Obviously for much of the past 15 months, the majority of our non-essential purchases have had to be made online. Putting that into black and white, recent figures from the Office of National Statistics showed that online shopping increased from 19% of total retail sales in February 2020 to 34% in February this year. Given the context, this isn’t surprising but how does it help us predict future trends and crucially what does it mean for in-store retail?
The honest answer to that, as with most industries right now, is that no one really knows for certain. Online retail has potential to stay at its new high, however the increase in high-street footfall since restrictions eased suggests that there will be some drop off for online. Either way, there is a general consensus that online shopping will never return to its pre-COVID levels and this creates a challenge for retailers they will be competing for fewer consumers on-the-ground.
Making instore retail special
Aside from the necessity of the past year, online shopping was already on a steady incline for the simple fact that it’s convenient. But it has something fundamental missing that simply can’t be replicated digitally, and that is experience. When consumers go into a store, they want to be in an environment that makes them feel good, that inspires positive emotions and is enjoyable. The majority of people shop for leisure; they’re looking for something special.
It’s my view that in a post-pandemic world, this experience will be even more important to people. We’ve become used to thinking twice about where we go and when, and as a result we’re more selective about when we go to the shops. So, it stands to reason that when we visit a store, we as consumers will favour the ones that offer something unique and exceptional. For retailers, this idea isn’t particularly new but with potentially less consumers visiting stores, it’s becoming much more pressing.
Wates Smartspace is currently working with M&S to deliver a fit-out programme to transform its food halls and this is a great example of where a retailer is enhancing the consumer experience. The strategy behind the investment pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic but the ethos behind it is even more relevant now. M&S embarked on its Foodhall investment with the aim of bringing theatre to the consumer experience, to take the strengths of their offering and add something bold. New illuminating signage and bespoke wall finishes have created a more urban look to the stores like at York and Wolstanton. The end result is striking and the consumer response has been really positive according to M&S.
Customer experience has always been important but it’s my belief that it will become even more so over the coming years. Delivering an exceptional customer experience has become a much more dynamic challenge because we’re in times of cultural and economic flux. But I relish the challenge ahead. Retail fit-out is a really exciting industry because we get to join retailers on their investment journey, to work with them to understand and respond to their customers.