Retail has undergone constant evolution since the industrial revolution. In the last 25 years alone we’ve seen the rise, fall and fight of the high street and the eclipsing growth of online shopping. While brick-and-mortar stores have been struggling for some years now, the recent pandemic has the potential to reshape the retail industry as we know it.
What we’re seeing isn’t an even scale of hardship, with different types of retailers finding themselves in disparate positions on the crisis spectrum. Non-essential retailers have had to close their physical premises and diversify their online offering. Essential retailers such as supermarkets were initially buckling under increased demand and are now flourishing in the face of global adversity. When retail stores are eventually allowed to reopen, there will likely be all sorts of measures and changes to implement.
Loyalties to retailers which have been built over years through relentless marketing campaigns, PR and customer experience initiatives have the potential to be strengthened or broken depending on the actions retailers take during these times. As a huge proportion of purchases lean towards food, drink and essentials, and amidst heavy economic uncertainty, retailers that fall into the non-essential category have to fight hard to keep their relationships with customers.
Big chains coping with a tsunami of increased demand such as supermarkets need to take into consideration that the experience they receive at the store will largely affect their choice on returning. If I had been going to Tesco my whole life, but then endured a few bad experiences in the crisis, I might vary where I shop at or choose a new supermarket entirely – no matter how great their campaigns are.
Here are the four fundamentals that I’ve observed successful retailers doing and how these actions might help to shape the future of retail marketing as we know it.
Those remaining true to their values are setting the world ablaze with kind and heroic acts. In the UK in particular, supermarkets are leading the way with feel-good initiatives and campaigns. Whether it’s helping to feed the community by donating leftover goods, creating different opening hours for more vulnerable people or going out of their way to ensure cleanliness and proper sanitation, many have stepped up to the plate and done their bit to help their communities.
What’s also interesting is the narrative of the marketing campaigns. While each supermarket has come together to tackle logistical issues such as delivery driver shortages, they are ultimately still vying for the attention of the public. A format that’s become commonplace on our screens is a grid of customers and employees leading the messaging. The focus has firmly shifted from peddling products and price cuts, to creating a sense of community and belonging.
Outside of food retail, many stores are going dark in order to fulfil the online markets. Many retailers are introducing free delivery, extended returns policies and some are even diversifying their products. In terms of the latter, one example is Brewdog who has turned their attention to producing hand sanitiser as they already have the facilities to produce the alcohol content. While each of these moves will favour the brands commercially, they are underpinned by a genuine desire to help as much as they possibly can.
In the future, retail brands will be remembered for their actions and what they did to provide respite during these times. Marketing activity will of course be affected for some time; as retailers share much-needed good news stories and inspirational campaigns, everything else will temporarily fall by the wayside. But sooner or later, this narrative will become tired, and consumers will seek to once again be surprised by humourous or even irreverent content.
Looking after employees
A spotlight is firmly cast on retailers during these times, with many held to question whether their workforce is considered essential. Opinions aside, those who are looking after employees are likely to be spoken about positively online. Those who have gone against what the general public believe to be right will be the topic of many a Twitter debate, and also find themselves subject to press and media scrutiny – a PR disaster nobody can afford right now.
While many of the generous acts that have taken place are a genuine token of gratitude, it’s worth examining how this will work favourably for the employer brand of large retailers in the long term. The next generation of employees is closely watching retailers on the world stage, and if they like what they see, this will be remembered when the dust settles and they consider their next career move.
This includes those who are, as difficult as it is to say, profiting from the crisis (out of their control, admittedly). Giving employees pay raises and bonuses is incredibly important from an outside perspective, any retail brand excelling financially and not redistributing the wealth could be perceived in a very negative light and could put off well-needed prospective employees.
With limited access to professional camera crews and video editors, I’ve also seen many retail brands focusing on putting their employees front and centre, sharing their expertise and championing great work. Positivity in retail marketing is going to go a long way in keeping consumers engaged. Offers and discounts are only going to go so far in creating a rapport with customers – expectations have risen exponentially from all sides. Retailers have been attempting for years to step away from being faceless organisations, and now we’re getting to know their employees, this could go a long way in making them more personable.
With many in the retail industry lacking a full physical presence, online and digital marketing is becoming ever-more competitive to grab market share. Likewise, those who are inundated with visitors have to make allowances to make sure their site can cope with capacity, as seen with the introduction of ‘virtual queuing’.
Website features are adapting for the here and now, but we could see many of them here to stay in the future. Many fashion brands are much more focused on pushing ‘of the moment’ styles such as work-from-homewear as opposed to just seasonal. Retailers are introducing much more interactive product listings, with 360-degree visuals, more intuitive size guide suggestions and close-ups of materials in absence of real models or seeing a product in-store.
Pre- and post-purchase, users are more likely to be met with several notices around delivery times and manage expectations throughout. Just because we’re dealing with a very serious matter, I believe brands shouldn’t shy away too much from their tone of voice. Take Paperchase for example; rather than going with the traditional ‘COVID-19 update’ as their leading header copy, they’ve opted for ‘We’re working our socks off’, before delving deeper into delivery timelines.
Adapting to survive
Ultimately, retailers and retail marketers have a monumental task on their hands. On the one hand, having to be fully focused on the here and now, whilst remaining agile enough to be reactive; on the other hand, have one eye also firmly on the future. Knowing what steps to take really depends on which part of the retail industry you sit in.
Here are 4 quick wins you can implement to help with your retail marketing now and in the future:
#1 If you find yourself in a situation where marketing budgets are being cut, ensure at the very least you optimise your spending to maintain brand recognition.
#2 If your marketing analytics is telling you people aren’t converting and you’ve tried nurturing the best you can, think about ways to create ‘favourites’, ‘loved’ or ‘saved’ products. A wishlist can keep them engaged with your products even if they’re on the cusp of leaving the site.
#3 Look for cost-effective ways to diversify and work to understand people’s pain points in order to find new product opportunities. One great example of this is Iceland, who brought out several frozen alternatives to McDonald’s, Nandos and other well-loved takeaways using existing products. It didn’t take much to pull this off and it gave the chain an entirely new advantage over their competitors.
#4 Seek out insight on how your competitors are responding to the crisis. Anywhere they are holding back or making cuts could be an opportunity for you to capitalise on – should you be in a position to do so. It was recently revealed that Amazon is trying to limit purchases and as a result has greatly reduced ad spend on Google, paving the way for many others to take the spotlight.
What’s next for retail marketing?
If I had a magic 8 ball, it would most certainly say ‘Ask again later’. Much of the future of the retail industry lies very much in the hands of our governments, and the timely steps they take to help ease retailers back into the new normal. In the meantime, those who are in a position to, can market tactfully through the madness, all the while being proactive and reactive to the changing needs of consumers and the world around us.
For that reason, I’m incredibly proud that BAM by Papirfly™ is helping retail brands around the world still deliver high-quality, studio-standard assets to get their key messages out during this crucial time.