How coronavirus will shape the future of retail

People operating the tills in our supermarkets have replaced celebrities and footballers as society’s heroes as a result of the coronavirus crisis upending the hierarchies that have grown up over recent years, according to retail futurist Howard Saunders.

“The top of the list had been celebrities and footballers but now they are at the bottom. One of those who’ve moved to the top are the supermarkets. We thought they had gotten greedy and global with their shipping in of foods but now we’re thanking them. The people on the tills are now more important than celebrities,” he suggests.

"The people on the tills are now more important than celebrities"Futurist, Howard Saunders

Such a shift is part of what he says is a socio-economic reboot that many people have actually been yearning for as they have been supportive of efforts towards greater sustainability – with criticism of unnecessary levels of flying around the world – and movements like Extinction Rebellion.

“The virus has been seismic, almost biblical and it’s like the punishment has arrived and taken away all the things we’d taken for granted,” says Saunders, who adds that in the short-term it should not be underestimated what a catastrophic effect it will have on 21st century life.

He believes thousands of shops, pubs, restaurants, bars, cinemas, galleries and venues will close down for good. “There’s no question the retail apocalypse has arrived.” For those businesses that survive then the landscape will likely be very different. 

“We’ll not be returning to the status quo. Sure we’ll all run to the pub [when they reopen] but what we want from the pub will be different. Things [like pubs] will change because we will change. Who will put up with being packed into pubs or onto tube trains and sat three-wide on a plane?” he asks.

Already there has been a serious shift to shopping online: “I didn’t do much of it before as I’d always done it my regular way. A lot of other people will have learnt how to buy essentials online and they won’t go back.”

Hugs and handshakes

However, the flip side to this is that people will still want the community buzz. “Human connections will be more graphic. We’ll still go to restaurants because it was not about eating but was more about wanting to be with people. But we might want the tables to be more spaced apart.”

There will be a pent-up demand for such activities, according to Saunders, who says the restrictions on social activity will be our greatest challenge under the lockdown. The months on end without family gatherings, nights out, holidays, celebrations, parties, festivals and sporting events will hit us harder than we can imagine.

“But when, finally, we do emerge from this storm, consider how much we will cherish those ordinary, yet beautiful, social interactions we took for granted only a couple of weeks ago. It’s the hugs and the handshakes that give humans their humanity,” he explains. 

Clearly the social side of retail will have a role to play in what Saunders predicts will be a very different landscape on the high street as many businesses disappear, unemployment rises and incomes decline. But against this backdrop Saunders recognises some positives.

“There will be new shoots as businesses don’t pay business rates. Many new companies will be able to get in there while there are zero interest rates and rentals are crashing. There will be a flushing out of all those legacy brands who were hanging on paying their rents. It’s an opportunity and the high street will get to pull itself up,” he says. There will also be a focus by nations on growing their own food rather than exports, meaning we’ll become accustomed to buying locally produced, seasonal food.

He cautions retailers and brand owners from rushing in with re-evaluated strategies because of the present uncertainty in the market. “If you reposition now it is wrong. If things blow up and there are many more people dead [than predicted] then its best for brands to just shut up,” he suggests, adding that celebrities should also shut up because people have grown tired of famous Hollywood stars “lecturing us about how to be good”.

Retail opportunity

Where there will be opportunities is with brands showing their philanthropic sides and values. This will clearly be well suited to those operating within the healthcare categories, although Saunders does not discount the scenario where the likes of a trusted brand like McDonald’s could be accepted as a sponsor of schools. “Pre Covid-19 people would have been up in arms but post Covid-19?” Who knows, such is the rebooting of society and the economy that we are now experiencing.