Retail Darwinism: survival means evolution

Governments across Europe having now eased lockdown restrictions, but we can be sure we won’t go back to ‘business as usual’. Ever. 

The Covid-19 crisis has – and will continue to – shape behavioural change among shoppers. We have already seen it hastening the shift to a cashless society and making eCommerce the default choice for a broader set of audiences

Even the baby boomers have learned to embrace digital – and this new behaviour brings a wealth of new opportunities. The UK has an ageing population and older people have a great deal of spending power, and brands that targeted those audiences can no longer rely on their store as the only way to reach them.

And so, amidst all this change, the outlook for the ‘traditional’ high street has never looked more precarious. However, a typical near-term response for many retail brands has simply been to put consumer-facing activity on hold. Primark, which for years kept prices low by keeping its footprint to bricks-and-mortar only, admitted in April that it has sold nothing since March.

Evolution through agility

By contrast, agile online businesses have adjusted to embrace changing consumer needs. For example, Boohoo has actively increased sales by pushing its loungewear ranges during the lockdown.

The lockdown has also led brands to rush to eCommerce in a way we’ve never seen before, as the share price of provider Shopify has demonstrated. Facebook is also making it even easier for small vendors to reach audiences through its new Shops platform for Facebook and Instagram that allows businesses to sell goods without leaving the confines of its network.  

Digital is leading to the democratisation of brands, as size and scale matter less than the quality and speed of the online customer experience.

With the growth in personalised online experiences through chatbots and the like, a number of brands have seized the opportunity of the lockdown to bring the in-store experience online – and when it ends, they will also need to be able to deliver the online experience in-store. 

As a result, Amazon’s cashless and cashier-less checkout service is already sparking interest among other retailers – and that’s not the only way people are paying attention to the eCommerce giant.

Evolution through technology

For years now, the question among retailers has been ‘how do we beat Amazon?’ People are still spending during the lockdown, and brands are looking for ways to take its share by offering greater personalisation and aggressive investment that allows them to interrupt the customer journey that often ends at an Amazon page.

Amazon has succeeded because it offers an unmatched speed and simplicity of eCommerce – One Click purchasing, ‘free’ next-day (or even same-day) delivery and so on. With Google Shopping and other technologies available as well, the value of eCommerce assets has never been greater.

But again, a new wave of innovation has come from merging the in-store and eCommerce experience. If you’re buying a pair of shoes, for example, the inability to touch and examine the physical product can be a real stumbling block. This is why many brands are also looking at apps that offer a more immersive online experience with virtual fitting rooms.

In many cases, augmented reality (AR) is offering a solution to the physical/digital dilemma by merging the two. The iPad Pro’s LiDAR camera allows brands to show depth and the context of a given space, potentially allowing people to see what clothes will actually look like on their own body rather than relying on a two-dimensional stock image of a model – who may have an entirely different body type.

Evolution is being enforced

This enforced digital acceleration has already transformed the retail landscape. Established bricks-and-mortar retail players are going to have to learn from their digital-only counterparts and can no longer afford to ignore omnichannel models. 

As the lockdown eases, many people will go back to the high street – but many will not. Instead, they will take advantage of the new digital channels and technologies developed by agile retailers and brands. Experts agree that in business, as in life, it’s survival of the fittest – and what made a retailer fit yesterday may well see them extinct tomorrow.

Photo credit (iStock): Kwangmoozaa