The challenges facing retailers
The impact of the Pandemic on retail
The classic line: “you wouldn’t want to start from here” is highly relevant to the beginning of 2021, the start of a new decade. As we look in the rearview mirror at the past twelve months, it’s not a pretty sight, and the full economic impact, the double whammy, of the Pandemic and Brexit will become more evident as the decade progresses. But with disruption comes opportunity. What is a realistic assessment of the retail landscape, what opportunities present themselves and what positive actions can be taken?
The Centre for Retail Research (CRR), a Norfolk based think tank, provides authoritative and expert analysis of the retail and service sectors. Recent reports reveal that an average of 320 stores were shuttered every week in 2020, more than you would typically expect in a ‘normal’ year. The forecasts show a bleak retail landscape for 2021, with high streets and shopping centres likely to be most affected by social distancing and lockdown rules.
The cumulative effect during 2020 of multiple lockdown restrictions on all but essential shops have impacted every store, and a large proportion of 2020 retail trade has been lost. And although various government schemes have channelled a lot of money into the retail sector ‘to preserve jobs’, it’s a hard fact stated by the CRR “.. that businesses cannot operate with zero revenue and constant threats of pandemic-driven closure”.
eCommerce and the importance of Omnichannel
One lifeline to the bricks and mortar stores has been the opportunity to shift trading to online. This benefitted those companies who, before the first lockdown in March 2020, had already made strategic investments in updating their eCommerce provision. They have been able to pivot more quickly to the surge in eCommerce transactions and move towards becoming a true omnichannel retailer. Others fared less well if digitally unprepared. And for them, 2020 has required a rapid review of how they interact with customers across multiple channels.
And if the Pandemic was not enough of a challenge as we all gladly said goodbye to 2020, Brexit finally arrived. Even with a deal, physical supply chains were instantly disrupted, most visibly at the ports, and wholesale and bulk trade businesses have struggled to replenish stock and fulfil orders. And even online retail sales hit problems with shoppers in the UK being forced to pay £10’s or £100s in post-Brexit import duties for items they’ve purchased from the EU and exporters being hit with increases in courier costs.
And without wanting to be too gloomy, when the weight of a Pandemic and Brexit are applied to the longer-term structural weaknesses in the British retail economy the case for some serious strategic review and reflection becomes compelling. As the CRR puts it, the retail sector’s long term structural troubles are characterised “by high costs, low profitability, and losing sales to online shopping”.
Future retail demand
It is no surprise that by the end of 2021, estimate showed overall retail sales would be lower than in 2019. The more positive prediction is that by 2022, retail sales should have recovered and be on an upward track. And even amongst the overall decline in retail spending, there have been some pockets of positivity.
For example, many independent shops had a sales boost in 2020 as travel restrictions and working from home meant local high streets became the primary shopping place, instead of city centres. And many of these businesses innovated quickly, combining online with offline to provide click and collect services, often in partnership with neighbouring stores.
Some commentators believe that when restrictions begin to ease, with lockdown working alongside successful vaccination programmes, there will be a boost from pent up savings and unfulfilled demand, especially in the second half of the year. It follows then that the opportunity for reinvention is there for retail businesses.
Two key retailer opportunities
- Become a true Omnichannel retailer by adopting a Unified eCommerce platform. The idea that wherever a customer interacts with a retailer, be it online, over the phone or in-store, the experience is consistent, fluid and personalised.
- Reinvent and repurpose retail stores. The trend in online retailers coming to your street and developing a physical store presence will continue. Existing bricks and mortar retailers have an opportunity to leverage existing premises by revitalising and reinventing them for a post-covid world.
Making a move to become omnichannel genuinely takes time and planning. The starting point is mapping out customer journeys to understand where improvements need to be made. Do you need to improve online experiences, in-store experiences, or both?
With this information, you can build a plan of action. This might include buying new retail software or upgrading your eCommerce website. Just remember, the key to becoming an omnichannel retailer and winning in a post-covid world is unifying your systems to offer seamless customer experiences across every channel.
In conclusion then, while the 2020 boom in eCommerce is likely to settle back down, the fact remains, the shift to eCommerce in the UK has been accelerated by at least five years. So, now is an excellent time to review the vendor landscape for eCommerce platforms and upgrade the systems you have that support an omnichannel approach to serving customers in this new decade.