As Britain’s ‘non-essential’ retailers prepare to reopen their doors in the coming weeks, one of the biggest challenges they face will be convincing shoppers to walk through the door. And, no, I don’t just mean from a safety perspective; I’m talking about the additional friction that shoppers will inevitably encounter.
Will customers queue up to enter a department store? Will they want to pop in to a clothing store if they can’t try stuff on? Will they accept less choice on shelves as retailers make space for social distancing measures? If they have picked up a book off the shelf, will they remember to then place it on the special quarantine cart? This might all be worth the hassle – if there was no such thing called the internet.
Don’t get me wrong. Bricks & mortar retailers should get a much-needed initial boost when they reopen. These are uncharted waters, but pent-up demand must be a given when consumers themselves are pent up for months. We are social creatures, and the notion of ‘going shopping’ is inherently a leisure activity. The high street retailers that have thus far survived the so-called ‘retail apocalypse’ are those that focus on all the things shoppers can’t get online – inspiration, discovery, curation, community, experience.
But how will this look in a post-COVID world? Has ‘experiential retail’ finally been relegated to the buzzword archives? Has a pandemic killed the art of browsing?
Or perhaps we will see a continued digital shift as social media platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest bridge that gap. Today’s launch of a new shopping feature on Facebook’s platforms certainly brings that one step closer to a reality. Facebook Shops will do what Amazon and bricks & mortar cannot – combine discovery with the effortlessness of buying online.
For many, the habits that we have so swiftly learned during lockdown will become entrenched. This is a pivotal moment for the e-commerce sector. Just like the seemingly overnight rise in remote working has made us rethink the role of the office, the surge in online shopping will make consumers question the role of the store. It may have taken several decades for online sales to reach nearly a quarter of the market, but retailers now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hit the gas.
In many ways, the pandemic will simply accelerate a lot of the trends that were already in motion – addressing the oversupply of stores; convergence of physical and digital retail; a weeding out of those mediocre, mid-market players (if they weren’t relevant then, they’re definitely not now); and more mindful spending. Clothing sales have fallen off a cliff and consumers haven’t seemed to notice. And if you don’t believe me, just look at Marks & Spencer’s figures from this morning’s trading update – at their lowest point during the crisis, clothing sales dropped to 16% of last year’s level.
Winning confidence before custom
In-store shoppers will soon redefine what constitutes a good experience based on their own hierarchy of needs, perhaps something along the lines of: 1) not catching a deadly virus; 2) feeling assured by store hygiene measures; 3) finding a cute dress.
And first impressions matter. There will be no second chances if shoppers don’t feel safe upon their return to stores. Retailers should therefore ensure that shoppers understand, and possibly even witness, cleaning and safety measures taking place in-store. Winning confidence will be the first step to winning custom.
Shops will have to make some very difficult decisions as they look to navigate the new normal. One of the most pressing issues ahead of reopening, for fashion retailers in particular, is how they shift stock that has been collecting dust for the past eight weeks without slashing prices and destroying margin. Equally, how can they run a promotion without attracting too large of a crowd?
Perhaps more mainstream retailers will take a leaf from the luxury playbook, giving customers the opportunity to book in-store appointments. This would address capacity concerns while giving customers a sense of entitlement and therefore a greater propensity to make a purchase.
Technology will play a key role here. Twenty-first century retail has, in many ways, been well-equipped to handle a global lockdown thanks to a decade of investment in both e-commerce fulfillment capabilities and technologies that connect online and physical retail.
As stores look to reopen, we’ll see an acceleration in the adoption of those technologies that, intentionally or not, facilitate a safe shopping environment. I previously ruled out the idea that checkout-free stores like Amazon Go could be a gamechanger outside of the travel retail sector. COVID might change that. In a matter of weeks, cashier-less stores have gone from being perceived as a discriminatory concept that will displace millions of jobs to savior in a public health crisis.
Before the pandemic, a handful of retailers had been quietly testing a same-day click & collect service, then seen as a smart way to leverage stores in a digital era. In a post-COVID world, we can expect more retailers to pursue technology that gives shoppers access to store-level inventory or even the number of people currently in-store.
Retailers will also need to do more to connect digital customers with in-store staff. This could be as basic as a text exchange or a more formal service like virtual styling, as launched by John Lewis last month. Shoppers may not be visiting stores as often, but they’ll still want guidance and expertise when purchasing certain products. Otherwise, why not just buy it all from Amazon?
Not all is rosy online
Online retailers may have been the clear winners of lockdown, but they are struggling to cope with newfound demand. Just look at the grocery sector – securing an online delivery slot with any of the major supermarkets has become harder than getting Glastonbury tickets. This is naturally less of an issue for non-food retailers, but consumers have had to go back to noughties-era expectations when it comes to delivery lead times. And going from two-hour to two-week delivery has perhaps made us question our consumption habits.
The surge in demand is also leading to a surge in costs. For example, online retailers will need to offer more generous returns policies for the foreseeable future, and we might finally see fashion retailers address one of the biggest thorns in their side – inconsistencies in sizing. This has been a perpetual barrier to buying clothes online, though largely overcome by the ease of returns. And now, for reasons impossible to have predicted, it’ll be hugely beneficial for shops if customers know their true size when walking through the door. Sizing technology has had a patchy record, but this just might be the impetus needed.
In the meantime, non-essential retailers certainly have their work cut out for them – the clue is in the name. During any period of economic slowdown, general merchandise retailers are naturally the first to get hit due to the non-discretionary nature of their offering. But then factor in anxious shoppers concerned about safety, all of the extra friction required to keep stores safe and the fact that online shopping is so accessible – I think we need to brace ourselves for a bumpy ride.