Bricks and mortar retail has had a difficult year, and while the situation is improving as vaccines roll out, it’s clear that business as usual is still a long way off. The sector is still reeling from the impact of the Covid crisis, and retailers of every size have been affected.
Gap recently announced the closure of all 81 of their UK and Ireland stores and moved entirely online, with Topshop, Debenhams and House of Fraser all retreating from physical retail over the past year. Smaller retailers have been similarly affected, although many were unable to move online and have ultimately gone under.
Shopping has moved online
According to Voyado’s latest index, based on 16 million purchase occasions across Europe over three months, e-commerce purchase frequency increased by 35% year over year in the first three months of 2021. While this data is skewed by the pandemic, it does highlight a reality for stores: online shopping has taken significant market share, and it will be difficult to claw it back.
Online shopping is the new norm, with outlets like ASOS reporting a 275% increase in profits. Older shoppers, who have traditionally been less familiar with online shopping, have taken to online shopping just like Millennials.
So, is this the end for in-store shopping? Hopefully not, as it’s in everyone’s interest that “offline shopping” persists. Beyond the obvious benefits of in-store shopping, such as being able to try on clothing, physical retailers are significant drivers of local economic activity and major job creators. The closure of just three major names, Topshop, Burton and Dorothy Perkins, has already put 13,000 jobs at risk.
However, as consumer and retail expert Kate Hardcastle said of the Gap closures, “the brands you want to shop with in physical retail have to have so much more than just products on offer, they have to have purpose.” Purpose and customer experience are significant drivers of growth for retailers, so what can retailers do to maintain real-world footfall in the months ahead?
Capitalise on FOMO
As people begin to leave their houses again, making shopping an event is a great way to entice them back into the store. Consider projects like creating special edition products that are only available at physical locations, launching a temporary pop-up store with unique, limited brand offerings, or giving free goodie bags to the first several customers on a particular day.
Many brands are also looking to make their stores more experiential in the wake of the pandemic, as people now do their everyday shopping online. Look into ways of introducing customers to new products through demonstrations, upselling them with expert salespeople and providing social media-focused photo opportunities in stores.
For example, skincare and makeup brand Glossier created pop-up stores in London where customers could discuss foundation with experts, buy limited-edition London exclusive branded umbrellas, and snap pictures in front of made-for-Instagram backdrops in their signature pink. User-generated content, such as the photos taken at Glossier’s pop-up, act as ads for the business and encourage even more people to come into the store.
Brands can also make the in-store experience more unique by giving customers an opportunity to customise their purchases. Adding their initials to products they buy or providing the freedom to mix and match colours to create a unique product, such as Nike’s “Designed by You” range of shoes, can create buzz about the in-store experience.
Similarly, when people are making important buying decisions, having a trustworthy shop assistant to help them make the right choice can provide a level of confidence that they can’t get online. Apple famously leverages this to make its stores attractive to customers.
Contributing to a higher good
Today’s shoppers are more socially conscious than ever before, so stores that can help them contribute to a “higher good” will have an advantage over their online counterparts. For example, stores can implement clothing donation programs to ensure that used clothes are donated to charity. To create a two-pronged incentive, retailers could even reward their donations with credit that is only valid in-store.
However, it’s important that these efforts are sincere and not hollow attempts at virtue signalling. Branding is all about consistency, and that includes the causes that a brand invests in supporting. Retailers should find a cause to contribute to that matches their brand mission, and establish a long-running relationship with charities or other organisations that are making a difference in that area. In the wake of the lockdowns, now is also a good time to get involved with local high-street schemes and other local efforts.
Leverage tech for a seamless experience
Technology, rather than spelling the end of physical retail, can offer new ways to serve customers. Regardless of whether a customer is shopping online or in a store, the retailer can use data to offer a truly personalised experience.
Omnichannel retailers can combine online and in-store customer data and integrate with the store’s POS system. Retailers without an e-commerce function can also take advantage of contemporary technology to gather data and increase personalisation, creating loyalty schemes to entice people back into the store with discounts on the items they’ve been pining for.
For example, clothing retailer H&M has created a seamless loyalty experience by offering discounts in the app that function the same regardless of whether the shopper is in-store or online. They offer points to encourage customer behaviours such as recycling used clothes or bringing their own shopping bags, and customers benefit from a range of personalised discounts.
It’s important to remember that customers do not see the two ways of shopping as entirely detached channels, but rather different ways of accessing the same underlying brand experience. Our research shows that brands earn more from omnichannel customers than single channel customers, regardless of whether that single channel is online or instore. With that in mind, retailers should work to align the two channels and provide a similar customer experience
Meanwhile, cutting-edge technologies like smart mirrors, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) promise to create memorable in-store experiences and positive associations with your brand.
Online and offline
It’s clear that there will be no return to pre-pandemic business as usual for physical retail stores. However, this shakeup offers a major opportunity for the most innovative and agile retailers to reinvent their physical outlets, design memorable in-person experiences, and connect their online and offline experiences more effectively. Brands that can offer a personalised, memorable in-store shopping experience will be the ones who shape the future of in-store shopping and establish themselves as successes in a post-Covid world.
By Jennie Gerum, CMO sales and marketing at Voyado