I drove by a Panera Bread store today and saw something quite unique. As many of us are painfully aware, COVID-19 has changed a few things in our lives… and for some, life itself. We nearly seem naïve to have not anticipated one of the few global catastrophes that could destroy so much in such a short amount of time. Some of these changes are reactionary.

A few of them are radical… and brilliant!

If we can escape from the hysteria, the tragedy, the paralysis… oof, the p-a-r-a-l-y-s-i-s, we might catch a glimpse of the macro business revolution in real-time.

A First Impression Sometimes Deserves a Second

Never mind the reason I had gone across town – (my favorite subway sandwich restaurant was shuttered late last month). Driving through this lot and seeing the apparent shift a once-bustling and thriving business had to make (within the last couple days) was… well… depressing.

Here in the empty lot were all the chairs from this trendy restaurant, setup in a perfect line around the edge of the parking spaces. An attempt at safety pinned an orange cone to the bottom of each chair. At the front of the line, on the sidewalk and within 15′ of the front door was an umbrella’d table. At the back of the line, another chair with two cones and an “Enter” sign was sufficient for traffic control.

Invisible Customers Changing the Rules

2-second drive-by impression… ruh-roh?!

10 seconds later… hmm, that’s pretty clever!

This was innovation and business savvy combined into a real-time example! Nevertheless, my heart sunk because the “drive-thru” was empty.

At the table sat a deflated employee looking at me like, “Please don’t turn me into a meme.”

Rewind just a few minutes in my quest for lunch and we get to the reason of this post.

The Worst Kind of Traffic to a Customer

At the other end of this lot is a Chipotle restaurant. Quite possibly, the cheapest place to get a filling pound of a semi-tasty burrito in Vancouver, USA—and one of the few places left that appears to be thriving amidst the pandemic. It didn’t look busy when I pulled up!

As I stood in what seemed to be an empty line for nearly 20 minutes, I realized an underlying rule of great customer service was being violated—and probably not for the first time in recent history.

When I worked in the service and retail industries, we were always trained to “serve the customers in the store, then the customers on the phone.”

Don’t be alarmed, I get it. When a delivery driver shows up, it’s critical the food is hot and ready to go. But this is not the way it’s always been. Before the pandemic, I typically saw a driver or two sitting at an empty table waiting for the order or simply grabbing a to-go bag off a rack.

Although I thought I was cushioned with 15′ in front of me before the next customer, there must have been a dozen invisible customers getting nervous with me pushing up behind them… mind blown.

And yes, whether you’re on the freeway, or in a store… waiting for something you can’t visually substantiate can be excruciating.

Got Invisible Virus Protection?

Failure to observe this next new rule is much less genius.

I never really thought about it before, but when I worked in a restaurant, any individual who handled food (w/out a wrapper), was required to wear gloves or wash their hands prior to touching anything. It was an important rule and often prioritized to garner peace of mind from the customer. Full stop.

Probably NOT a good time to watch Fast Food Nation (searchlightpictures.com, 2006)

With invisible customers, there’s little assurance that sanitized food preparation (happening behind the counter or even closed doors) is even a thing anymore.

Boiling the Ocean is the New Black

Of course, I drove by a Walmart on my way home. It’s a modern miracle. They have figured out how to sell anything they want (another invisible customer rule change) even when the rest of the retail world is on its knees. Just add groceries. Of course, many consider the stores to be just as dangerous as health clinics—at least for the moment.

Their latest stroke of genius? What may seem like a magical stream of shipments coming from invisible customers around the country, is really just brilliant misdirection by… wait for it… FedEx!

The rules have changed for the purple and orange brand just-in-time to compete with Amazon. There were more “Pack, ship and print right here.” signs in the parking lot than COVID-19 instructional signs.

Other rules… just say’n…

  1. Resold Merchandise—Do invisible customers (or online shoppers) have less control over avoiding full price when they can’t determine whether an item has been returned and repackaged until after it is shipped to them and in their hands?
  2. Immediate Gratification—Free shipping previously required a membership or acceptance of slower delivery and now it’s all slower and costs the same – what are the invisible shoppers saying about it?
  3. Portion Equality—Behind the drive-thru window and walls, are the portion guidelines becoming stricter to compensate for lower traffic and lower revenue?
  4. No Returns—I’ve heard story after story of unsatisfied customers trying to return something thinking they’ve hit the jackpot with an empty return lane… think again! In this case the customers are invisible because they’re really not there. No returns means it’s time to shop online!
  5. Flavor Integrity—With invisible customers, are chefs and cooks less concerned with being held accountable for “the same taste” and quality of ingredients?
  6. Product Availability—Invisible shoppers are cleaning entire shelves of product without leaving their homes and by the time the traditional shopper arrives in-store, the product is back-ordered or has quantity limits assigned to it.

This real-time evolution obviously brought about by tragedy on many different levels, is just as historic as COVID-19. I can’t help but look for a few positive things to keep the days passing and not go crazy thinking about what may or may not happen. It may be healthy for us all to recognize the clever adjustments a few others are making insomuch that we can increase the overall survival rate of the American Dream.

So what have you seen? Stop by and let me know on LinkedIn!

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©2020 PIXRITE LLC. All rights acknowledged. Panera Bread® and Panera® are registered trademarks of Panera. Chipotle® is a registered trademark of CMG PEPPER LLC. Walmart® is a trademark of Walmart. FedEx® is a registered trademark of Federal Express Corporation.

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