The Future of Bricks and Mortar Retail
So what now for Retail. As the dust starts to settle, ever precariously, on the Covid pandemic and we enter a period of informed tolerance of the virus and all its consequences, society opens up again and along with it the retail sector has to re-evaluate itself – yet again!
An old boss of mine used to say that to stay still in retail is to move backwards. Retail has always moved and shaped itself around the ever-changing needs and desires of society and a shopping world informed increasingly with technological strides. The most successful retailers have always looked closely at their customer and not only supplied their needs but informed them on what it is they will need in the future. In this respect the retailer has always been the ultimate svengali and the joy of high street shopping in the past was always the anticipation of what’s new and exciting for my life!
Whilst the digital age was making inroads into the retail sector before the Covid-19 pandemic, it nonetheless found itself front and centre in the thinking of all retailers, be they large scale corporate behemoths to small neighborhood stores. There is nothing like closed doors to embolden a retailer to think of different ways to sell product. Those who were already digitally fine-tuned honed their art whilst those luddites who turned their head finally had to put the blinkers on and engage in a crash course in photography and website design – literally in order to stay solvent.
The Covid experience definitely created imbalances within the retail sector. Retailers in grocery, home improvement, fashion, pet products & personal beauty all made hay whilst traders in cosmetics, luxury goods & business & travel apparel felt the punch. While we cocooned within our homes we splurged online on products, services and experiences designed to make us feel better about ourselves in a troubling and unsure time.
But as the doors are thrown open, surely the retailers are not going to return to life pre Covid? I very much doubt so! Retailers have an uncanny knack for analyzing a predicament and garnering the best and most lucrative way to take a situation and use it to their advantage and, hopefully, to add to their bottom line.
But what is it we think the retailers will be looking at?
Existing stores will have to ‘spring clean’, to wipe off the cobwebs both literal and metaphorical and seek to inject new life, air and ‘Retail Chi’ into their stores. No longer will the store be about product. It will need to be about the Showroom. Showing off our best bits! With the dominance of online shopping the shallow store needs to become the shop window. Not just showing our wares off in their best possible light but also telling stories about how better they may be experienced and what services there are to support the customer in their retail experience. In addition, digital capability needs to be in store as well as in our homes. Customer facing digital tools and devices help to engage an ever-savvy buyer and keep them engaged! Virtual shopping is real and needs to have floor space in all new store environments. As much as the (digital) theatre of selling there also needs the backup of the shopping experience itself. Investments in frictionless, contactless payment systems and managed customer friendly exchange stations are essential to modern day stores and aid in mitigating shopper frustration which is key to good retailing.
Is selling what you have always sold in the way that you have always sold it going to work anymore? The new customer is discerning and in need of stimulation & excitement after nearly 2 years of restrictions. They are more educated about what’s out there due to their increased online activity and therefore are more likely to be very particular, certain, and distinct about their choices. They will know exactly the brand and range they want and will be less likely to settle for an ‘equal and approved’ solution. Therefore, retailers will have to sell different things in different ways. They will have to expand their offer and present more choice driven and curated selections. The ratio of ‘back of rack’ to front of rack’ will need to change to meet online customer demands and expectations and the need to ‘accessorize’ our product offer with other products, services and experience will need to be considered.
Loyalty is going to be key. Customers are going to feel the need for love and to be loved by their retailers. To be thanked for coming back and spending their time (and money) with them. That loyalty needs to be emotional just as much as transactional and this needs to feed into the different demographics of the customer base. Moulding your loyalty programmes to your customer profile will help expand the amount of returning customer recognition that happens in store. Engaging in online live streaming events which allow your customer to engage with your brand even when they are not in store again adds to the sense of inclusiveness. It also enables real time purchases to be taken through app and web-based solutions during such events and engagements. Online events also help to get exclusive access privileges to a wide net of customers, such as ‘first-peek’ viewings or ‘invited online sale’ – so the buyer feels valued and worthy.
The effects of COVID-19 on the retail industry are profound and unprecedented. Whilst it is critical for retailers to work through operational and tactical considerations to re-open retail stores, it is also an opportunity to re-examine who they are as a business and what it is they now want to achieve as that business grows. Challenges are opportunities and there are certainly many challenges out there on the high street at the moment. The idea of retail less as transactional and as more leisure driven seems to hold hope for the trade. If the customer’s experience can be enhanced and made ever easier, more diverse, more inclusive, and more personalised then we look to a thriving retail sector.