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EDITORIAL Online grocery explodes as footfall plummets – but what of the longer term?

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Can mobile make it safe to reopen retail in the spring? (Image: Shutterstock)
Can mobile make it safe to reopen retail in the spring? (Image: Shutterstock)
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Footfall is down, but have we reach peak online and is there still a pent-up demand for physical retail once technology can make it safe?

December saw footfall across UK stores rise from November’s lockdown levels, but the rise was a still a 40% drop on the same time last year. At the same time, online saw an explosion of use, with more shoppers than ever staying away from stores and doing it online.

 

The main beneficiaries of this were the supermarkets, which having spent the past nine months perfecting their online ordering, expanding their delivery fleet and generally soaking up the business of a wide range of other non-food sectors.

 

However, this doesn’t mean that retail as we once knew it is dead: online and the supermarkets haven’t won out for good. This isn’t a trend, it is more a necessity right now for consumers. They will come back to physical retail once it is open again.

 

Research by Nielsen which shows just how online grocery shopping has taken off across the Christmas peak – but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Separate research by Ubamarket finds that a third of shoppers are using online grocery because they have to, not because they want to – and on the whole find it inconvenient.

 

We have all been there: we don’t want to go to the supermarket right now (or anywhere else to be fair), but trying to get a delivery slot for groceries is really hard. Most of us try and plan ahead, while some people are taking it in shifts through the day and night to book as many as possible – but I digress.

 

The point is that given the choice of safely shopping at the supermarket or any where else, most people will head to the shops. The pent-up demand for physical retail is going to continue to grow through Lockdown 3.0.

 

For those stores that can keep afloat across the next few months, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Shoppers will start to come back. We may have reached peak online, driven by circumstances rather than want.

 

What has changed is that that technology and online are set to play a starring role in the opening up of retail. Certainly, the first tentative steps that will be made in re-opening can be made much easier by using mobile to help manage queues, check stock ahead of heading to the shops and creating contactless payments in-stores.

 

Things are bleak right now and there is a sense that retail as we know it has gone for good – or will have post Lockdown 3.0 – but there is hope. Sure, it will look different but don’t write of shops just yet.

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