EDITORIAL How retail experiments in a year of change have led to fresh – and profitable – solutions

Image: Adobe Stock

Image: Adobe Stock

How do you get close to customers when you have fewer shops than you did – and even those remaining are closed, once more, for lockdown? That’s the question John Lewis is looking to answer as it experiments with how exactly to position its goods within branches of Waitrose. It’s trialling different ways of placing its wares – is it a separate John Lewis department, mixing them in among other products in the aisles, or featuring them within the relevant section of the supermarket that will work? That’s the question its trials will answer – and by the end of the year we can expect the answer to this physical A/B test to be rolled out to the 280 branches of Waitrose that sell general merchandise. 

This is one of a variety of experiments that the department store is currently embarking on, as it works to get closer to its customers through delivery, collection and virtual experiences as well as in its stores. But it’s also a time of seeing what works for retailers across the UK.

Wickes has experimented with a virtual design experience to replace the bathroom and kitchen showrooms that have had to close during repeated lockdowns and restrictions over the last year. It and sister company Toolstation turned their stores into fulfilment centres during Covid-19 lockdowns. Wickes alone saw collections grow by 450% last year, compared to the previous year, as a result. 

Hotel Chocolat has put virtual tastings – and subscriptions and online sales – at the forefront in a half-year in which it saw most of its UK sales start in digital channels. That’s part of a multichannel strategy that has “more than mitigated” for the forced closure of its stores as a result of lockdowns. 

And Halfords has seen its online sales grow fast as it found new ways to deliver for customers during Covid-19 restrictions – helping it to forecast once again that pre-tax profits will be ahead of its expectations.

All these retailers are reporting better than expected results – illustrated by Halfords and Wickes repaying the government support they thought they needed at the beginning of the year. For all these retailers, experimentation has helped it to .

That’s not to say that help for the sector won’t be needed from the government, especially for retailers that are trading from stores that are now forced to remain closed until April 12 at the earliest. We’ll be reporting in later newsletters this week on what decisions the Chancellor has taken – and how they will affect online and multichannel retailers. 

Today’s guest comment comes from Maria Prados of Worldpay, who considers how retail is changing from physical to digital – and how payments are changing at the same time. And we report as Australian buy-now-pay-later provider, Zip, starts to operate in the UK market, launching with clients including Homebase and Boohoo. 

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