With non-essential retail opening this week, brands are getting ready for what we all hope will be a return to some kind of ‘normality’ in the economy.
Yet the reality is that nothing will ever be ‘normal’ again. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world in many, irreversible ways, and this is undoubtedly the case in the retail sector. Just consider some of the enormous shifts we’ve seen over the last year.
Shops closed at a record rate in 2020, with more than 17,500 chain store outlets disappearing from high streets, shopping centres and retail parks across Britain, according to data compiled for PwC. Retail behemoths like Debenhams and Arcadia shut down for good, while many others significantly reduced their store estates. The total volume of retail sales is now returning to somewhere close to pre-pandemic levels, but this recovery has been driven by an online boom and new winners in sectors like grocery, homeware and DIY.
Amid these far-reaching and fundamental changes, the question is how can retail brands rebuild in a post-lockdown world? Here, we present three ways that retailers are revamping their strategies and rethink their place in this transformed retail landscape.
- Re-organising distribution
The pandemic has ushered in a new age of working from home, with most companies set to continue with flexible working arrangements in one form or another, even as lockdown measures ease. This is a huge challenge for retailers, who now find themselves needing to reconfigure their traditional distribution networks in favour of people’s new lifestyles and locations. In other words, they need to go where the shoppers are, which isn’t necessarily the big city centres anymore.
That’s why we’re seeing several brands establishing a presence on local high streets across the country. John Lewis is rolling out ‘mini’ stores within its partner Waitrose’s supermarkets, while electricals retailer AO is opening several ‘stores-within-a-store’ as part of a trial with Tesco. As flexible working becomes the norm, these retailers are waking up to the need to become part of people’s shopping journey closer to home, wherever that may be.
In some ways, this simply demonstrates the enduring importance of offering convenience to consumers – just in a new, more localised context. It also shows how lockdown has emphasised the difference between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ retail, with those essential retail hubs (mainly supermarkets) now becoming the home for other forms of non-essential retail.
This feeds into a bigger point about brand partnerships in a post-Covid world. Everywhere you look, consolidation is happening as brands look to shore up their retail offer and find new ways of reaching consumers. In the last year alone we’ve seen M&S begin selling clothes from 11 rival brands on its website; Asos and Boohoo buy up the Topshop and Debenhams brands respectively; and more and more supermarket chains start selling on the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats.
As the pandemic has accelerated the online choice available to consumers, retailers are having to collaborate and consolidate in order to survive. It shows that brands can no longer be as precious about the platforms they’re sold on, or the brands they partner with. Similarly, physical retailers of all shapes and sizes c
an longer ignore the importance of digital, as lockdown has ingrained new online behaviours right across the population – from the heightened demand for online delivery, to new expectations around virtual showrooms and on-demand customer service.
- Reimagining the High Street presence
The accelerated shift to online doesn’t mean that physical retail is dead, but it has certainly changed forever. In some ways it helps to think about the bigger picture, and how the pandemic has altered the very fabric of our towns and cities. For example, some economic experts have talked about the emergence of ‘donut cities’ over the past year, as city centres have been hollowed out and more people have been working – and spending money – in the residential areas that surround the centre.
As the local economies of these suburban areas expand, more retailers are likely to switch their attention to these localised high streets, as per the John Lewis example above. This also taps into the vision set out by retail guru Mary Portas, who has talked about more community-centred forms of retail as an antidote to the rise of online shopping.
Indeed Portas’ idea of ‘The Kindness Economy’ is rooted in the notion that brands need to adapt to consumers’ changing value systems, including the demand for more ethical and community-minded retailers. Portas has said there will be “less retail but better retail” as these higher quality outlets and experiences become destinations that people want to visit – thereby driving more footfall and other retailers to an area.
In a post-lockdown world of ‘donut cities’ and new work-life patterns, retailers can win by becoming these valued community destinations.
- Redefining the Brand story
Of course, changing strategy in any of the ways listed above requires a deeper shift in how a retailer thinks about itself, and tells its story to consumers. Brand repositioning is a complex process, and one that more and more retailers are likely to go through as they adapt to the realities of the ‘new normal’.
Just as consumers’ lifestyles and behaviours have changed, their values have too. The pandemic has brought a huge range of issues to the fore, from physical and mental health to how we think about the environment, discrimination and inequality. Brands need to respond accordingly.
At BJL we’re experienced at helping brands to redefine their stories, including over the last year. With jewellery retailer H.Samuel, for example, we oversaw a complete repositioning for the business ahead of a Christmas 2020 relaunch. This involved going back to the retailer’s nineteenth century origins to draw out key brand truths – specifically its role as a provider of gifts and joyful moments in people’s lives.
Our new positioning for H.Samuel as ‘The home of kindness and thoughtful gifting’ has re-energised the business, with a new approach to the retail experience, new communications and, most importantly, a new relevance in modern-day culture. We achieved a similar brand overhaul for outdoor clothing retailer Craghoppers last year, as we repositioned the business as an authentic voice on sustainability through our ‘Mindfully Made’ brand platform and campaign.
As we navigate our way out of lockdown, so much about the future is still uncertain. But as the examples above show, being bold, imaginative and willing to rethink old certainties can help brands to adapt to the new retail landscape – and even thrive.