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FEATURE6 April 2020

The changing retail landscape

Automotive Covid-19 Features News Retail UK

Physical and online retail have been going through significant changes for a while, and now with the rapid closure of so many stores, retailers must boost their ecommerce. By Jane Bainbridge

Retailers were facing multiple challenges even before the vast majority of stores had to shut their doors with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. These were explored in a recent webinar entitled the Impact of Blended Retail hosted by interactive agency network, Tribal Worldwide.

Alison Cardy, managing director of HMKM, the Interbrand group for retail experience design, said: "Things have changed fast in the past couple of years. Customers are interacting with retail brands in so many ways, the physical is just one of the touchpoints for consumers – brands are wrestling with the purpose of the physical space."

In what is now considered ‘mono-channel', with the blend of digital and physical, shoppers often don't know where they first encountered the brand. Which means that retailers must similarly make the multiple points of connection with their customers seamless, Cardy said.

Darren Savage, chief strategy officer of Tribal Worldwide said that as a strategist working with a brand, the first thing to understand is where is the brand now, how did it get there, and what is it’s view of the future?

"We frequently find a lot of disconnect and silo thinking in organisations. A critical starting point is a unified view of customer behaviour," said Savage. To achieve that he said they'd build a conceptual model involving a range of research techniques such as ethnography, accompanied shopping, semiotics, as well as business information.

Once that has been done, they can do predictions, looking at what would happen if investment is made in different projects.

For retails there’s a fundamental question to be asked according to Cardy: "What’s the purpose of the store? It’s the point where you can create a strong relationship with your customer; trying to give an experience that builds from online but also something more human. What makes the physical space unique? What is the relationship you want in that physical space?"

When defining  the role for the retail environment, Savage said brands must look at the interplay of the best roles and recognise what the consumer has done before going into the store – primarily through mobile – and what comes afterwards.

He cited how VW has worked in this area with potential buyers able to configure a car online before they go into the dealership. Once with the dealer, the salesperson will then have all that detail and can see exactly what the person is interested in. When they leave they are given a digital brochure – "It wires together three modes" said Savage.

And now all brands and retailers are dealing with not only how to survive through the Covid-19 crisis, but also understand how behaviours may change in the long run.

Cardy said: "None of us have been through this before – it’s unique and it’s global. We can look and borrow from across the world. It will be a complete reset of the retail landscape."

She thinks those brands who have been seen to behave well through the pandemic will be prioritised by consumers. "I think online sales will pick up – we'll do more remote shopping and the point of connection will change."

But she also cautioned that after this, some areas would have to really look at what they do. "With something like a beauty hall, it’s all about vibrancy, fun, connection and makeovers – close up and touching. What is the future of the beauty hall in the post Covid-19 era?"

Savage added: "This isn't a flash in the pan but more of a medium-term situation so the transition period will be hugely important. Lots of organisations looking to ecommerce have now been shoved over the digital line whether they like it or not. Most change is stopped by people not technology – you now have the opportunity and necessity to find alternative ways to buy your products."

Cardy said it was important to see the opportunity: "Never let a crisis go to waste – think and disrupt to find new ways of delivering for our customers."

And for Savage, it’s all about looking at how people have adapted and how that might be used, going forward, for physical retail spaces.

"Look at any new or emergent behaviours that people show online. Then look at how those new behaviours lead to different expectations that might transfer to the physical experience. New behaviours lead to new expectations of how a brand behaves. The strategic challenge is how do you creatively translate those experiences into the physical space," he said.