Retail’s New Normal: What Does The Future Hold?
Retail’s New Normal: What Does The Future Hold?

23rd March 2021, the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown, was marked by a National Day of Reflection; a chance to think back over the past year and look towards the future. The events of the last 365 days made sceptics of us all at one time or another, too hesitant to make plans or predictions for a future so uncertain ‘in the time of covid’; ‘will we ever see a post-pandemic world?’ ‘Is our current situation here to stay?’

Now, a whole year on from the outset of our annus horribilis, we once again have a roadmap out of lockdown and dates for easing restrictions. The difference is that this time round, with a successful vaccine roll-out under our belt, we can now start to paint a picture of what a post-pandemic world may look like.

With the many changes that have been thrust upon us — our day-to-day lives taking the biggest hit — it’s clear that many aspects won’t resemble our pre-Covid picture. The way we shop certainly won’t look the same as it did before.

Non-essential stores were forced to close for the majority of 2020, in turn forcing consumers to adapt and resort to shopping online. Of course, the concept is nothing new; online shopping giants like Amazon, ASOS and Boohoo existed long before the pandemic- as did Click and Collect options for many retailers- giving consumers a choice between in-store or online shopping. The pandemic not only removed that choice from consumers, it also gave a harsh ultimatum to brands: either invest in your online presence, or risk falling victim to Covid-19.

For those hitting the high-streets on 12th April- the date for non-essential stores to reopen in England- they will find some shops still closed. The collapse of Debenhams and Arcadia, parent company to brands like Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, epitomises the harsh reality faced by brick-and-mortar stores. ASOS and Boohoo bought the failing Arcadia brands, providing them with a new home online.

So, is the digital world the place to be?

Social media platforms were quick to respond to the digital shift in consumer behaviour, by fine-tuning their e-commerce capabilities. In-app purchasing features are morphing these platforms into social commerce hubs; one only has to look to Instagram’s layout redesign at the end of 2020, placing their Reels and Shopping tabs front and centre, to see how these features are gaining traction. Instagram’s offering allows brands to attach a virtual shopping tag to their ads on the platform, which then re-directs users to the product on the brand’s webpage. Instagram isn’t the only platform that’s upped its e-commerce game: TikTok has partnered with Shopify, and YouTube is testing a new tool that will automatically detect products in videos and then generate a list of related products for users.

These digital platforms are establishing themselves as vital sales tools, meaning brands must rely more heavily on digital if they want to truly benefit. As a result, retailers have upped their digital marketing spend- with many investing in influencer marketing for raising brand awareness and consumer engagement on social media.

Will the pandemic-fuelled demand for e-commerce fall away from 12th April?

In a recent Poll on the TAKUMI Instagram, 45% of respondents claimed they would continue to shop mostly online despite non-essential stores reopening. Although the Instagram Poll was informal, to gain a rough idea of people’s intentions, the response reflects a growing preference for online shopping.

It’s not just the improved online experience that accounts for this preference- a contributing factor may also be the diminished in-store experience that awaits consumers. This means a continuation of the measures we’ve seen in place during the brief gaps between 2020 lockdowns/high-tier status’. These safety measures, although hugely encouraging for some, may be the reason why others would choose to no longer shop in-store. Mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing and closed changing rooms can make the experience less ‘retail therapy’ and more…hassle. The convenience of shopping from the comfort of your own home, with every product at your fingertips and fairly hassle-free returns processes, is an attractive concept. It’s safe to say that e-commerce is no longer just a bonus option or the back-up for brick-and-mortar browsing.

Nevertheless, even with safety measures, the high-streets offer a direct and full sensory experience that digital lacks- which for many people is precisely why they love shopping in-store. Is it too early to reminisce on those ‘good old fashioned’ shopping trips?

As we take our first steps into a post-pandemic world, the realities of our new normal will start to set in. We might try and pinpoint all the parts of the picture that now look different, but one thing is for sure: the pandemic-induced digital shift is here to stay.