Blessing in disguise: was COVID-19 a turning point for the high street?
Few months ago, people were shopping in the high street, going into the stores to browse for their items. What used to be a normal shopping trip suddenly became a luxury! In March, COVID-19 turned into a pandemic, leaving governments with a single option: Lockdown. This decision couldn’t get any worse for high street retailers who for years have been threatened by the elephant in the room: E-commerce (yes, Amazon!). In 2019, experts were predicting the downfall of brick and mortar stores, arguing that consumers will shift towards a fully digital shopping experience for several reasons including convenience. But that was due to happen few years from now until COVID-19 showed up. Customers were forced to shop for their non-essential items online, and in many cases, their essential shopping too (unless you wanted to risk your health or waste hours in queuing). This condition left all of us with one major question:
Is it finally the end of the physical store shopping experience?
Even the optimistic would have said: Yes.
However, the enforced lockdown exposed the downfalls of pure online retailing: Late deliveries, inconvenient delivery slots, out-of-stock items, wrong orders delivered, stringent return and exchange policies, etc. (Hang on, weren’t most of these the reasons why people stopped shopping in the physical stores at the first place?). But these issues were only at product/service level. Shopping experience includes emotional and social elements to it such as going with your beloved ones to shop, meet friends for a drink, or even enjoy a nice film after shopping. All of these were never part of online shopping experience. During lockdown, shopping was mainly involving you and a device that literally shows you pictures of products (videos if you are lucky), and some music in the background (did you know that the type of music can affect your buying decisions?).
Four months into the pandemic changed how we see the physical store. Customer realised why the high street was essential for them. For customers who were going into the high street before the pandemic, it was the experience beyond obtaining the product or service that kept them going. The lockdown amplified customers’ desire to experience feelings and emotions when shopping such as enjoying a vibrant atmosphere and talking to people. The evidence? Just look at the picture above of customers queuing on the first day of non-essential stores re-opening.
Yes, the high street took a significant hit during this pandemic, particularly retailers who don’t have an online presence. Customers’ patronage of the high street may take a long time to return to pre-pandemic level. However, these unprecedented circumstances showed us ways to revamp the high street and capitalise on it. Here are two suggestions based on academic research I have conducted at Loughborough University:
1) Re-shape the store shopping experience by offering superior customer service, lean store layout, strict hygiene protocol, distinct atmosphere with aroma and music, and better assortment.
2) Integrate digital into the physical store. It is simple, customers went shopping online in search of reduced transactional costs, save time and effort. However, the shortcomings of deliveries and returns was exposed. Thus, high street retailers can retrieve customers patronage to the store by offering new services such as click and collect, online queuing system, mobile payments and tablets to order items that are not available in the store.