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For the better part of 2020, retailers have scrambled to meet consumers' changing needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While many have focused on accelerating their e-commerce offerings, they haven’t stopped focusing on their physical stores and the business that will one day return. 

But what that business looks like could look significantly different than it did before COVID struck. From partnering with other brands to offer new services, to enabling socially-distanced interactions between associates and customers, retailers have had to reassess their formats, as well as how their spaces are used. 

That has certainly been the case for Walgreens Boots Alliance and TD Bank. While from different ends of the retail spectrum, the pharmacy giant and perennial banking company both have an eye on increasing convenience without sacrificing their business. 

During a discussion at RetailSpaces (Almost) Live, Martha MacInnis, Head of Retail Design and Experience for TD Bank, and Steve Lamontagne, Vice President of Design and Formats at Walgreens Boots Alliance, discussed how the recent pandemic has shaped the future of their stores, as well as the interactions that take place inside.

"COVID-19 wasn't really a disruptor, it was an accelerator," Lee Peterson, Executive Vice President of Thought Leadership with WD Partners, said as he moderated the discussion. "Things that were down the road just went off the cliff." 

Doing Business Differently 

"It's amazing," Lamontagne said. "Pre-COVID, you were thinking about where you want to take your brick and mortar and advances in digital and app development for buy online and pick up in-store. Then, in an instant, it moves to the front of the class and everyone is working on that piece of it."

Not embracing the e-commerce acceleration wasn't an option, Lamontagne said. 

"Everyone knows they need to get into it, the customer is demanding it," he said. "How you offered goods and services had to change overnight." 

At Walgreens Boots Alliance, those changes included advancements in digital technology alongside adapting physical store operations that were designed for in-store experiences but needed to quickly handle online fulfillment. 

Tdbank branch
TD experienced long lines at some branches

For TD Bank, MacInnis said the changes weren't quite so jarring, as the company has always pushed for digital adoption among customers. 

"It was interesting to see how people responded at the beginning of this," she said. "In Canada, we saw a spike in people wanting to come to the branch. In the U.S. we had other channels, like the drive-thru, that helped address that." 

Still, changes accelerated by COVID have left TD Bank reassessing how they will be able to engage with customers in the future. 

For instance, while many transactions can take place online, advice can be easier to digest in person, and that's primarily what TD Bank's physical locations have been used for. 

"We have to rethink and reset our vision for what the advice experience looks like going forward," MacInnis said. "Prior to this, we were about a shoulder-to-shoulder experience. Now there will be hesitation about doing that." 

Exploring New Options 

Before the pandemic and during, many grocers and big-box retailers have embraced the buy online, pickup in-store (BOPIS) avenue customers are favoring more, and Walgreens and TD Bank are no different. Both have been exploring ways of increasing convenience via an amalgamation of digital and physical. 

In fact, MacInnis said that customers in the U.S.will now be able to take advantage of the company’s first curbside service: debit card pick up. Should a customer lose their debit card, they will be able to request a new one online, schedule a pickup time at their favored location and have the card delivered directly to their car by an employee. 

Walmart drive thru

Existing drive-thrus helped Walgreens in 2020

Walgreens isn't pursuing curbside in a big way, Lamontagne said, but it is piloting the system with partners such as Kroger. 

For physical Walgreens stores, Lamontagne said a new focus has been placed on the drive-thru, traditionally used for prescription pick ups.  

"We put essential products through the drive-thru," he said. "Not only can you get your prescription, but you can get food, and wellness products." 

Because of restrictions on pharmacies, Lamontagne said stores had to build a list of 100 key items that could be added to orders and stored inside the pharmacy. 

"There were logistical challenges," he said. "You couldn't have the door opening and shutting to bring things in. So we set up a mini-fulfillment center in the pharmacy." 

Introducing Innovation  

While both Walgreens and TD Bank are now offering options for customers they weren't prior to the pandemic, that doesn't mean introducing those initiatives was an easy feat. 

With thousands of stores and locations across the country, rolling out significant changes requires a strategic approach.

MacInnis said that when TD Bank begins considering new offerings, it starts with just a few locations before diving in. 

"I think it's really about choosing a few key test locations, then scaling up from there," she said. "It's working really, really closely to figure out how we can support operations through new experiences." 

The process involves a lot of iterations over a series of months and then tweaking before rolling out across multiple markets. 

For Lamontagne, the idea of rolling out new services involves weighing innovation against having a flawless operation. 

"For us, we've kept the machine fed, making sure we are delivering on the promise of the brand across 9,000 units, then we have a small group of folks thinking of the future and what those opportunities are." 

Joining Forces 

Especially now and into the immediate future, the success of physical retail is going to depend on retailers’ ability to provide both unique and convenient experiences. MacInnis and Lamontagne have been thinking about how to embrace this reality.

For its part, Walgreens has begun launching mobile pharmacy units that deliver medications to consumers' communities, ensuring they are able to stay on track and healthy. 

Walgreens village medical

Brand partnerships will be vital for many retailers

In its physical stores, the company has been exploring a partnership with Village Medical. The arrangement would bring pharmacists and doctors together under one roof to help address customers' health. 

"When a customer or patient comes in they really feel like everyone is there to serve them," Lamontagne said. 

While MacInnis admits that customers are now looking for something more unique in their banking experience, TD Bank isn't quite ready to jump into a partnership with another major brand. 

Instead, she says they will focus on partnering with local businesses in the communities they serve. 

"We want to use hyper-localization to create pop-up experiences," she said. "I don't know that we are in a place where we are saying we are going to completely change the experience to something that isn't banking, but we're interested in creating a lab space where people can pop in and out." 

TD Bank and Walgreens will continue to shift their businesses to meet customers' changing shopping preferences in the future, even if that future comes to fruition overnight. 

"There were a lot of things that we thought would be impossible before this, but we had to make it happen," MacInnis said. 

Ashlee Kieler

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Ashlee Kieler is an experienced multimedia journalist based in Iowa. She is passionate about telling stories about healthcare, education, retail and a smorgasbord of other topics.

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