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Industry News

Published on April 8th, 2021 | by The GC Team

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The end of the beginning?

Next Monday, 12th April, billed as the “Glorious Twelfth” in the mainstream media, sees the reopening of “non-essential” retail outlets. But what will actually happen on our High Streets on the day, and – perhaps more importantly – in the days and weeks that follow, when we will really start to understand which are the temporary and which the permanent changes in the nation’s shopping habits? How will consumers and bricks-and-mortar retailers behave on Monday?

It is too early even to be sure that the last lockdown really will be the last. To borrow a line from Winston Churchill during a previous national crisis back in 1942: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Hayley-Jayne Cone, chief customer officer at experiential relationship management company JRNI, says: “Consumers want to be out and about after months of having their movement limited, and shopping is an ideal solution.  However, alongside this excitement at returning to the shops, many customers will still be risk-averse and have concerns about having to physically queue for long periods or entering overcrowded stores. While the vaccination programme is still underway, bricks and mortar [retailers] should take proactive steps to lessen consumer anxiety – conveying safety by using virtual queues and the ability to book personalised appointments, along with managing in-store capacity, allocating staff properly and staying ahead of cleaning concerns.”

She also alludes to the pandemic-generated growth in retail options: “Many consumers will want to continue the new service options they have become accustomed to during the pandemic.  Services such as kerbside pickup, where shoppers don’t have to leave their car, have skyrocketed over the past year and will be here to stay because they give customers a safe option whilst also providing an on-demand service, and instant gratification following an online purchase. 

“As retailers open up again, there’s no doubt the in-store environment will be different and typified with safety concerns. You may see stores serving different functions, from showrooms to fulfilment centres, but after months at home, customers are craving human connection more than ever and that’s not going to change.”

There may well be an initial surge in High Street activity, but David Jilks M.I.L.T, head of consumer research at home delivery expert ParcelHero, points out that the “shopping frenzy” at the end of the first lockdown “fizzled out very quickly,” and warns “the lesson learned from the end of the first lockdown is that retail’s return could prove a damp squib.” After initial queues, “many shoppers simply returned to buying online. That’s a pattern likely to be repeated this time around.”

He also asks “what kind of town centres and malls will we be returning to? With the likes of Debenhams, Topshop and Dorothy Perkins remaining dark, and even a chunk of John Lewis stores gone forever, it won’t be the experience it was.

“Town centre stores that had banked on consumers ditching their newly acquired online habits were doomed to be disappointed back in June. Online sales did fall back slightly, taking 31.8% of all retail sales, compared to 33.3% the previous month when non-essential stores were still closed. That was a slight dip, but hardly a return to ‘normal’, given that online was only managing to take 20% of all sales before the first lockdown.

“This time around, the end of lockdown could be even less spectacular. We won’t have June’s weather to tempt us out and our online shopping habits have become even more firmly entrenched. A record 36.1% of all retail sales are now happening online. That’s a 77.6% increase over February 2020. Shoppers of all ages have turned to e-commerce and now find it easier, more convenient and safer.

Make no mistake, we’re certain to see an uptick in High Street spending on the ‘Glorious 12th’, but any retailer expecting a return to pre-Covid spending is in for a shock. ParcelHero’s latest research reveals 46.7% of shoppers say they will never return to their previous level of High Street spending.

“Only retailers that embrace their website as their most important shop window and ensure their online service matches the standards of their in-store experience will survive.”

This industry, and this country, have seen dark days before, and experience proves that both deep pessimism and over-optimism are never as effective as realism and a clear plan. The Government has said it stands ready to support re-opening businesses with a range of grants and loans. Every legitimate means of accessing help should be explored.  

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