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GUEST COMMENT Hybrid retail in the next phase

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There’s no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on businesses around the world and retailers have been among the hardest hit.

British retail sales depleted by 18% in April from March — the largest fall since records began in 1988 — and reports in April highlighted how half of major retailers in the UK were at risk of falling into administration by the end of summer.

In a bid to boost the economy and help save the high street, the UK government moved faster than some expected to allow non-essential retailers to reopen their doors in England on June 15.

It’s a positive step, but possibly not enough, with a British Chambers of Commerce study revealing that the majority of companies had only three months of cash or less left in their coffers.

Even with one metre distancing, the traditional shopping experience is unlikely to return to how it was anytime soon. Not only are shoppers more hesitant to return to shop floors, stores still have to take measures to enable social distancing, including one-way system layouts, the closure of fitting rooms and limiting footfall.

With the coronavirus crisis accelerating the impact of many of the challenges already facing the UK retail sector, how can they navigate this ‘new normal’?

Marrying off and online

 With bricks and mortar retail closed for the last few months, consumers have quickly shifted to the convenience of shopping from home. According to PFS, 60% of consumers have purchased more goods since the lockdown began, with 53% saying they have shopped more online.

Perhaps more importantly, a large majority of these shoppers (77%) expect to continue to purchase online more once lockdown is over. Consumers have learnt new shopping habits and it looks like these will stay in the longer term.

These are positive stats for ecommerce brands, yet the recent images of queues to get back to physical stores has highlighted how the appeal of in-person retailing has not been quashed.

For many, this is a case of ‘you don’t miss it until it’s gone’. Consumers were abandoning the high street for the convenience of online shopping, yet, once the offline option had been taken away completely, many of us longed for a return to normal, where we had the choice to either shop online or browse in store.

As we emerge into a new normal, we’ll see a hybrid approach to retailing, where offline and online are brought together in a way they weren’t integrated before — a symbiotic relationship that allows both to thrive.

Evaluate omnichannel strategies

The growth of ecommerce in recent months only poses a threat to those retailers who have not invested in digital commerce. In a post-COVID world, consumers will now expect to receive the same in-store experience that matches up to the simple and convenient online experiences they have enjoyed during the lockdown period.

In order to adapt to these new customer shopping habits and preferences, retailers must evaluate their current omnichannel strategy in order to innovate and thrive. It’s important to not only ensure that these are clearly aligned with changing customer demands, but that strategies are integrated into any existing channels to offer a consistent customer experience.

Some of the key omnichannel offerings retailers should be looking towards include:

In-store collection

In order to meet today’s customer expectations, retailers should look to adopt a BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick-Up in Store) model. This allows retailers to enable their customers to purchase goods via ecommerce but still collect them from a physical store — a beneficial way for retailers to drive in-store football, but also to connect their offline and online experiences. 

Create the in-store feel online

Not being able to engage with customers in-store as much as before can be solved by bringing the physical store experience online. For example, retailers can continue personalised interaction with customers by offering virtual appointments, where sales representatives can help shoppers find the products they need in a personalised manner. According to our recent research, nine out of 10 consumers would be happy to share data with brands if it helps to deliver a more rewarding and personalised experience.

Contactless self-serve

Over the past few months, consumers have been using contactless payments in-store more than ever. It’s likely consumers will still demand this same experience across a majority of physical stores in future, even after the pandemic. Retailers should look at providing contactless self-serve options for online order pickups, price checks and return management.

While having a robust omnichannel offering is vital, taking a customer-centric approach to the online and offline experience is a key part of this and will help to drive more transactions and greater satisfaction — but only when that buying experience is truly personalised for every individual.

The line between online and offline retail experiences continues to blur more and more each day. Shoppers don’t want to have to choose between online retail and brick-and-mortar buying opportunities. They want the ability to create their own shopping experiences using the best of both worlds.

Those retailers who can successfully marry up both the online and offline experience for a convenient and seamless shopping journey are those best placed to not only navigate the ‘new normal’, but position themselves for success in the future. 

Chris Purcell is product strategist at Episerver

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