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Will the pandemic mark the end of retail?

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I'm yet to find someone who hasn't worked in retail at least once. Which means we all know the issues and problems of retail experiences, especially in the most recent of times.

Retail is an old industry. We can arguably all agree with that. Stuck to what it works, averse to change, mostly fostering the same strategies to generate growth, not realising (or perhaps refusing to realise) that its growth has been declining for the past 10 years or so. Earlier this year, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has declared 2019 to be the worst year for retail in 25 years.

With this premise, it was easy to imagine that retail would have been hit by the coronavirus outbreak, and it did indeed take quite a crippling blow. Because of the pandemic and the lockdown, more and more retailers are forced to close shops. Is this finally the time for them to rethink their strategy?

And what does this mean for the creative industry?

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Cath Kidston & John Lewis

It is very recent news that John Lewis is unlikely to reopen all stores, as its bosses are debating which of the 50 sites across the UK will be permanently shut down at the end of the lockdown. Its chairman Sharon White has reported a 17% decrease in sales since mid-March, when the lockdown started, despite an 84% increase in online trading activities.

It is safe to assume that it will be a while before consumer activity goes back to normal, even when lockdown measures will be relaxed. High street retailers may have an unprecedented time of harsh challenges ahead of themselves, including the need to find new ways to engage customers in store. Those relying primarily on physical sales will likely see a decrease in performance and KPIs, even when things will go back to a new normal.

The end of the pandemic will unlikely end trouble for high street retailers

According to LiveArea EMEA commerce consulting director Elliott Jacobs, this has already started happening. "Retailers which have been able to cope, have been those with advanced logistics and digital capabilities. Meanwhile, physical-only giants like Primark have lost out, failing to invest in online stores or click-and-collect services before the pandemic."

Some have already taken drastic measures to prevent their ship from sinking. Cath Kidston has announced the closure of all its 60 UK stores, leading to over 900 job losses across the country. In a heartwrenching letter to its customers, the Cath Kidston we all know said goodbye to all of its physical stores, marking a new chapter in the history of the brand and announcing a digital-first strategy for the near future.

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Some say the future of retail is online, but it is unlikely to be just there. Even so, it does not mean this will be the end of physical stores. As retailers start opening their doors again, we can expect brands to seek new ways to engage customers beyond a sheer sales piece – which means more opportunities for creatives

Toward Experiential Retail

I remember when, during some of my retail shifts, I would preach to my teammates the strength of experience and storytelling to drive more footfall and sales in store. The reality is that the retail sector has been afraid to risk and experiment for too long, but the pandemic – as sad and cynical as it may sound – will be an unprecedented occasion to start reinventing the status quo.

I want to believe that experiential retail will be the future, much more than what eCommerce could be. Customers are humans after all, and humans are constantly craving for stories and entertainment. It is unlikely that the comfort of shopping online will replace the in-store experience altogether. Rather, we can envision a future in which stores will strengthen the online brand, with bespoke physical experiences that blend digital and data with the in-store dimension.

Experiential retail is the future, much more than eCommerce

This is not science fiction, nor something we can only see in a far future. Farfetch has started experimenting with augmented reality stores in 2017, making use of big data to blend the online and offline shopping experiences. Even Ikea has invited 100 winners of a Facebook competition to spend the night in store, assisted by a sleep expert giving tips on an optimal sleeping experience on Ikea mattresses. And these are just few of the most recent examples you can find by just googling.

This means a huge number of creatives were likely employed to see these initiatives to success. Software developers, designers, social media experts, video editors for online content and more, all coming together to craft meaningful experiences for brands and their customers.

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Some did it by choice. Sadly, not unlike Cath Kidston and John Lewis, some will be forced to embrace change instead. There will be more job losses, as the retail sector works to repurpose itself. With more communication and creative efforts moving in the digital sphere, in all cases there will be more copy to be written, more designs to be crafted, and more creative projects to be briefed.

Even if we wanted to be cynical and believe in the worst possible outcome, retailers will not just let themselves die; they will channel their efforts somewhere else, and in a place where creatives will be needed more than ever. The long-awaited and feared transition to digital-first will likely become a reality for most. But even though stores may close down, brands like Cath Kidston and John Lewis are still demonstrating their resilience today, including the will to keep fulfilling customers needs with brands they've all built together

The pandemic will not be the end of retail. It will be a stepping stone to propel it into a more radiant future.

Header image: Alan Glasspool

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