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Physical retail in the year 2021

By Linda Ralph, senior vice president, Centre of Excellence at Mood Media

The relationship between the high street and its consumers has been somewhat turbulent during the coronavirus pandemic. Since reopening in June, nonessential stores have battled for the attention of wary consumers to tempt them away from online shopping, which became the enforced norm during lockdown. Undoubtedly, it’ll be a battle they’ll continue to wage in the spring when they once again open up – hopefully this time for good.

A sense of safety and trust is integral to the brick and mortar shopping experience, and so physical retail outlets must now demonstrate they can successfully replicate the joys of the pre-pandemic experience in a way that addresses the heightened health and safety concerns we now all share.

Safety has progressed from a behind the scenes feature to something much more visible and fundamental to a consumer’s decision to shop at physical stores. This will undeniably be a key theme in retail for the long term, underpinning all trends and business decisions for the foreseeable future. 

A more advantageous side effect of the pandemic is that it has given retailers the ability to reset and rethink their business priorities to ensure that they are best placed to meet and exceed the needs of the consumer, and those that are able to connect with their consumer on a more trusted and deeper level will continue to reap the rewards of in years to come. 

A continued appetite for physical retail

Data shows that consumers still want to be in store for their shopping experience despite digital alternatives. While the high street has struggled in recent years, it is clear that online shopping won’t be replacing bricks and mortar completely. 

In Mood Media’s latest study, 62% of UK consumers reported feeling comfortable about returning to physical stores, with over a third (37.8%) saying that the ability to touch, feel and try the product is the main factor in swaying them back in store. Other reasons included being able to take home purchases immediately (37.7%) or having a leisurely experience and the atmosphere, music and experience (9.5%).  

‘Grab and go’ behaviour

The same study also revealed that just under half of UK consumers (42.4%) report spending less money per visit and spend less time in stores. This is likely due to safety concerns, with consumers adopting ‘grab and go’ behaviour and therefore spending far less time browsing in stores, reducing the opportunities to purchase. 

In all cases, those retailers that are able to regain consumer trust will be able to extend the amount of time a customer feels comfortable spending in store. By ensuring safety measures are in place and properly communicated throughout the shopping experience, retailers can reassure their customers that they can continue to enjoy an engaging and efficient shopping experience in a safe environment.

Safety will remain a priority, long after the pandemic 

Underpinning all trends is the necessity to prioritise safety and comfort for the consumer. Retailers who really care about their customers have already taken numerous steps to make customers feel safer in-store, for example using audio and visual messaging to communicate safety protocols such as wearing masks, social distancing and the enforcement of one-way aisles. 

Many stores are adopting temperature checks at store entrances and providing free hand sanitiser throughout the store, while some are embracing more extensive sanitisation measures that range from antimicrobial self-cleaning coatings and air purification solutions through to health monitoring systems and more. While this may feel like a short term trend due to the current news landscape, retailers need to embed these into their long-term store experience in order to maintain consumer trust.

Flexible in-store offerings

It is clear that consumers also desire a more flexible approach to shopping, therefore initiatives such as extended shopping hours, click & collect and touchless payment options are likely to become the norm. Each offering helps to make the shopping experience more comfortable and dispel safety worries, therefore returning the shopping experience back to the leisure experience we all miss. Many stores already have the digital capacity to implement this so should remain a priority. 

We are living in a world of unpredictability and no retailer can predict the speed of return to physical shopping experiences, but physical retail remains very much at the forefront of consumer’s minds, as we are all craving the re-connection of the leisure time and human engagement it offers.  This means that if brands manage their response to consumer sentiment, how they reassure consumers of safety and how to integrate innovation in recreating the consumer experience we know and love, we will certainly see consumer footfall returning.

By Linda Ralph, senior vice president, Centre of Excellence at Mood Media

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