After recent UK data showed that 50 shops per day are shutting on the UK high street, Eleanor Thomas, Head of Research at online retailer Wholee Prime, explores the seismic impact the pandemic has had on the way we shop and its implications for the future of retail.
Like so many others I was shocked when the pandemic first struck. It felt like something out of a dystopian horror movie. Millions imprisoned at home to escape the ravages of an unknown virus.
In spite of its horrors, however, the virus has proven to be a catalyst for some positive change. The advance of online retail predates COVID, with the last decade seeing tremendous growth in online shopping, thanks to the big-name retailers like Amazon and eBay. But there had never been a time before the pandemic when so many relied on the online marketplace. As supplies ran out in physical shops, people turned to online stores to ensure they had access to cleaning products, basic food essentials and other items they could no longer easily access unless you timed your arrival to the shop just right.
As the initial wave of the pandemic rolled on, the economy caught up with the huge surges in demand. Supply chains were adjusted and delivery drivers were hired to ensure customers received their orders. What also became clear, however, was the contempt with which some online retailers treated those who shopped with them. A combination of huge profits combined with the knowledge that they were in an almost unassailable position of power given the situation at the time led many retailers to adopt a profits-before-people kind of approach.
As it became clear that the pandemic would not be gone by the end of the summer, we launched Wholee Prime in August 2020, as a disruptor to the stranglehold the billion-dollar giants hold on the market. The aim was, and still is, to provide all the products shoppers need, but with a customer-focused approach which doesn’t make you feel like a number in a huge profit-making algorithm.
This kind of approach has become all the more relevant as second, third and fourth waves of the virus have hit countries. A key effect of these waves has been to accelerate the process of decline being experienced by many physical shops on the high street. Some of these stores have been able to open up an online presence; a friend of mine who runs a small craft shop near Portsmouth has spent time on a website and social media accounts and it has paid dividends, allowing her to continue trading.
This has not been the case for the wider independent economy, and many small, long-established shops have been forced to shut. People went to these shops because of the way they made you feel; they knew your regular order, they asked how you were, it was personal. As more and more of people’s shopping needs move online, they will feel a stronger attraction to those retailers who are able to provide this kind of service. No online retailer will be able to truly replicate it, but it will make a difference if consumers feel a retailer values them more for their custom than simply for the money in their account.
While some will say that this decline is not something to be celebrated, it would not be unreasonable to see this as merely an evolution of retailing.
Over the year that has passed since Wholee Prime launched, people who had rarely, if ever, made a purchase online are now far more open to the idea of online shopping. The ease with which you can make purchases and the range of choices on offer have opened many sceptics’ eyes to the brilliance of online retail.
It is not just online retail sceptics who are now using the online marketplace more often. People who are now either fully remote-working or hybrid working and are spending more time at home will start using online platforms for more domestic tasks like food shopping. This had already been growing in popularity as a way of shopping with greater convenience, and with supermarkets now well-equipped with the workforce and vehicles needed to cater for more home deliveries, this will only continue to grow.
The future is online. Whether people like it or not, this is the way the retail industry is going. The traditional high street has served us well for hundreds of years, but its decline will continue. The key question is what will the online marketplace look and feel like for consumers? This will take a long time to answer, as more diverse businesses and methods appear in the online retail space. What is certain is that consumers will very soon have an even greater myriad of choices than at present.
To those who balk at the growing online retail sector, how can that be anything other than fantastic?
Eleanor Thomas, Head of Research at online retailer Wholee Prime