On the face of it, the lifting of remaining Covid-19 restrictions today is great news for the UK high street. All Covid-related infrastructure within stores, which carried a significant cost, can be removed and stores are able to welcome a greater number of customers through their doors and actually make a profit as a result.
But significant challenges lie ahead for retailers as they grapple with the bifurcation of society that has been driven by the pandemic and with the complex, and often conflicting, range of customer preferences and behaviours that have emerged as a result.
Some consumers are ‘chomping at the bit’ to get back to their pre-pandemic lifestyle. They will want to celebrate ‘Freedom Day’, indulge in a bit of self-care, and spend their accumulated savings. These are the consumers that offer physical stores the greatest opportunity to make a profit at the moment and their pent-up demand is likely to contribute to an initial surge in retail activity over the coming weeks.
There are, however, those consumers who will want to retain the habits that they’ve adopted over the past 16 months. A significant number of white-collar workers, for instance, are now very comfortable with home-based working and may prefer to shop online during the working week.
Finally, there are those customers whose health or finances have been impacted by the pandemic and who have altered their shopping behaviour accordingly. These customer segments are most likely to be anxious about returning to an in-store environment. As retailers explore how they can attract these shoppers back into stores, they are going to need to look at innovating across their channels in order to find ways to help this customer segment to feel more comfortable in-store. We may see a merging of online and store-based retail with this in mind.
Bespoke, concierge experiences that combine online consultations and private fittings, and that were already a trend pre-pandemic, could become an even bigger trend over the coming year. This kind of experience gives shoppers who have money to spend but who are nervous about returning to in-store shopping, a safer way to navigate the crowded high street, and could simultaneously reduce the level of online returns that stores experience.
Some of these shifts in consumer behaviour that we’re seeing are proving to be particularly helpful for retailers and are accelerating positive change across the industry. The accelerated shift to online, for instance, is driving greater productivity in the non-food sector in particular and retailers should continue to optimise and repurpose in-store space and to build out their online operations with this in mind.
Other shifts in behaviour may prove more problematic. With many city-based firms piloting a hybrid work model, it is unclear how city centre retail will develop over the coming months with this in mind. Those areas with a high concentration of offices and a range of shops catering to office workers could struggle in the coming months.
The other major challenge facing retailers today has less to do with consumer preferences and more to do with logistics. With the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence citing that 1.3 million overseas nationals left the UK between 2019 and 2020, it is clear that retail logistics are feeling the pinch. While the current lorry driver shortage is not yet being felt by customers in the UK, it is only a matter of time before it leads to shortages in terms of available delivery slots and products on shelves.
Ultimately, as the retail industry emerges into a very different post-pandemic ‘normal’, the only certainty is uncertainty as consumers and businesses alike feel their way through. In this environment, it is crucial for retailers to have their fingers on the pulse of consumer shopping preferences. The retailers that thrive will be those that with agile management teams that are able to quickly respond to the shifting landscape, those that invest in advanced analytics and underpin major business decisions with customer data, and those that continue driving rapid innovation across all shopping channels.