How Covid killed and then gave hope to retail brands

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It’s been little over a year since our society was reshaped completely to comply with the new Covid-19 rules. It’s been a bleak year for most, an interesting one for all, and clearly a challenge for every brand and creative professional out there. In many ways, post-apocalyptic novels may pale in comparison with the past 12 months.

Clearly retail is one of the most prominent and explicit victims of Covid-19. The sector had been struggling for a while, as consumers moved to e-commerce more, but it appears that the pandemic has accelerated the online shift by five yearsat least according to research from IBM. It ushered in a new era for retail brands, one with much potential to bring consumers closer to brands than ever before.

Unfortunately, it also came with a series of complications.


Image credit: Mother

The curse of administration

I could endlessly go on about the sheer number of retail stores closing down or the brands going into administration, but I feel like you will have heard about the most famous ones by now. It is discouraging for any retail brand out there, and little does it matter that we’re starting to see the light at the end of this tunnel; some retail brands will keep struggling until we finally reopen everything again, and no doubt we will see more going into administration during the course of 2021.

The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the entire retail sector. Looking at this list by Business Live feels like reading a necrology. Stores closing down, others selling out, with many family-run business as well as big corporations.

The pandemic has reshaped the entire retail sector

We see the likes of John Lewis announcing just this week that more stores will be closed and more jobs may be lost. We saw the huge Arcadia Group filing for administration at the end of last year, the owner of brands such as Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and others – clearly far from small chains.

Cath Kidston will not reopen its brick-and-mortar shops at the end of the pandemic, in a total shift to e-commerce – apart from some pop-up stores which may appear here and there, every once in a while. This move by Cath Kidston was to save the company, but it cost their job to over 900 employees across the UK.

Similar story for Debenhams, which was already in a dire situation at the end of 2019. After filing for administration, it is reported that 12,000 jobs were at risk. Even colossal entertainment giants such as the Walt Disney Company have announced they will close 20% of stores, in yet another push to e-commerce.

Disney. The one training in-store cast members to provide meaningful experiences to guests. The company who would never give up its interaction with customers. That should give you quite a lot of perspective on this matter.


Image credit: Caroline Dolan

An old sector

I may be starting to sound like a broken record by now, but I do believe that in a way, retail had it coming. The entire sector has been suffering from old practices and clinging to what worked, without the will nor strength to dare and change things. It is almost as if, knowing that 95% of purchases may be online by 2040, retail stopped fighting in advance of two decades.

Meanwhile, small businesses and new brands who were born digital-first were thriving, reshaping the old ways of retail to make things work in a different way, for a different audience, in an all-connected world.

Retail has been struggling to revolutionise its ways for years, and though I would have never wished anything like the pandemic to any brand, you can probably see why this ‘curse of administration’ happened in the first place. The future of retail is experience. It looks like most retail brands needed a huge slap in their faces to realise that.


Image credit: Adam Rowe

A new sector

The old model of retail stores filled with stock and shelves feels today more obsolete than ever. What is the point of carrying around bags in a crowded city if you can have everything delivered to you? Even my partner would sometimes browse stores to see what she liked, trying on clothes only to then purchase them online for a better, more comfortable experience.

When faced with a choice, a customer is always going to choose the best option. Retail brands have been focusing on upselling their stock in store, with employees and shop assistants being there to cover that specific need in some cases, but this will need to change post pandemic. Things will be much different, and it is likely that customers will not find reasons to justify going into stores just to purchase some items anymore.

Mind me, this is not to say that physical retail should disappear completely. E-commerce and online sales cannot be the only option. That said, there are successful case studies of stores offering services rather than items, tapping into their consumers’ interests and providing experiences, which would then lead to purchase.

E-commerce and online sales cannot be the only option. Think of the value you can deliver.

Here’s one very quick example: how many times have you entered an Apple Store to actually buy something? Now, compare those to the amount of times you entered an Apple Store just to browse, try out some new products, dream about a shiny new device for a bit, then stormed off to do something else. Perhaps you even bought one of those same devices, but from elsewhere. Perhaps even the online Apple Store.

Apple Stores carry that feeling of exclusivity, and at the same time provide an experience for customers planning their purchases ahead. It is incredibly premium, and yet I bet that Apple shop assistants know incredibly well that their footfall is going to be much higher in their conversion rate. That is not the point of an Apple Store. The point of an Apple Store is to showcase, and occasionally, sell.

There are plenty of other examples that retail brands could get inspired to for a store makeover. Clothing stores without clothes. Inventory-less stores with cafes and lounges for customers to relax. Sneakerboy stores, playing with exclusivity, selling rare and limited edition items in store which you cannot find online. The Farfetch augmented retail store. Even down to Amazon’s till-less store, which is currently a futuristic experience per-se – and it works in enabling customers to shop with no distractions.


Image credit: Ian Perkins

The future of retail?

Brands haven’t been able to fully capitalise on the e-commerce experience before Covid-19, and I personally doubt that this will happen now. Surely e-commerce now provides more opportunities than ever before, but it cannot be the only strategy. We may still need stores like Cath Kidston's, but the strategy behind each store and their customer experience needs to be rethought entirely.

If anything, the pandemic has somehow levelled the field for any player to enter the big retail game. Small businesses should now feel encouraged that they have the same opportunities as retail brands to shine online, albeit with a smaller marketing budget. At the same time, small businesses are known for being fierce and determined, so you can rest assured that they will take on the challenge. The only way for retail brands to fight back and find their feet again is to bring something different to the table.

It may be time for a new retail sector altogether. One that the industry has been talking about for years, anticipating the arrival of a fully experiential retail experience that has never come thus far. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought everything back to zero, giving brands a chance to reimagine themselves and reset their approach to consumer experiences.

I know for a fact that some will never give up the old ways and, as soon as we are allowed to, they will open again as they used to do before. Just as I know that those are the ones who, as soon as the next crisis comes up (and it will), will be the first to fall. Fortunately, the best marketers are the ones looking to the future and fighting to make an impact, and not everybody will be so attached to the old way of doing things in retail.

So, who knows? Perhaps this will be the dawn of a new retail sector, after all. All the industry needed was just a global pandemic to open their eyes and beat them to dust.

Just so we could build everything up again, stronger than ever before.

Header image: Nian Ruby for Burberry


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