How the pandemic has changed the face of retail for good
01st December 2021
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It’s fair to say 2020 was a year like no other for the retail sector.
Major brands had to shut down stores and furlough thousands of staff, while local shops had to radically adjust the way they reached their customers.
Some parts of the sector were already adapting to digital well before Covid-19 struck, but others were still relying on more traditional ways of selling. Those in the former camp weathered the storm relatively well. Others had a much bigger mountain to climb.
But there’s one thing they all now have in common: online is central to the way they run their businesses.
The environment has been incredibly tough over the last 18 months or so. But as our latest report with the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows, the future is full of opportunity.
What is the scale of Covid-driven digital transformation in retail?
Online shopping is nothing new. And most major retailers had a fairly advanced e-commerce setup long before the pandemic.
But lockdown forced those who historically relied on physical footfall — local shops or garden centres, for example – to reconsider how they reach their customers.
One such company was Hillier Nurseries, as its Retail Director Chris Francis explains:
“We rebuilt the website top to bottom. We joined forces with a courier company. And we created a dispatch system from scratch – all in a matter of weeks.”
“It was scary to invest when we had lost all income, but it worked. The public were at home and wanted gardening more than ever before. We were knocking on an open door. We went from zero online sales to almost £250,000 a week in barely a month.”
This rapid digital transformation strategy was initially a way for local shops like Hillier Nurseries to survive lockdown. But now it’s allowing them to reach customers in every corner of the UK.
And if the current pace of digital change continues in the retail sector it could drive significant growth in the coming decades, potentially adding billions more to UK GDP.
Where are retailers investing?
So what does ‘Covid-driven digital change’ look like in retail?
The biggest area for digital investment in the wake of Covid-19 has been customer experience, while e-commerce technologies have unsurprisingly had a boost as well.
Given many retailers’ almost overnight move to online selling (for the first time in many cases) it makes sense that they wanted to rapidly improve that digital experience. And they’re also investing heavily in data analytics and machine learning to improve organisational decision-making and serve their customers even more effectively.
We saw many retailers moving to a virtual contact centre as well, which allowed their staff to keep working safely and continue to serve their customers without disruption.
But many are looking inwards, too, investing in technology to support new ways of hybrid working. Collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams have seen a huge spike in popularity among the retailers Cebr surveyed.
Why does all this matter now?
As we’ve explored above, Covid-driven digital transformation is not just about adapting and surviving in the wake of Covid-19. It’s about opening new doors and thriving in the future. Doing things better than before.
Digital investment is helping retailers reach their customers in new and increasingly personal ways, while getting deeper, richer insights from their data.
It’s paved the way for a better employee and customer experience. It’s allowed retailers to react to customer demand more easily. It’s helped bring fixed costs down by reducing the need for physical space.
And it’s even having a positive impact on the environment – something many retail brands are keen to get behind.
Now is the time to continue this pace of digital change, but in a way that works for you, your people and your customers, not just today but in years to come.