Returning retail

The Great Return

This week sees UK retail stores reopen after a year of unprecedented disruption.  What aspects of retail life will pick up seamlessly from where things left off in early 2020, and what will have changed for good? How should retailers navigate these months?

Monday 12th April 2021 marked one of the key milestones in the UK Government’s roadmap in ‘unlocking’ the country after a year of Covid lockdown.  There’s plenty to be thankful for and to look forward to, from the opening up of libraries and community centres to the resumption of driving lessons.  But by far the biggest headline item on this agenda is the reopening of all shops.

What can UK retail do to make a success of the great re-opening?  Here are my five thoughts for retailers right now:

Accept eCommerce as a dominant force

For grocery retailers especially the figures from the past year have been astounding – some large grocers say they have seen a 35% uptake in home delivery.  Many customers who embraced some of these eCommerce options for the first time last year found themselves asking: why didn’t I do this earlier?  eCommerce (and its cousins Click & Collect, curbside pickup, home delivery etc) has been the huge winner of the last year, with (according to many NRF commentators) five years’ mobile uptake acceleration in one year.

Retailers need to acknowledge this and not aim to ‘turn the clock back’.  What this looks like will be different for retailers across the board, but in terms of how the thinking has changed, retailers shouldn’t be threatened by the ideas of their physical stores increasingly being ‘showrooms’ where decisions are made, even if the sales transaction happens digitally, at a slightly later time.  Associates need to think digital, for engagement and follow-up.

Put safety first 

Shouldn’t we always have been putting safety first?  Many retailers will say they always have done.  What’s clear is that the guiding thought right now isn’t about getting through this (hopefully final) period of lockdown – it’s about baking-in safety into whatever happens in the future.

Needing to allow more space (for physical distancing) in store, and for smaller stores perhaps also limiting the number of associates who can be working at any one time, means that speed and accuracy in dealing with customer enquiries and in processing sales (or returns for that matter) is more important than ever.  Having handheld devices that can give real-time inventory accuracy, and can process payments in a fuss-free, secure manner, is critical.

CSR initiatives and all things sustainability have had a huge boost over the last year.  As customers start to come back in store it’s not just safety that they expect to see in action, but responsibility.

(And although in this particular week we’re all thinking about the store, it has been great to note how safety has improved in the warehouse and back office over the last year.)

Be agile and responsive

Speed, and acceleration, were two of the watchwords of the last year.  Countless technology partners rose to the challenge of getting solutions, or workarounds, in place quickly for their retail customers.  Over the course of the last year, many retailers had no choice but to put things in place quickly; many of these solutions and processes are now being properly operationalised and improved for longevity.  What was tactical has become strategic.

We have for years written about the value of being able to move quickly – the last year proved this, inarguably.  (And the same goes for customer-centricity – using data to understand the consumer will be increasingly critical, as will using smart personalisation.)  No retailer will want to risk being left behind in future – you need to be able to move quickly in the event of any future global events.  Which brings me nicely to…

Be properly future-ready

Which mean not just your stores and staff but your supply chain and your digital partners.  As I wrote in my NRF blogs, other than the idea of “acceleration” itself, the thing that everyone was talking about was the supply chain.  Advanced analytics will play even more of a part in the orchestration of the supply chain and optimizing upstream and downstream.

Dark stores have seen a great uptake in the last year, as has automated fulfilment from the store, and my guess for the immediate future is that many stores will act like mini-distribution centres.  Needless to say, the technology has to be up to scratch. (And I haven’t even mentioned AI…)

Embrace change

While it’s hard not to think of this time as a return to normality and stability, the fact is that this has underlined that no-one knows what the future might bring, in any form.  Retail history is littered with the names of brands who failed to move with the times.  It’s too easy to list the likes of Blockbuster and Kodak as companies who could have moved while trends changed but (for whatever reasons and circumstances) chose not to; retailers need to be able to move with the times.  Inevitably, today, this means strategizing the smart use of technology within your organisation.

One of my favourite aphorisms for business as well as for life in general: “You can’t think your way into a new way of acting; you have to act your way into a new way of thinking.”

The point here is that retailers who seek only to defend their ground are always going to risk exhausting their energies or simply being over-run or sidelined as consumer behaviour shifts and other parties encroach.  You need to be on the front foot, looking ahead of time for the next opportunity.  You never know where it might take you.

Which might be a good place for me to stop, for now – while it might seem easy for me to preach to retailers, I don’t for one second underestimate the pressure they’ve been under this past year or seek to take for granted the sometimes breathtaking innovation which has come into play. 

At a time when both retailers and their associated technology partners are picking things up again and perhaps taking opportunity of something of a ‘reset moment’, may I offer a well-intentioned reminder from me that the Retail in Detail community is all about making introductions and strengthening relationships within the retail cohort – so whichever side of the fence you’re on, if you need a fresh steer re retail technology do drop me a line.  And speaking of re-opening and picking things up again, we’re restarting our face-to-face retail events: watch this space for more details.

In this historic week for UK retail, I just want to wish everyone well: good luck, good fortune.  We need you back, and we’ll see you in store very soon…