Retailers need to recognise that their customers want to take greater control of the shopping journey

Self-service was once retail’s brilliant idea, particularly in the 1950s supermarket, and a model that continues to work to this day – the customer drives to the store, puts their products in a trolley, takes them to the checkout, unloads them again, then reloads them into bags, puts them into the car and drives home again, only to have to unpack them one last time into fridges and cupboards. You know the form. 

If it looks like the customer is doing all the work, then that’s because they are. But if someone thought, eventually we would all have had enough of doing all the work, then how come grocery home delivery in the UK is only 8% of all journeys? During the Coronavirus crisis, every single home delivery slot for every retailer was full all the time, but this could not have translated to fulfilment for the simple reason that the retailers simply do not have the capacity in terms of staff, vehicles or warehouses. After the crisis, while I predict that online grocery will accelerate, long-term it will quickly top out at no more than 12%, proving that consumers want to go into supermarkets, whatever they are saying in online polls right now.

Online booming. Of course

Across all retail, the picture is pretty dramatic; original research of 1,000 consumers in the Covid-19 and the Consumer Report from Astound Commerce saw online shopping rates surge 129% week-on-week in UK and Europe. 

The picture for fashion, footwear and lifestyle, is quite different as these sectors bore the brunt of the crisis in terms of closures and a fall in demand – did anyone actually ever put on their best bib and tucker for a Zoom call? However, while Hermes in Guangzhou in China taking $2.7m in one day after the lockdown there ended may have looked like a sign of recovery for the store, so-called revenge shopping can only ever be a blip. 

Even in these sectors, consumers had been taking greater control over their shopping journey, a shift that has been embraced by many brands and, it often feels like, actively discouraged by others – otherwise, how else can we explain how it is so difficult to buy from some retailers? 

Know what customers want

But let’s focus on those retailers that understand how the customer wants to buy; armed with a smartphone and access to the sum of all the knowledge in the world, the consumer has already taken control. And if there are any doubts about this, just consider the shopping journeys you have been taking during your lockdown. Just how easy or hard was it? The answer, of course, is pretty hard, because you have had to manage a whole set of exceptions that have never arisen before either for you or for the retailer. But you tried.

The retailers and brands have done their best, allowing for reduced staff numbers, and we have seen a boom in direct person to person connections. Sweeping aside the chatbot and the FAQs, WhatsApp and video conferencing have come to the fore, enabling consumers to access a real human being and giving the retailers effectively a new channel to market. This is an opportunity that they must not squander.

Tools at the ready

The tools are readily available; iAdvize for instance enables consumers to access experts so they can be sure they are buying the right product. True Fitwhich has proved that fit and personal styling preferences are central to a brand’s success through its own research in its Favourite Fitting Brands Reportenables consumers to express and store their fit preferences so that again, they can access the products they will love but also keep. And the bonus for retailers is that they engender loyalty which equates to repeat purchase and a reduction in returns.

Poq is helping retailers to put retail power in the hands of consumers; it found that apps convert higher than mobile web, as it has at Cotton Traders, and wonders if apps might soon become the primary destination for consumers. And Cotton Traders recognise that apps will give it greater data and insight into how its customers are shopping, so they can meet changing demand. 

Further proof were it needed, that the customer wants to take control is evidenced by the explosion in local WhatsApp groups run by neighbourhoods putting orders into local retailers who are then delivering to a single location for distribution by volunteers. Will they all disappear after the crisis? Many will, but it has given consumers another opportunity to take retail into their own hands. And, rather than arm-wrestling to take back control, retailers need to explore how they can work with consumers, hand-in-hand, to offer them the shopping journeys they now want.

Director, Fieldworks Marketing

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This article was originally published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.