Retailing through change

Dazed and confused? We all were. But out of crisis, a new understanding of what retailing stands for has emerged.

August was not a good month for high street retailers. With office blocks still empty and many avoiding public transport, towns and city centres were not blessed with footfall and this is having a devastating effect on the local economies in these areas.

The British Retail Consortium’s ShopperTrak revealed that UK Footfall decreased by 34.8% in August, with only a 7.3 percentage point improvement from July. This remains below the longer-term 12-month average decline of 27.6%.

Footfall on High Streets declined by 41.7% year on year. This was the worst performing location in August, falling below shopping centres for the first time since April 2018.

“While footfall is so low, many businesses will not be able to manage their fixed costs – rent and business rates in particular – and unnecessary job losses and store closures will follow,” says BRC Chief Executive Helen Dickinson.

Andrew Goodacre, British Independent Retailers’ Association CEO, adds: “I urge all shops to maintain their safety protocols. I believe that shopping is safe and we need to see clear messaging from the authorities supporting this. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme worked and I would like to see something similar for shopping.”

So is there hope?

Retail visionary Mary Portas, aka Queen of Shops, sees a change that has barely begun. “I might not be able to see where we’re going, but I can make out the contours of a new era of shopping and living. And the future of it will be around community and connection,” she says in her blog, The Reset.

She believes there’s a ‘new evaluation equation’ in which shoppers shift from accumulating ‘stuff’ to showing appreciation for products that are, quite simply, better. That shift suits independent health stores down to the very ground upon which their customers tread.

The pandemic has shown us, at least in the West, that we have lost a sense of harmony and care, of connection and belonging. So retailers that feel this sense of loss will thrive again when they listen to their customers, engage with them and their experiences and celebrate their lives with them. It’s what we do, but we can all do it better.

A fresh opportunity

For many stores during lockdown, connection with vulnerable customers was only possible by telephone or social media. Far from being an inconvenience, it was a fresh opportunity to listen. One on one, away from the queues and crowded isles.

Most health stores remained open as essential businesses, and with declining footfall came dramatically increased basket size per customer, because you listened and met those needs via the phone, email, social media or online chat.

The underlying message for retailers is ‘customer engagement’, something that health stores are traditionally rather good at, but now they must find more ways to do this. Health has always been a top priority, even more so today, especially around the subject of immunity.

Therefore you are no doubt optimising your store space and shelf layouts to reflect this – as well as on the online store that you are now discovering is a crucial part of your business. (If you’re still uncertain about eCommerce, and many independents are, it’s not the monster you thought it was and you’ll find plenty of helpful advice in our section, Retailing Better Online.)

A sense of community

The pandemic has nurtured a more considered consumer. People who want to support small businesses and source healthier food, especially if it is produced locally. People care more about their community, and increasingly yearn for a simpler life. They want ‘nature’ and the human touch, and tend to shrink from industrial giants. Excess and luxury is becoming less important.

Conveying the ‘new retail approach’, or more importantly listening to customers, hinges on everyone working in or for the store living and acting from the same page. Stores that keep their staff safe and understand their hopes and concerns will thrive. Shoppers are aware not only of how they are treated but how the store treats its staff, and the planet.

It’s what Portas calls ‘the kindness economy’. Where businesses thrive because they respect people and the environment.

As former Bank of England governor Mark Carney said: “The traditional drivers of value have been shaken, new ones will gain prominence, and there’s a possibility that the gulf between what markets value and what people value will close.”

Or, to quote Portas once more, every £1 is a vote, a vote for how we want to live.

Why stores should think digital

Health has always been a top priority, even more so today

The new sense of community reported by many retailers applies globally, in the sense that many consumers shopping online are keeping their business in the UK, even in their own community, rather than source from overseas.

A survey commissioned by e-commerce shipping platform Sendcloud reveals that 43% of UK online shoppers prefer to buy from stores within the UK rather than spending at international stores and marketplaces during the crisis.

Just a third (32%) of British consumers ordered from an international online store since the COVID-19 outbreak – an estimated 13% drop from the 45% who said they bought internationally in the 12 months before the pandemic.

And 69% of British consumers are worried that COVID-19 will lead to fewer bricks and mortar stores on the high street because of the rise in online purchasing.

Yet the average British consumer ordered 2.9 more products during the pandemic than they would have usually, while 38% also said they were planning on buying more online after COVID-19 compared to before the lockdown measures came into place.

This matches Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, as despite online retail sales falling by 7% in July 2020 when compared with June, the strong growth experienced over the pandemic has meant that sales are still more than 50% higher than February’s pre-pandemic levels.

Rob van den Heuvel, CEO and Co-founder at Sendcloud, comments: “The e-commerce landscape has changed tremendously during the crisis. It’s interesting to see that more than ever Brits are placing their trust in the hands of local retailers.

“In the light of Brexit, it is likely that Brits will continue to shop more locally in the future. This offers huge opportunities for British online retailers to increase their customer base in the long term. By offering a seamless shopping, checkout and delivery experience to their clients, UK retailers can build long-term customer relationships and gain a competitive advantage over international giants.”

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