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EDITORIAL “Shopping will never be the same” – here’s how

Face to face retail is not on the cards – so what can we expect?

M&S CEO Steve Rowe said yesterday that shopping as we know it may well “never be the same again” after COVID-19. While he was talking on an analysts’ briefing call – where he revealed plummeting Q1 sales and profits and so may well have been hoping to soften the blow – he is probably right.

Dwindling sales – and the rise of online, which M&S somewhat belatedly seems to have noticed just now – are an immediate consequence of COVID, but just how dramatically will retail be altered?

Social distancing is set to be with us for a while yet and this is probably the biggest factor in how retail needs to change.

Stores will have to look at how to learn the lessons of supermarkets when it comes to limiting numbers and maintaining distance inside.

PayPal is already seeing an opportunity for allowing shoppers to pay in-stores using QR codes, so that there is not only contactless payments, but also contactlessness between humans during payments.

Stores will also be forced to adopt queuing to get in. It is now routine to queue up to get into a food store – all retailers will soon be having to do this as they open their doors.

However, they will also have to contend with those very same queues stopping people spending an afternoon mooching round the shops. Who is going to want to spontaneously join a large queue to see what new trainers Office may or may not have in?

Instead, online – and particularly mobile – are likely to become the browsing tools to replace looking at what is on the shelves, with shoppers finding what they want, seeing if it’s in stock and perhaps clicking and collecting – or more likely just buying it online.

Then there are the changing demographics of shoppers. The lockdown has forced many ‘silver surfers’ to start shopping online. Some analysts predict that these people will go back to shopping in-store as the lockdown lifts, but I am not so sure.

The fear of contagion is likely to linger and many older shoppers are now getting the hang of – and rather enjoying – online shopping. Especially now that the issue of returns is being made all the more easy.

Facebook certainly sees this as the moment to pounce on ecommerce. While it has operated a quasi-marketplace since 2016, this week it has announced the roll out of Shop, which will allow retailers to sell from its platform.

It is also integrating this with its selling technology on Instagram – which it also owns – as well as working in its cryptocurrency Libra to offer a well-rounded social commerce offering to sellers.

With more people than ever communicating with each other and with brands via social media during the pandemic, this – along with the growing interest in ecommerce by the general populace – makes this launch very timely indeed.

This could well be one of the ways in which M&S’s Rowe sees retail changing for ever – it will be interesting to see if people will be buying my M&S undies on Facebook in the coming months… and, more worryingly, over-sharing the fact, possibly sporting said ‘chuddies’, in their feed. That is something that could change more than just the face of retail.

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