The possible end is now in sight for this lengthy lockdown with the country on an ‘irreversible’ one way course to a semblance of normality. With the vaccine rollout on schedule, consumer confidence is rising and all roads lead to a retail boom. The OBR has even revised its growth figures upwards and now expects GDP to return to pre-pandemic levels by mid 2022 – six months earlier than previously predicted.
Research by Gekko backs up the optimistic outlook, revealing that 70% of consumers surveyed are planning on visiting stores as much, or more than pre-pandemic when they reopen in April. Additionally, according to CACI 75% of people have actually seen their personal finances improve or stay the same during the pandemic. Therefore people are planning to head out in large numbers with many having more discretionary spending power. It is therefore incumbent on retailers to ensure they maximise the sales opportunity of this boom after the many long lean months. The need to attract footfall and break those online shopping habits which have taken hold is essential. So what strategies should be deployed?
1. Make the customer experience the standout attraction
The price-led and impersonal online world can never replace the customer journey and experience of physical retail. In fact, absence has only made the heart fonder. Looking at our research, when asked what makes people want to return to the high street, 62% said it was the ability to see, hold and try a product. 53% wanted to support the High Street, while 52% miss the ability to browse. The same number, 52% reported the sheer enjoyment of shopping as a key factor in returning. Retailers should react by stimulating the senses that have been so underused for so many months, especially in considered and luxury purchases. At the same time, the old way isn’t necessarily the best way as our habits towards shopping will have changed. A blended approach is now essential rather than a ‘nice to have’ approach to trading.
Firstly, think about who is guiding the customer journey. Retailers should do what they can to help staff immerse themselves back into the workplace, just like the rest of us. They should begin the process of having well trained sales advisors on hand comfortable with creating the enhanced journey a shopper may need to be guided through returning to a store. Having someone who truly understands the product, can answer questions and can close a sale is something the online world can not replicate. To complement the expert advisors, think about the visual experience. This is more important than ever in a world where hygiene measures might reduce browsing opportunities. Whilst shinkage is a concern for all retailers, products should be, where possible, brought out of hibernation and unleashed. Think about presenting products visually with great demos and impressive lighting, creating an appealing display. Ensure you have clearly labelled product details, features and benefits and ensure any promotions are clearly highlighted. Retailers and brands that recognise the need to engage the senses of sensation-starved customers will see the benefit from the boom in the bottom line.
2. Be sympathetic to peoples’ health concerns
The Prime Minister has struck a more cautious tone in the easing of this lockdown, reflecting the mood of the nation. Health is now the primary consideration for millions of shoppers. According to Gekko’s recent research, 86% of respondents don’t want shopping to return to exactly the way it was pre-pandemic. For the 30% of Brits planning to visit stores less, COVID safety concerns were the most cited reason. Nearly half of respondents (49%) want reduced store capacity to continue, which will be at odds with retailers’ desire to attract the masses back in-store. A significant majority, 61% want to keep hand sanitizer points. However, only 11% said they wanted limited contact with goods to stay. Acknowledging these concerns with visible hand sanitizer points, clearly signposted COVID information and making efforts to avoid overcrowding will be a smart strategy, at least in the short term. Creating a journey that is not only rewarding but is also memorable for the right reasons may be the difference between a shopper returning to the high street or remaining online.
3. Embrace hybrid shopping
While previously we could talk about an offline/ online divide, in this boom retailers need to embrace new thinking and ensure they can serve customers in a consistent way, whichever channel they use. Customers have had to get used to new more hybrid offline/ online models and even the latest of late adopters have embraced eCommerce. Data from the ONS shows that online retail sales grew by 46.1% overall in the UK last year. Meanwhile, click and collect boomed in 2020 growing by 32% and is forecast to reach £9.6bn in 2022 accounting for 13.9% of all online sales. Our own research revealed nearly a third (31%) of respondents want more click and collect and 38% would use new online skills to research an item online before buying it in-store. As we come out of the lockdown slowly many customers may want to still minimise their time in shops. New hybrid payment systems could help faster movement through tills, with the limit being raised to £100 for contactless cards. With more customers in-store the ability to turn round nervous shoppers rapidly will be key. Retaining click and collect and offering a flexible approach that embraces innovative solutions will be good business now and in the future.
4. Think local-first
As more people have worked from home and have been wary of crowds and city centres, local businesses have come to the forefront. They were certainly more resilient against the larger footfall drops in urban centres last year. According to Springboard the -36.6% drop in footfall in market towns during 2020 was around a third less than the drop of -48.2% in regional cities around the UK. Indeed Central London was the hardest hit with a 58.7% drop in footfall, affected by the lack of office workers and a dramatic fall in tourist numbers. In our study, over a third (35%) of respondents revealed they have purchased from a local or independent store that they would not have done pre-pandemic. Retailers need to ensure brands have a full stock range throughout their retail estate to weather the retail boom. Local digital listings should be up to date and accurate to reach locally-minded customers who won’t want a wasted journey.
As customers have changed over this past challenging year, the need to understand the new consumer should shape new strategies toward creating a shopping experience that engages them. Retailers should actively accentuate the positive points of much missed physical retail during the boom as well as embracing now embedded hybrid shopping. But at the same time, retailers need to be mindful of health concerns and have measures likely to generate confidence and encourage repeat visits. Merely opening up again isn’t necessarily going to cut it even for the most loyal of customers. With consumers once again looking to shop with purpose due to pent up demand, it is all to play for.
Daniel Todaro is Managing Director of field marketing and experiential agency Gekko