The numbers are staggering: more than 3,700 businesses folded as a result of the first lockdown. Even long standing household names that we thought largely infallible took unprecedented hits during the first wave. Primark lost an estimated £800 million due to its inability to sell online, whilst B&Q was forced to endure a 70% sales slump during the opening weeks of April as it struggled to sell directly to consumers via its website.
And with winter on the horizon, a recent Brightpearl study of 500 retailers found that 56% of UK retailers do not believe their business could survive the devastating impact of a second wave of coronavirus, as the likelihood of widespread lockdowns returning increases.
Despite this, 54% of existing retailers still haven’t made any changes to their model in order to prepare for the possibility of a second spike, according to our study. Overall, just 42% are planning any further digital investment to better prepare their business for future spikes in the virus. These stats should provide concern - they do me.
As the old adage goes, failing to prepare, is preparing to fail. I’m confident that these tips can help your business ride out the second wave of coronavirus to safer shores.
The ability to offer blended buying experiences such as click and collect is vital to your firm’s survival of a second wave for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, Click & Collect is fast becoming a staple option for consumers, 65% of UK retailers already offer this service, and a further 25% plan on launching it before 2021. If your competitors are offering it, and your customers expect it, then you need to implement it to stay competitive.
Secondly, with Click & Collect set to account for an estimated 13.9% of total retail spend within the next two years , it should be a major priority for every online retailer with a physical store. As stores reopen with new distancing and safety measures in place, I expect a major upswing in larger retailers offering contactless Click & Collect systems which allow guests to order their item online before collecting it safely from outside or via car delivery. Consumer focused initiatives such as Click & Collect are a competitive weapon for small and middle-market retailers; one that is currently under-utilized, in my view. If your brand has the capacity to implement these services, then they could prove the defining factor in winning business in an oversaturated marketplace.
Post-Covid-19, online businesses are operating in an arena of greater competition and heightened demand. Some categories we work with are seeing 600-800% YOY increases in direct online sales, with similar highs in demand post-lockdown.
An 800% increase in demand is fantastic news in any retail climate, but it doesn’t come without its share of logistical difficulties. Earlier this year we saw B&Q having to temporarily close its online store because it simply could not process such a steep increase in demand and one particularly busy weekend for Boots led to its customers having to wait over an hour in a virtual queue of almost 150,000.
Whilst other retailers were citing spiralling delivery delays and stock outs as a result of the heightened demand, luxury brand Fairfax & Favor has been shipping 99% of its orders as next-day delivery throughout the pandemic, with reduced staff. The Norfolk-based brand has credited its ability to automate aspects of the buying experience as one of the primary reasons behind its success in dealing with the unprecedented lockdown demand. It’s this kind of crisis management that helped the brand remain active during the pandemic, and provide the type of exceptional customer service that creates brand loyalty - essential in the event of future spikes.
Even when the virus recedes, new online behaviours will likely extend the ‘spike’ to all types of retail, so retailers need to be asking themselves if their current set up supports the increases in traffic of the new normal. Unfortunately, most retailers lack the agile digital infrastructure to successfully manage inventory, same-next day delivery, shipping and returns at a level that meets the modern consumer expectations set by ecommerce leaders like Amazon. Brands must make a concerted effort to cut down on order processing times without compromising on the customer journey.
As we are seeing through the rapid upswing in stores created through Shopify Plus, most brands are aware of and understand the urgency in creating sleek ecommerce sites in the race to attract direct sales. However, few seek to address the operational complexities that lie beyond the buy button, and that’s a mistake that often proves costly. Without solid mechanics in place at an operational level, for example, to handle inventory, shipping, and logistics across multiple channels and locations, or for more real-time customer-facing support, any business is quickly going to run into problems.
When talking about the importance of operations to successful ecommerce models, Eve Sleep co-founder Kuba Wieczorek puts it best: “That whole back end is so mega important that if you don’t get it right you’re screwed.” To truly ‘pandemic-proof’ your business, each scenario in the buying journey - both pre-and post-purchase - should be recognized as equally important.
In order to survive future spikes of Covid, to maximize profit and opportunity, retailers need to be in the position to meet heightened demand with exceptional service. That calls for highly efficient and flexible ecosystems that are able to support speed and convenience, can handle bursts of growth as well as the diverse needs of blended cross-channel experiences,
Retailers need to assess their digital infrastructure, identifying improvements and bottlenecks at all ends of the buying experience, and then recruit the right partners that can help ensure the entire retail operation is ready to meet the challenges for a second wave - and any more to follow.
Derek O’Carroll is chief executive of retail operations platform Brightpearl
Brightpearl has developed a free online health check to help retailers to gauge whether they are ready for a second wave of Covid.