Retail Has Changed Forever: Now Brands Must Ensure They Are on Board

Retail has changed

As we approach the anniversary of the first full lockdown we also mark the last time that consumers were approaching shopping under ‘normal’ circumstances. Choosing how, where and when to shop according to their intrinsic habits and lifestyle preferences. 

However, fast forward 12 months and nothing is the same about how we shop. Many of those who had previously never so much as uttered the words Click and Collect are seasoned online grocery shoppers, and others who loved a mooch round a department store, trying on clothes and picking out gifts, have been forced to adapt to a life full of delivery windows and pre-paid returns labels. 

What happens next, and how brands react to it, will be crucial in shaping the future of British retail. While it will be tempting for businesses to take a short termist approach to try and mop up some of last year’s losses, businesses must accept that retail has changed permanently – and so, therefore, should they.

And that change must go deep and penetrate every aspect of the business, from advertising and brand messaging to the online customer journey or in-store lay out. Bricks and mortar employees must also be on board with the new language and behaviour that will help create stronger consumer loyalties in the post-pandemic era.

DTC retailers, and those with a strong online presence, will have seen a raft of new customers over the past year, driven to websites out of necessity. But now those consumers are at a crossroads. With the resumption of physical shopping from April, they will have the choice to ditch their new habits and resume their old ones, key amongst them will be travelling into town centres and enjoying the physical and social act of shopping. 

Every online retailer should be spending the foreseeable future working to get under the skin of their customers. Who are they, how did they find your brand, how loyal are they, what does their typical customer journey look like? First party data will be key to this, but what they do with the information is arguably more important.

Segmenting customers and audiences into groups that share similar characteristics such as demographics, interests, needs or locations, and understanding who is shopping where and when, will help tailor the right messages to them and drive purchases and, ultimately, loyalty.

Creating an environment in which those people are less inclined to drift back into their old habits will protect a retailer’s bottom line long into the future. Positioning a brand as present but not overbearing, helpful but not patronising and socially aware but not righteous will all help present them in a good light. 

Easing customers’ discovery of new products, rolling out appropriately targeted messaging and offers, and delivering a seamless and enjoyable purchase experience will pay dividends for any business. 

While the pandemic has kept online retailers busy with customer acquisition and retention, high street stores, on the other hand, have taken a double kicking over the past 12 months: not only have they been forced to close for long periods of time but while they have lain dormant they have had to look on helplessly as their online competitors made a land grab for their clientele. 

And when they reopen fully next month it will be in a completely different environment and accommodating a totally altered public attitude. Not only will stores need to resume all the social distancing measures they had in place between lockdowns, but it is also essential they adapt to meet the new demands of their customers and the ways that retail has changed.

Creating a welcoming environment, in which people feel safe to shop in a socially distanced way, without it negatively impacting the shopping experience, will draw people back into high street stores.

Brands must reassure consumers about the efforts they are making to create a Covid-safe environment, but at the same time inspire them about what the real world has to offer. It is a hybrid of these messages that will give customers the confidence to return to the physical shopping experience and get them back over the threshold. Retailers’ employees will be key in this process: it is often easy to forget employees are an extension of any brand, and they will play a major part in making a retail environment a worthwhile visit. Make customers feel safe and welcome and you will win back their confidence as we emerge out of lockdown. 

A post-pandemic retail world involves a hybrid existence, in which brands exist effectively both online and offline, living and breathing their business story through different channels while adapting their messaging for the different customer segments. The best thing a bricks and mortar retailer can do is understand how an online presence will feed into their physical store and create ways for the two entities to complement each other throughout the customer journey. 

No matter the business model, harnessing brand saliency by utilising the most effective available data and working hard to get into the mindset of every core customer demographic, retailers will be in the best possible shape to adapt efficiently to the new retail landscape and set up their business for a healthy, profitable and exciting future, long term.

Credit: Fiona Wylie, Brand Champions, CEO