The seismic shift which the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the retail sector was felt by all.
The severity of the impact may have differed depending on the size of business, strength of brand, type of product sold and its advancement in the digital journey, but it’s fair to say that the pandemic forced a monumental change in the industry, not only in a business sense, but in mind-set too. The consumer change to hybrid shopping may be here to stay.
The merging of channels
Digital-first and omnichannel retailers were best placed to face the impending challenges the pandemic presented head-on. Their flexible ‘infrastructure’ enabled them to respond quickly to the ever-changing customer demand, particularly when lockdowns and social distancing requirements hit. However, businesses that had postponed investing in a digital offering, instead prioritising their physical stores, were not so fortunate.
For many consumers during the crisis, eCommerce was the only commerce available. However, what was born out of necessity has now become the norm. Evidence suggests that many consumers are likely to stay online for the foreseeable future. Data from the 2021 Global Payments Report by Worldpay from FIS shows that the UK eCommerce market reached £192 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to £264 billion by 2024. This has led to speculation as to whether this increased online traffic will remain, or whether consumers will revert to bricks and mortar retail.
But this isn’t an either/or debate. The change in consumer behaviour towards hybrid shopping doesn’t mean the end of physical stores but the start of something different. Retailers must now ensure the virtual customer experience is as carefully designed as that of the physical.
The retailer that will thrive in a post-pandemic era will be the one that adopts the lessons learned during the crisis, actively incorporating them into its future strategy. The next step will be successfully bringing together physical and digital benefits of the retail journey to give customers highly personalised experiences.
Some retailers are already allowing customers to bring the in-store experience to the home by using augmented reality and artificial intelligence technologies. The use of these applications is expected to rise over the coming year with the virtual “try-before-you-buy” concept being offered by retailers attempting to bridge the physical and the digital experience. In-store retail still has a place alongside virtual ‘stores, however, retailers will need to reinvent their physical shops into ‘destination stores’ focusing less on the transaction of goods, and instead prioritising customer experience to offer a unique and bespoke service.
The next challenge for retailers will be how to better address the final stages of the purchasing journey. Offline sales will still take place, but methods will continue to evolve. Payments have typically been a pain point of the in-store shopping experience – there won’t be many rushing back to queue at the till, waiting to pay for their products. As such, we can expect to see the rise of digital wallets, alternative payments such as ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ and an increase in transactions taking place anywhere on the shop floor. Recent research from FIS predicts that BNPL will account for 10 percent of UK eCommerce spend by 2024.
Beyond the pandemic, payment optimization across digital channels will be crucial. The key will be offering a wide range of fluid payment methods – in and out of the store – to give the customer the choice about how and when they pay. Retailers are responding by consolidating payment solutions across various channels. This will not only attract and retain new customers but will also provide those new customers with exceptional experiences that maximize value.
More retailers are also likely to adopt concepts such as the ‘Amazon Go’ autonomous stores, where customers can walk out with their products instead of going to the checkout, paying later when the shop sends the receipt to the customer’s account. Despite this technology being available for many years, it has taken the pandemic to pave the way for its roll out, with two stores recently opening in London and more expected across Europe.
The future is now
While much of the focus has primarily been on technological advancements, without a necessary shift from a product-centric mind-set to a customer-centric mind-set it will hold little sway. It is reassuring, however, to note many big brand retailers are creating roles to encourage that shift like chief customer officers – lobbying for change at the highest level.
Customer expectations will continue to evolve and retailers must be ready to respond. Now is the time to merge the physical and the digital aspects of retail, bringing new and exciting customer hybrid shopping experiences of the future to the present.
Maria Prados, Head of Vertical Growth at Worldpay from FIS