COVID-19: Disaster or Opportunity for Physical Retail?

By Nina McNicol

The catastrophic blow, brought by the Coronavirus lockdown, to the retail industry will come as a surprise to no one. With 84.3% of the entire retail and wholesale workforce furloughed at the height of the pandemic, and announcements of store closures and staff redundancies from seemingly successful retailers every few hours, the recovery process will undoubtably require a formidable effort. 

Hence, the question stands: will our high streets ever fully recover from the wounds of lockdown and amend their already bleak future prior to the pandemic? 

In a time of such opportunity and creativity, to think that the whole physical retail experience consists of the same, generic, bricks-and-mortar layout is a somewhat disappointing thought. Even before the COVID crisis, the days of traditional high street retail being at the forefront of how our nation shops, were always numbered. The Coronavirus pandemic has purely acted as a catalyst to this demise. However, that is not to say physical retail will completely diminish. 

Small and large businesses alike are making unfavourable decisions of store closures, staff redundancies, and limiting store capacity translating to less footfall – reducing the number of shops on our high streets. In the past few days, house-hold names – such as Harrods, John Lewis, and Topshop – have announced hundreds of staff redundancies between them. To accompany this, retail giants Next and M&S are bidding for the UK branch of Victoria’s Secret; and the ever-growing brand Boohoo has dominated Oasis and Warehouse. 

Emerging before our very eyes is the ideal climate for monopolistic behaviour from the strongest retail figures; praying upon the weakest names in the high street. It is only a matter of time before the high street, as we know it, becomes a bloodbath; flooding with hostile takeovers, monopolistic mergers, and lethal liquidations. To spare themselves of this very real fate, retailers must surmount the competition through capitalising upon blue-ocean strategy (discovering uncharted markets), enhancing innovation and rethinking their entire in-store customer experience. 

The days where we solely looked to tangible shops for our goods and services feels a lifetime away in the midst of the thriving digital marketplace of today. To validate their place on the high street, physical retailers must change the face of in-store service. Making the customer feel valued in retail is key, so retailers should enhance personification by investing in (virtual) experiences tailored to the customers interest. Some ideas include; bring the couture fashion experience to the high street by upskilling shop assistants to assigned personal shoppers, virtual mirrors which reveal the appearance of clothing on the consumer without trying on and the availability of items in different colours/fits, incorporate virtual design into the layout of stores leaving customers enthralled merely by walking through the shop – to survive, the list has to be endless. 

The future of the high street also depends on the support of consumers. Will they still be likely to shop on the high street after Coronavirus? 

More are set to shop online. The advancement of e-commerce has been a large threat to the high street for over a decade. Not only is it more convenient, but – as those who have shopped in-store during manic sales will know – allows people to shop without their personal space being intruded. Quite clearly, coming within a close proximity to others is now even more of a priority to citizens out of fear of catching the virus. In fact, Government reports have revealed escalations of high anxiety in citizens during lockdown. It is therefore apparent that so long as the threat of contracting Coronavirus exists, so too do citizen’s anxieties. 

Unsurprisingly, those aged 75 years and older were twice as likely to experience high-anxiety compared to their younger counterparts – most likely because they are more susceptible to illness. Thus, highlighting the issue of the high street consumer age demographic. High street retailers rely, to a great extent, on the custom of the retired population, with over 65’s holding the highest level of disposable income over any other age group; and being the least-likely to shop online, preferring the in-store customer service experience. So, the potential decision of the elder population to deter their contributions to the high street, is likely to be detrimental to retail’s post-COVID recovery plans. 

Instead, many are now directing their support to their local high streets. As consumers begin to remember what lies on their doorstep, it is becoming clear that there has never been a more opportunistic time for local businesses in decades. With Britain in turmoil, the great British spirit of supporting your own has never been stronger. Although, this is not just a moral gesture but a safety one, too. Since internal travel was restricted to slow the spread of the virus during lockdown, many turned to local businesses they had overlooked in the past for retail giants. With lockdown measures eased, now is the time for local businesses to capture the hearts of the nation, enabling shopping local to be the norm once again. 

Interestingly the isolation of lockdown may have acted as time of reflection. With more than a quarter of the British workforce furloughed, and others forced to work from home – or more tragically laid-off from their employers – the lockdown relieved the majority of us from our bustling daily schedules. Consequently, Britons had more time to ponder current world issues, and their often-unnecessary spending habits. Namely the issues of sustainability and the Black Lives Matter movement were among the topics to receive wide coverage. Consumer shopping habits – in the most part – are likely to mirror support of these issues, meaning businesses have to adapt their ethos if they don’t already show their support. Likewise, consumer reluctance to spend on impulse for unnecessary items could further hinder the recovery of high street retailers. The rise of anxiousness, which is partially derived from financial hardship, is on the minds of consumers in ways unseen for decades. Members of the public still face great uncertainty over job security – which could be worsened by a second lockdown, both locally or nationally – and will likely be more financially stringent out of caution, to enable them to prepare for what lies ahead. 

On that note, British retailers must remember they are not out of the concrete woods yet. If they do not adapt their in-store experience by seeking unconventional practices, high street retailers are set to be wiped-out. But to prevent this, local and larger retailers should see now as the perfect time to cease the opportunity to alter their ways. Now is the time to reach the public on a local level, tend to new consumer habits after lockdown, but most of all – dare to be different.

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