Most retailers and analysts could never have predicted the market conditions of Spring/Summer 2020. The volume of retail sales in April fell by a record 18.1%, and according to the Office of National Statistics, the market experienced record declines (from 1988 when records began) for both value and volume retail. Due to government restrictions, the likes of department stores, textile, clothing and footwear, household goods and other non-food retailers have been hardest hit. For some, this meant zero turnover.
Where do we go from here? The obvious answer is online, a space that over the past two months, the majority of brands have crowded into and expanded through. And for good reason: it’s the only space consumers have been permitted to visit for non-essential goods. As such, non-store retailing reached record levels in April, according to those same ONS stats, at 18.0% growth, and only 3.5% of online retailers reporting zero turnover.
It’s not been easy though. Over the course of a matter of days, websites have had to scale up, content has been adapted, marketing emails and strategies changed course, supply chains re-directed and delivery information adjusted. It’s no small task, and that’s just for the brands that already had a robust online presence.
As for shoppers: in the early days of the lockdown the majority of shops were out of bounds, replaced with a rapidly expanding digital ecosystem. Many people had more time on their hands, and were looking at brands’ websites not just to browse and buy products, but to consume content and have meaningful engagements of the kind that were no longer possible in day to day life. When developing a digital strategy, it’s therefore critical that businesses prioritise personalisation, and use digital channels to create relevant experiences. In doing so, they can not just improve the customer experience – they can recapture valuable lost revenue, and promote long term loyalty.
The UK’s retail industry isn’t all identikit shopping centres and middle England high streets. Independent boutiques, quirky indie shops, market traders, and small, traditional family businesses are what make the UK shopping experience just that – an experience. Many of these businesses, however, will have a minimal online footprint. They may have a holding page with basic information or a limited product line available to view, but no option to buy goods, no means of fulfilling significant order numbers, and no CRM system.
In the early days of lockdown, many of these businesses took a ‘wait and see’ approach to developing their digital presence. Lockdown restrictions will ease and shops – at least, those that remained solvent – will re-open. But we won’t be going back to ‘normal’ any time soon. London only need look at Paris, where shops re-opened in mid-May, to get a glimpse of a possible future.
Crowds initially flocked to the city’s luxury goods retailers, however, many have reportedly not seen the same level of footfall as pre-pandemic. This is hardly surprising, as not only are consumers still wary of going out and of spending money, but the business model of brands such as these was anchored in the ultra-luxe experience of shopping in-store. Touching products, trying on clothes, testing make-up. Shoppers are not only barred from doing these things now – many will not want or can no longer afford to. It’s not just restrictions and new regulations that are jeopardising the UK retail sector; the wants and needs of consumers have changed.
Those retailers that have acknowledged and acted changing consumer needs are those that have seen success. Fitness brand Luluemon, for example, used to rely primarily on in-store traffic, with shoppers not only visiting to buy, but also to take part in in-store experiences such as yoga classes. The retailer quickly beefed up its online presence, offering virtual classes and developing a strong online community of loyal customers and those new to the brand. Lululemon was able to understand the wants and needs of its customers by building on what it already had: customer data. Early on, the retailer was able to tie together data from consumers who’d shopped online with those visiting the site; it already knew a lot about its existing customers, and was able to use this insight to personalise the digital experience.
Tailoring the online space to the needs of individual shoppers is critical. With no physical offering to act as a differentiator and even more retailers now investing in digital, there’s a lot of competition for online consumer spend. For smaller retailers and those with limited customer data to work with, going from mass marketing to targeted personalisation is near impossible. The answer is to view the journey in terms of crawl-walk-run: start with data that’s easy to get, such as location (where is the consumer browsing?), the type of content they’ve viewed in the past, visit frequency, and the device they’re using. To this can then be added third-party data, such as demographic and household income.
Analysing this data and using it to create a more personalised experience is also a gradual process, and involves automation and AI tools. No organisation can jump from zero to fully automated in a single step. Using a customer data management platform, retailers can cleanse, dedupe, stitch together, and enrich data from numerous sources, giving them insight into their customers’ behaviour, and tracking how this alters as lockdown restrictions change.
This insight can be used to inform engagement with consumer and to personalise everywhere. If a retailer knows what their customer has bought in the past, which channels they’ve used to communicate, how their spending has changed during lockdown, where they live and are shopping from, it’s able to create an orchestrated customer journey across multiple touchpoints.
It’s not merely a waiting game for brands. While 2020 has not been easy, brands should seize the current period to step up, be bold and embrace personalisation. Don’t simply cut your losses and move on in the same way you did before; build and innovate from the ground up. For small retailers this means gaining new customer data to understand what shoppers want and build and scale a website. For more established retailers, it must involve harnessing AI to get maximum value from existing customer data, and scaling and adapting a digital offering accordingly. Your brand will be able to develop stronger, more authentic relationships with your customers, and your customers will benefit from a more coherent and relevant digital experience.
Whatever the size of your brand, and however impactful Covid-19 has been, personalisation should be grasped as an opportunity to not only survive post-lockdown, but to succeed.
Omer Artun is chief science officer at Acquia