#RetailEXPOVC: Five ways retailers can adapt to the Covid-19 lockdown

Novel practices and techniques retailers should be using to help them survive the Covid-19 lockdown were discussed during a lively panel on day one of the RetailExpo Virtual Conference powered by Essential Retail. Despite the hugely disruptive impact of lockdown measures on much of the industry, it is not the time for retailers to be feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, it is the perfect opportunity to bring forward innovative changes that help retailers continue trading during this period, or at least ensure sales will flow later in the year.

The panellists came from a variety of areas the retail sector: Isabella West, founder and CEO of Hirestreet, an online fashion rental platform; John Hagan, director of growth, at the online jewellery stores Purelei; and Kieron Smith, digital director of Blackwell's Bookshops, the respected high street bookstore. Emerging from the panel were five tips as to what retailers can do differently right now to survive and potentially even flourish in this crisis:

1. Keep engaging customers with your products

Even if the nature of your business means it is especially difficult to trade during lockdown, it is still crucial to find new ways to keep customers informed and engaged with your products. This is an idea being embraced at Hirestreet, a company who is greatly impacted by the cancellation of events. In response to very low demand for the rental of fashion products due to major events and gatherings being cancelled and postponed, West outlined how they have instead created a box of clothes, which enables people to try on clothes at home. This means consumers can still sample Hirestreet products at this time, helping them plan for events later in the year.

Blackwell Bookshops have also been heavily affected by bans on mass gatherings; they hold around 6,000 physical events throughout the year, which is a key way to get customers into their stores and engaged with their products. Instead, Smith explained that the retailer has been holding these type of events virtually through platforms such as Twitter in order to “get those conversations going with customers and authors and introduce that kind of social feeling online.”

2. Take advantage of the ‘lipstick effect’

The so-called ‘lipstick effect’, the theory that during difficult economic times consumers will cut back on expensive items but treat themselves to smaller luxuries, such as expensive lipsticks, is something that can potentially help those struggling non-essential retailers at this time. Hagan believes this concept has enabled Purelei to maintain revenue figures that are akin to normal times during the crisis. “This is something that we’ve used to justify our numbers,” he adds.

Retailers should therefore consider that consumers aren’t completely battening down the hatches on non-essential spend, but many could be willing to spend on inexpensive luxury items. A focus on marketing those smaller, less expensive luxury items to consumers could prove pivotal to the survival of a number of retailers.

3. Communication, communication, communication

Never has it been more important to maintain visibility in retail; both internally and externally. Utilising the range of communication technologies available to keep customers informed with accurate information about the situation retailers are finding themselves in is vital for retaining customer trust and maintaining loyalty. Hagan says: “The technology that’s been most important to us has been our communication streams. Being extremely transparent about things like wait time e.g. your delivery is not going to be delivered in the time you expect it to be. We’re experiencing things we’ve never experienced before so just being open and transparent through our communication streams: Instagram stories, emails, Facebook ads.”

With many retail staff working remotely from one another, it is also important to try and keep communication levels between staff as similar to a physical environment as possible. This can help keep motivation levels up and ensure work is being completed efficiently. West explains: “We use Slack for communications, we do Google Hangouts calls in the morning so if I need to chat to someone it can be similar to an office.”

4. Accelerate technological changes

In many ways, the Covid-19 crisis provides a perfect opportunity for retailers to rapidly accelerate technology changes to the way they work. As the old adage goes, 'necessity it’s the mother of invention', and enhancing efficiency during this is time of crisis could prove to be the difference between staying or going out of business for many retailers.

In the panel, West discussed how much needed efficiencies in the fashion industry, that may have otherwise taken years to achieve, are likely to be rapidly brought forward to enable the sector to cut costs.

“In fashion, there is certainly some areas which desperately needed innovation,” she says. “We have to travel all around Europe to see the collections. In October, November and December we were viewing the collections for this year, so we were travelling to the showrooms, seeing the materials, placing orders then and there. That in itself is very outdated; we should be moving to live streaming showroom visits, virtual sampling. Things can be more sustainable.”

5. Preparing for the return of physical stores

Finally, retailers need to prepare for the physical reopening of stores, as governments around the world start lifting lockdown restrictions. But this will not simply be a case of going back to ‘business as usual’. With the virus likely to be present for a while longer, steps must be put in place to keep shoppers and staff safe, such as ensuring social distancing is maintained in stores. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) recently released guidance on this matter.

Perhaps even more of challenge for retailers is persuading customers that it is safe for them to return to the high street, even despite there being no legal barrier to doing so. There is likely to be a short-term nervousness amongst many people in return to regular daily life. Therefore communicating new safety measures that are being introduced, and perhaps more importantly, seeing that they are enforced, will be a vital step for non-retailers, particularly those that are reliant on high street sales.

“A lot of it is about communication in store; getting people to do what you want them to do when they’re finally coming back through. There will be a nervousness about going back into the high street,” comments Smith.

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