high street

Back to the Future (of the high street)

Our founder and CEO, Martin Schofield, is ready to help retailers prepare for the new redefined high street. His direct experience managing the retail IT of Harvey Nichols at a board level has equipped him with the knowhow to help retailers navigate uncertain times, with stock control and technology solutions to develop an omnichannel presence and get ahead.

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement regarding the imminent reopening of ‘non-essential retail’, we are about to get real insight into the shape the future high street will take. With the accumulation of around £15 billion worth of stock during the lockdown and warehouses at 90% capacity, understandably retailers are keen to start shifting stock and encourage people back to the high street. It looks to be a much-needed boost for retailers hit by the pandemic – but how can they encourage customers to trust their stores are safe? Retailers are usually good at implementing guidelines, but they need to have the technology solutions in place in order to manage this from both a practicality and cost perspective.

The biggest concern for retailers should be putting their customers first – how can they be made to feel safe in an environment that they likely feel apprehensive about? As well as following government guidance on controlling the spread of the virus, stores need to meet customer expectations surrounding their experience, stock levels and customer service or customers won’t engage or remain loyal to the brand.

If customers have been shopping locally, they may not want to come flooding back to larger stores that potentially bring increased exposure to COVID-19, including both their experience in-store and getting there, such as public transport. The reasons why customers choose to visit a physical retailer vary, but a strong incentive is the in-store experience. If customers opt for brick-and-mortar as a social activity, will being socially distanced negate the positive experience?

How retailers need to prepare

Going shopping as we know it certainly won’t be the same for a while in order to prevent the virus spreading. With two weeks to prepare, retailers need to make sure they have the solutions in place to adhere to the COVID-Secure Working Safely During Coronavirus Guidelines so employees and customers are made to feel as safe as possible.

  1. Hand sanitiser should be provided in all stores.
  2. Every store should be cleaned overnight.
  3. Clothes are not allowed to be tried on and fitting rooms should remain closed, as well as toilets and cafés.
  4. No products should be tested such as makeup.
  5. Posters should be put in shop windows explaining the rules.
  6. If items are returned, they should be stored for 72 hours.
  7. Protective coverings should be put on larger items such as sofas and beds.
  8. Surfaces that are frequently touched should be cleaned regularly such as self-checkouts and trolleys.

Managing the mayhem

Whether customers come flooding back or not, the solutions need to be in place to manage how stores will function and keep consumers safe. Whether it is installing screens in front of tills, managing queues outside the door or systems to manage traffic in-store such as one-way systems or distance markers. The layout of the store needs to be optimised so aisles and walkways are kept free, whilst maintaining a level of shopper experience.

Who is going to moderate this? Have retailers thought about spot checks and audits to ensure things are as they should be? The restrictions are going to be changing and evolving – should a retailer have a C-19 task force to deal with this? If so, where are the resources going to come from? With regional lockdowns being a possibility, it is conceivable that different stores will have different regulations to adhere to.

The relationship between customers and the retailer is so important and maintaining this means good communication between the two is more vital than ever. As much as putting a sign up in the window may be useful, customers will be eager to get back, but need to know what to expect from their favourite stores. Retailers need to inform customers of their plans and procedures in advance, using their marketing channels such as social media, their websites, press releases and email messages. Communication should ideally be two way and if they can find a way of getting feedback from their customers, retailers will build stronger relationships through these changeable times. Whether it is setting up WhatsApp or Facebook groups or a feedback survey that entitles them to a discount, the retailers who check in and make sure their customers are satisfied will be better appreciated.

Killing the joy?

As much as customers will be excited to return to stores and want to know they are safe, the restrictions retailers have will undoubtedly impact their shopping experience. Measures such as limiting in-store seating, providing less of an incentive to stay in store longer than necessary and not being able to try on clothes may create a less pleasurable experience.

Is the human incentive to “touch before you buy”? Cabinet Officer Michael Gove stated to the BBC that customers will have to ‘exercise restraint’ by not trying on clothing and testing goods as non-essential retailers reopen. Retailers aren’t the only ones who will have to adapt, as the immediate future of the high street requires a change of shopping habits. But does this defeat the whole purpose of visiting a physical store? Not every single person who walks through a retailers’ doors will be aware that they are not allowed to physically interact with products and may become difficult to deal with. Retailers need to provide an inducement to buy such as an easy system for returning products or coming up with new innovative ways of trying out products. With restricted footfall, store staff need to increase conversion rates and maximise ATV’s if opening is going to be worthwhile.

If not being able to test products out does not deter shoppers, will it create a “buy to try” craze, with shoppers buying multiple items in different sizes and colours and an intention of only keeping their favourites? Typically about 17% of apparel is returned to retailers, but will this increase with the closure of changing rooms? How will retailers make returns as straightforward as possible? What technological solutions do they have to deal with an increase in returns and ensuring they have centralised control of product data? As e-commerce has been booming, handling returns in a safe way has been paramount, so brick-and-mortar stores need to do the same.

Safety First

The retailers who are already communicating their efforts think quarantining items is the solution. 72 hours seems to be the magic number as handled books in Waterstones, charity shop stock and tried on shoes at brands such as Kurt Geiger will all be quarantined for 72 hours. Boots is already operating as a pharmacist but plans to get around removing testers and face-to-face consultations with the development of a virtual beauty service.

The government has emphasised the success of food retailers in implementing safety procedures so far and encourages non-essential stores to take note, although there are subtle differences surrounding product types and subsequent buyer behaviour. Whether it is separate entrances and exits, or traffic light systems like Aldi and the Co-op have deployed to control shopper numbers, food outlets have led the way to retail’s return.

John Lewis is following its partner Waitrose and what it has learnt about social distancing, planning a phased reopening of stores. The retailers that can afford to gradually open their stores, especially those with large out-of-town premises such as Next have a strategic advantage to evaluate what works first.

Bosses of shopping centres have claimed to be better equipped to ensure social distancing than narrow high streets, but all retailers will have to take steps to minimise the risk of customers transferring the virus.

Think European

Although there are concerns whether customers will want to return, a “lingering fear of walking into stores” as BMO analyst Simeon Siegel claims, it takes just a look at what Europe is doing to see it can be successful.

Austria believes it will take time to fully return to normal, but they were one of the first countries to allow shoppers to return to stores and have handled it excellently. Logistics have been managed well across stores with their limit of one person per 10 square metres, compulsory face masks, screens and 30-minute store limits. They have seen no noticeable increase in infection, with the rate only going up 0.2% since they eased the lockdown to non-essential stores on 14th April 2020.

Belgium has even implemented mini roundabouts on pedestrian streets to allow people to change direction without meeting a tide of oncoming people. Retailers need to think outside the box – how they can create a pleasant shopping experience whilst maintaining customer safety at all costs.

The start of the future?

There is a general feeling that re-opening of the shops is going to be the start of getting back to normal, that we are on the road to rebuilding the country – but retailers need to be prepared for their return to the high street. No one can truly know what “normal” will look like, but we can see from retailers in other countries how the future high street may look in the short term, at least if executed successfully.

Going forward, retailers and customers must remain optimistic that the situation will improve, and measures can be relaxed, but in the meantime, they need to innovate and adapt to the new challenges COVID-19 is bringing. It has already accelerated the need for an omnichannel presence, but the retailers who embrace the changes and make their new role on the high street as convenient and enjoyable as possible will thrive.

At Retail247, we can assist with stock control and technology solutions to ensure customer expectations are met. Having centralised control and visible foundational retail data has never been more important and our solutions and services can help you navigate the new challenges retailers now face.