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GUEST COMMENT Covid-19 and retail: don’t shelve that online strategy just yet

Image: Fotolia

Image: Fotolia

While retail experts have warned for that the British high street’s days are numbered, the decline of bricks and mortar has been on the cards for some time, it seems. According to stats from a 2019 article in The Independent, studies show that since the 1920s up until 1997, the number of shops in the UK has shrunk from 950,000 to just over 300,000 before the turn of the millennium. Then the dot com bubble hit, and internet giants such as Amazon and many of the home delivery services we know and love today disrupted retail further, as consumers chose convenience and quick delivery over physically fighting fellow consumers for the latest bargains and limited stock. And so over the past couple of years, even more prominently, we’ve witnessed some of the industry’s stalwarts struggle, closing their stores and slashing workforces as our once bustling streets and shopping centres have come to resemble ghost towns. Welcome to the digital era. Or so we thought.

No one could have predicted what happened next. At the end of 2019, Covid-19 became the wedge that would force retail to pick a side: adapt to changing times or face difficult decisions about the future of an industry that has been in relative turmoil. As lockdown policies worldwide have mandated that citizens stay at home to avoid spreading the virus and embrace technology for all their wants and needs, the global pandemic has forced retailers to move online to keep their businesses afloat. The consequence of not doing so? Just look at Primark, whose sales fell to zero due to a lack of presence online. 

But how easy is it to pick up a successful retail business and translate it into the online realm, if you don’t already have a presence there? And if you are already nurturing a vibrant and loyal community of repeat customers online, how can you anticipate and meet the demands of increased activity – and welcome new custom from new demographics, without your ecommerce site falling over? Let’s explore here. 

Covid-19 – a catalyst for change

At the end of February 2020, the world went into lockdown. After months of a head start on governments globally, the coronavirus spread like wildfire through borders and into countries in every corner of the earth. The natural response was to ask retailers to shut up physical shop. While some essential retailers – pharmacies, supermarkets, pet shops – were allowed to remain open, there were strict rules to abide by: social distancing, maximum customer numbers and queuing outside. The rest of the retail sector – fashion, pubs, coffee shops, bakeries, anything deemed ‘non-essential’ to our lives – was asked to go dark. According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the UK lockdown cost non-food shops £1.8bn in lost sales each week. As a result, retailers were forced to get creative and innovative. 

Part of this innovation meant leaning more heavily on ecommerce to service customers and keep businesses afloat. But were businesses ready for this impromptu step change in strategy? Some retailers have thus far coped better than others – those businesses without an existing ecommerce arm have struggled to maintain momentum without the footfall they usually rely on. Just look at the aforementioned Primark as an example. For those businesses that already had websites in place, it has certainly been smoother sailing, but the sheer demand from consumers has caused severe delays in delivery, long online queuing and inventory issues that have also caused missed opportunities for the underprepared. Online supermarket delivery firm Ocado was forced to stick customers in hour-long, 2000-strong virtual queues after unprecedented levels of demand for ordering weekly shops online. 

Prepare early for online success

Obviously, no one could have anticipated Covid-19 and the far-reaching consequences of the pandemic on businesses of all size and sector, including retail. But as we’ve seen in times of peak demand and seasonality – summertime, royal baby frenzies and Black Friday mayhem – it’s those retailers that have taken the time to plan their online strategies in advance that reap the benefits in the short and longer-term. 

With the majority of retailers now leaning on servers to power their online presence, it’s crucial that the right technology is in place not only to serve customers efficiently in times of crisis, but also to keep businesses afloat at a time when the economy is plummeting and needs the best efforts of all industries. 

So how can retailers keep their websites running smoothly during a pandemic and during times of unprecedented strain? Performance is key to ecommerce success and consumer experience. There is nothing like user impatience, especially in stressful shopping situations, to derail the most careful web performance plans. So, how can retailers ensure performance? It comes down to getting the basic requirements right – having your site and apps work at scale and with speed. This means employing caching technology that can not only reduce the risk of site outages, but also enhance performance and provide greater control over retail websites. Think quicker page load times, faster delivery of rich content, and the server bandwidth required to deal with unexpected demand. 

The future of retail

While countries globally are easing their restrictions and slowly opening ‘non-essential’ retail stores to the public once more, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The reality is, despite opening physical stores, this comes with huge caveats and guidelines. Even then, it’s not likely that consumers will want to return to days gone by any time soon. It’s unlikely that, in the short-term at least, consumers will feel comfortable shopping on the high street amid health and safety restrictions. As experts indicate a permanent impact on British retail (which is likely elsewhere in other countries), and some retailers committing to becoming more digitally friendly, in the future we could see fewer physical stores, more ecommerce, and a more important role for technology. So if you haven’t already nailed your online strategy, now is the time to take it off the shelf, dust it off and embrace technology such as caching for future success. 

Lars Larsson is chief executive of Varnish Software

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