. Dr. Ward points to Target, who achieved this by introducing a badge on its ecommerce site that indicates which brands are black-owned. Google, Yelp and DoorDash have all introduced tools for businesses to identify as black-owned as well. Plus, Glossier gave away $500,000 in grants to black-owned beauty businesses and $500,000 in donations to organizations fighting racial injustice.

A more data-driven approach has contributed to other brands’ success in delivering personalized experiences. For example, with the UK food market expected to grow 27 percent by 2024, Sainsbury’s in February opened its new digital-driven convenience store format where 90 percent of the stock is based on real-time analytics that monitor the preferences of local customers.

Another example of a retailer changing the way consumers shop is S Group’s Alepa grocery store in Finland. Earlier this year, Alepa introduced a hyperlocal digital initiative called “Alepa Block Wishes” to enable customers to request their favorite products to be added on the shelves of their local Alepa through a Facebook Messenger-enabled chatbot. Since launching, 70 percent of customers’ wishes were fulfilled within 48 hours and Alepa has expanded the program to over 90 neighborhoods.

As retailers look ahead, Dr. Ward advises that brands embrace COVID-19 and learn to be agile, view staff as community because consumers will judge them on their treatment of employees and invest in your handprint in addition to managing your footprint.

“This is a concept borrowed from sustainability where the idea of the environmental footprint, or the mark that you leave on the planet when you use resources, is matched with the handprint where you can do things to increase the positive as well as reduce the negative,” says Dr. Ward.