It can be an odd experience when you return to somewhere you know well after a long absence. Going back to your hometown, for instance, you still know the shapes of the streets, can still navigate easily between major landmarks, but the finer details will have subtly shifted. Shops come and go, favourite restaurants change hands, worn-down areas get regenerated.
As the peak of the pandemic recedes, and lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted for (what we hope will be) the last time, it’s an experience that many of us will be having even in our closest cities. Visiting retail and entertainment districts for the first time in months, we’ll find changes that have happened all around us while we weren’t looking.
The retail sector, of course, has had a particularly unusual time of it during the course of the pandemic. While venues like pubs and restaurants have been completely unable to pursue business as usual, resorting to innovating tactics like takeaway and delivery services to achieve a trickle of revenue, retail has had a long trend towards online business models to fall back on. Indeed, while the
British high street was either shuttered of little-trafficked for much of 2020, online sales picked up faster than they have for a decade, achieving 36.6% year-on-year growth.
This leaves the retail sector with an interesting problem over the coming months. A return to a more open world is good news for everybody, and there is an opportunity to capitalise on the enthusiasm it will bring. But, while cinemas and stadiums will eagerly welcome back people who have missed them dearly, the future of retail is much more up in the air.
There are many questions to consider. After a year or more of reliance on online shopping, a consumer may have an appetite for the experience of in-person shopping – or they may be happy with their new retail delivery lifestyle. Following accelerated progress in richer online customer experiences, people might have new expectations about how and when they interact with retail brands. Even what gets spent and where is an open question: as economic confidence grows, will spending be aimed more at material purchases that people have been delaying or at experiences they have missed?
Just like the shoppers looking anew at a transformed high street, retailers may be surprised by how the details of the market have changed over the last year. This is not to say that turbulent markets are anything new for retailers; even relatively young businesses will have had their share of ups and downs prior to the pandemic, including the global financial crisis. This time, however, the impact has been not just financial, but cultural and behavioural, making for unpredictable times ahead.
Coping with this uncertainty and laying the groundwork to capitalise on the major retail moments of the Golden Quarter will require understanding the audience like never before. When we can no longer rely on past performance and trends to anticipate the future, we instead need to react in real time to these consumer shifts.
Happily, the digitalisation which has served the retail sector so well in helping to deliver growth over the last year is also an opportunity to get real insight into consumer behaviour as it happens. In an online world, people’s interaction with media – from a brand’s marketing campaigns to the social media universe at large – can be an always-on indicator of the needs, desires, and pressures that truly effective retail strategies tap into.
It seems clear that the pandemic will have changed audience behaviour for the long haul. When making decisions about how to balance online and physical retail in a hybrid model, or which sales enablement tactics will deliver the best returns, or what emotional outlook a product will truly connect with, smart retailers will start with media intelligence that offers an accurate audience picture.
In short, regardless of how a retailer is going to market, data can and should be at the heart of its operations. Often, however, the gap between acquiring data – from website interactions, marketing engagement, or in-person sales – and turning it into insight is very real, and difficult to overcome.
This fact is exacerbated by the fact that shopping happens in more diverse ways than ever before. Twenty years ago, the retail sector was waking up to the realities of parallel online and physical selling. Today, that online world comprises a vast range of channels, and people are increasingly inclined to move fluidly between them. From online and connected television, to social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, to a growing range of more specialised media channels and advertising opportunities from online news to TikTok, each frequently offering their own bespoke marketing capabilities, the data that retailers need in order to generate detailed consumer insight is becoming fractured into an unmanageable number of silos.
The first step to flexibility in a changing market, then, is unifying that data and bringing it all into a single, analysable view. With the right tools, retailers will be able to understand how a customer moves across channels from consideration to purchase, tracking ad spend and cost per conversion, and relate that back to operations from product development to procurement and supply chain management.
It will be an exciting time as the world opens up, more possibilities become available to us, and we apply what we’ve learned during the pandemic to the new retail reality. The competitive advantage will go to those who can understand what’s changed- and keep track of what is still changing – faster and more accurately than everyone else.
Aaron Goldman, CMO, Mediaocean