Retail’s post-COVID-19 silver lining

While retailers start developing their reopening plans, Gekko’s Managing Director Daniel Todaro looks at the opportunities for the next generation of our high streets…

The story has been consistently bleak across the board since we locked down back in March and for non-essential retail, the doors were firmly shut with zero footfall. However, consumer support for local independent businesses has increased and those retailers who adapted are learning that a good strategy will make them better placed to trade post-COVID-19.

There has been a 36% overall decline in-store sales of non-food items in the last 3 months to April and I wouldn’t be surprised if you suggested that retail is a busted flush. Yes, the challenge is vast and it will be difficult but we do know that shoppers still crave the High Street and 55% of UK consumers want to support local retail businesses as a result of lockdown.

Online sales have increased by a not very surprising 19% taking the digital share of all retail sales to a new high of 23.8%. If I’m honest, it probably won’t reduce significantly after lockdown which does mean that traditional retailers will need to work harder to ease the trend.

Retailers must think digitally to survive, taking an omnichannel approach, whilst still maintaining a sustainable and collaborative approach. This has never been more relevant than now.

I’ve said it before, retail is possibly one of the most dynamic industries globally and the UK leads in this area of expertise in many ways. The High Street has over the decades had to continuously adapt to changing consumer behaviours as well as the trends that drive the desire to shop by offering choices that appeal to every distinct generation and their character traits.

Learning from this rather frustrating lockdown is an opportunity to move away from the chatter about the ‘failing’ High Street and spearhead change with purpose. Change that requires a flair for dynamism to aid survival and create those meaningful connections through an omnichannel, eco-friendly, societal and technology-driven approach. Enhancing the customer journey and brand experience for all consumers who chose to shop with you is essential in creating long-lasting emotional engagements that convert into sales.

What the High Street is good at is evolving. So while we all start developing our reopening plans and await a date for retail to open its doors once again, the opportunity to think about the next generation of our High Streets begins.

We, like many retailers, adapted as soon as the lockdown was official on the 23rd and having anticipated its coming several weeks before, we started to innovate the manner we marketed high-value technology products to consumers. In doing so we met the brands’ and the retailers’ needs, whilst not forgetting the importance of a personal touch for consumers.

It is true that beyond the brand awareness created through advertising, consumers do like to go into a store to experience the products they are considering buying. The ability to make informed decisions is achieved by being given a demonstration by people who are knowledgeable. That’s why shops like multiple retailer Currys and the hundreds of independent stores exist, providing a service you just can’t get online. The very essence of this service, potentially under threat post-COVID-19 through social distancing means operating whilst keeping people at a 2m distance, eroding the consumers desired experience. Whilst retailers are considering how they can safely and effectively open their doors, the consideration of how to maintain a semblance of customer experience for both retail and brands is also important.

As a retail and field marketing agency, one of our core services is to provide in-store promoters who work on behalf of brands to create a curated customer journey. This extends to creating strategies that build relationships with Retail Sales Advisors (RSAs) to provide them with valuable training techniques to build knowledge and sales tips.

In normal times, we would do this in person but very rapidly we adapted to achieve this through providing online training to RSAs. This is something that we will continue doing while innovating with retailers to create and deliver solutions that look to develop the channel, whilst meeting the required statutory guidelines.

Never has something come along like this pandemic that has affected so many aspects of what we and brands do in traditional retail, however, I remain immensely positive. The challenge ahead means never being scared of change again and evolving. The dramatic 17% fall in sales across non-food retailers, forecasted to translate as £37bn in lost revenue can be reversed, maybe not all but definitely in part.

We’ve seen during lockdown consumers attempting to emulate the high street cafe experience by stocking up on coffee makers and it appears that many are also taking the opportunity to upgrade kitchens in the absence of being able to dine out and this trend is expected to continue. In addition, with more people being encouraged to continue working from home, some may ditch their shared workspace desk and will want to upgrade IT equipment to make those VC’s come to life or at least run better. This ‘upgrade’ opportunity should naturally extend from these across all other categories, making the home the ideal and safest place to go to work and have fun, which will need new or upgraded gadgets to make it so.

So the change begins and while making sure we look after our employees, keeping the retailers happy as well as keeping their customers and staff safe, we have to keep performing the very service that’s required from us as effectively as possible to drive knowledge, advocacy and sales.

The back to work planning process is an extremely layered and complex situation to navigate with a multitude of stakeholders involved and a communal agreement needed. This ranges from queuing, managing social distancing, all the rules we are used to and are working very well for food retailers but how do we make it translate to retailers selling considered purchases. Specialist technology and consumer electronic retailers are built on interaction which in some cases is essential to achieve a sale.

This extends to how we also engage with retailers and RSAs to sell or train a range of consumer electronics that must be understood. We must consider how we merchandise fixtures that must be cleaned after every touch as do the demo products used to facilitate a sale. Solutions we innovate with must ensure we maintain the delivery of an experience that converts the shopper into a customer of a brand and more importantly that buys there and then.

Encouraging the use of e-learning within channels by all RSA will enable them to develop their knowledge by learning about products and their usage. In addition, we can develop the experience by coaching them to understand that every selling situation differs and therefore the approach must also.

The challenge is creating and planning to devise a whole new way of training staff to sell in a manner which makes the consumer feel comfortable, also safe whilst not diminishing the brand experience. Proactively working with brand partners to innovate and help bring retail staff and consumers along on the journey, maybe the key to success post-COVID-19.

Whilst the need to equip teams with masks, gloves, sanitiser and stores with demarcation signage etc. is a necessary evil, in turn diminishing your ambience, the true challenge we must rise to defeat, is converting those negative forces to see the potential. It can be done and retailers have a unique opportunity to create and implement exciting new, fully-fledged plans that are actionable and not theoretical. Plans that innovate to work for your business, which are continually fit for purpose and future proof.

Yes, we must definitely follow the guidelines, we must also in the most effective manner possible, communicate our plans with staff and retrain to merchandise and sell with a new approach. We mustn’t be afraid, we must be brave, we must seek the silver lining to create new rules and ways of trading that work specifically for retail. Changes that innovate to resonate confidently with customers.

Article published at PCR Online

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