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  • Mark Runacus

Retail in times of COVID-19

Updated: Jul 16


As Intu fell into administration and most of the UK high street was able to re-open, it became clear there were going to be some winners and losers in terms of the long-term survival of retail brands. A few familiar shops won invaluable publicity with fans queueing for hours to get back to Ikea, Primark, Sports Direct, and Zara.


Queues but footfall is down.

Despite those hectic scenes, footfall monitoring service Springboard estimated that high street traffic on that first day was 45.3% down versus the same time last year, and all retail locations were down 35.9% overall. Anecdotally shoppers were reporting that the excitement outside wasn’t necessarily repeated inside. The interior experience was somewhere between nearly normal and subdued. Is that sustainable for the sector to be the catalyst of the UK’s economic recovery? So, what future for UK retail post COVID? Will shoppers return fully? Or will COVID merely accelerate the demise of many retail brands?

Check out the Wax Lyrical podcast.

We tackled those questions in our latest Wax Lyrical podcast with Doddle CEO Tim Robinson. Tim speaks from a unique viewpoint as his business is at the crossroads of physical retail and e-commerce, offering solutions for click and collect, returns and ship from store. And it was chatting to Tim that inspired me to think more deeply about the challenges facing retailers right now, and in particular the role that we marketers can play in future-proofing the businesses we work for.

The high street is where community happens.

Retail is close to my heart because I grew up in an extended family of shopkeepers. Not some retail dynasty, just a handful aunts, uncles, and other relatives who owned thriving little shops on the busy high street of a North Nottinghamshire mining town.

Today all my relatives have gone, and even in pre-COVID times that high street wasn’t busy at all, which breaks my heart. That’s because the high street should be the place where community happens, where we communicate with each other, learn about each other, learn to get along with each other, and support each other.

So, whether you’re a small independent retailer in a former mining town or the CMO of a national retail brand, what role for retail marketing in times of COVID?

It’s not about footfall. It’s about crowd control.

Our primary objective must be to support the safety of our colleagues and customers, so instead of our usual task of driving footfall, it’s now all about crowd control. Put that into a marketing communications context and you quickly realise that we should be using our owned channels to talk to existing fans and ensure we manage their expectations and don’t damage existing loyalty. We’re certainly going to need that loyalty if the economists’ dire recession predictions are even partially correct. It’s time to ramp up our CRM capabilities and communicate accurate and up to date personalised details about nearest and favourite store opening hours; responsibly explain in-store social distancing, and health and cleanliness processes. How are you managing queueing, and how long are those queues? What’s the best time to come at the moment? Let’s consider how we can reward our fans for coming back in store too. What about in-store only offers and promotions?

Distance By Design.

It’s vital that we gather and analyse as much relevant data as possible, turn that into actionable insight, and help our colleagues across the business to react positively to a previously unknown and rapidly changing environment.

Let’s use that insight to support - or otherwise - ideas that we’ve been considering for some time which either directly or indirectly also achieve our objective of what I’ve called Distance By Design. Doddle CEO Tim Robinson explained that smart retailers like Walmart and Target have been motivated by COVID to accelerate their omnichannel transformation strategies and try things like showrooming, kerbside pick-up, click online and try in-store, and appointments to shop. That last one may have sounded unimaginable three months ago, but today the certainty for a loyal customer of easily getting inside a store, quickly getting the products they want, and being helped by an informed assistant, sounds like an amazing experience. Some UK retailers are already doing this, for example Dreams.

Weaning the nation off its addiction to home delivery.

Tim made a great point: as part of their survival plans retailers have to find ways to wean the nation off our addiction to home delivery. Why? Because it damages margin. We’ve created a generation of shoppers who expect free next day delivery and free returns as standard. That just isn’t sustainable, environmentally and financially. If you’re a fashion retailer surely it would be so much better to encourage online browsing, and then allow customers to easily and quickly view or try all the products they think they like in store and buy the one they really like. (About a third of all e-commerce purchases are returned.). If you already have click and collect, have you moved it to front of store now? Getting your omnichannel strategy in place must be a priority, before COVID online shopping behaviours become too engrained.

Reviewing retail marketing channels.

And returning to making better use of CRM, is it time to dust off that old customer loyalty programme proposal? What better way to manage margin, gather insight, create competitive advantage, and drive customer advocacy?

Whilst we’re re-thinking our marketing communications channel and budget split, it’s time to consider carefully exactly who we are driving in-store and how, and target our messages to avoid wastage. The most recent research from Alligator/BVA BDRC suggests that only 38% of the population feels happy about going on a shopping trip in the next three months. I would love to see what it’s actually like inside my favourite stores now before I set off on an unpredictable journey.

Tell me what the shopping experience is like in real-time.

And why not go further if you can? Tell me what the shopping experience is like in real-time by either investing in the technology to do it automatically, or by doing it manually across your social channels. Lidl Ireland’s text service is a good example. The basic “busy” measure already exists in your Google search results. And what about collaborating with other non-competitive retailers and sharing their information, particularly when food and beverage premises are allowed to open. Where can I get a coffee nearby today? And are there any public toilets open at the moment?

And for the bigger stores, are you using your social channels for in-store customer service support if colleagues cannot provide as much help and assistance as they might for social distancing reasons?

Rip up the merchandising rule book.

Another area where we should be applying our marketing-driven insight is to support our merchandising colleagues. Hopefully they have already ripped up the rule book and are no longer placing our hero products at the back of the store forcing customers to traverse our entire retail footprint to get to what they want. How can we use our communications tools to help customers quickly find what they want?

Meanwhile we must provide insight to help merchandising re-think the experience, perhaps subtly persuading customers to spend less time in certain places, and to communicate important information quickly to prevent threatening clusters of people forming. It’s certainly time to turn a lot of our conventional commercially driven experience thinking on its head. This is all part of Distance By Design.

Inclusive Distance By Design.

If your customers, merchandising, and health and safety colleagues are finding your new social distancing measures within existing stores unsatisfactory, stifling and expensive, now might be the time to cost-effectively test some new designed-from-scratch Distance By Design pop-up brand experience formats.

Outside of my day job I’m an inclusion and diversity campaigner, so on a personal note please remember those who are differently abled when planning and communicating the in-store experience.

Ten things you can do right now.

Only a few weeks into lockdown I write a piece entitled “Ten things you can do right now” which I hoped would empower those of us who work in marketing and advertising to be able to make a positive contribution to the crisis. Looking back some of my suggestions may have been a little naïve, but I did forecast a few post COVID trends which appear to be solidifying. I’m going to re-visit two which are relevant to retail: the growth of Experience Commerce, and Local Love.

Experience Commerce.

For the more sophisticated retailer accelerating any Experience Commerce plans will definitely drive competitive advantage. Whilst your competitors are solely focused on managing social distancing in-store you can use other channels to create a superior and engaging brand experience. Shanghai Fashion Week moved entirely online during lockdown and 150 designers and brands livestreamed catwalk shows on Alibaba’s Tmall platform with most products available to buy or pre-order. If you’re inspired by that, now is the time to be seeking innovative content and entertainment partners and working out how you can build them into your omnichannel experience.

Local Love.

Another forecast trend was Local Love which predicted that we’d re-discover local shops and continue to patronise them until COVID was only a distant memory. If you’re already an independent community retailer then it’s all about playing to your human and authentic strengths and highlighting convenience and your connections with the area. And just in case Local Love doesn’t last, maybe you too should be considering a loyalty programme. It doesn’t need to be sophisticated; start with those early coffee shop stamped card ideas and work up from there. If you can, gather data, and start to personalise offers and rewards. Convenient, local, human, and rewarding: that sounds like a compelling combination to me.

Highlight your positive local differences.

If you’re a national brand, then it may be time to re-think your rigorous one-size fits all approach to retail marketing and find ways to highlight your positive local differences. Whether it’s through data-driven hyper-personalisation or simply empowering local management with the freedom to create their own communications, now is the time to show you are nationally trusted and locally loved. I certainly believe you should be making local heroes of the colleagues who are on the front line and guiding us through these weird times. Also in “Ten things you can do right now” I highlighted the importance of internal communications, particularly with your in-store colleagues. Make sure you’re communicating with them regularly and there’s an efficient feedback loop for always on, on-the-ground qualitative research.

Unlocking £60 billion of consumer spending.

Retail analysts suggest that because of COVID, £60 billion of normal consumer expenditure has gone unspent. I do hope that for the sake of our future, together we can responsibly unlock some of that.

Thanks to Francesca Johnston and Maria Paxton for helping me write this.

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