Shopping is now a social experience - Euan Murray

The pandemic has posed many challenges to retail, a sector already facing obstacles thanks to increasing rents and rates on the high street.

Shoppers, wearing facemasks because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, walk in the High Street of Leigh, Greater Manchester, northwest England on October 22, 2020, as new restrictions meant to contain surging cases of Covid-19 are imposed on Greater Manchester. - Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government unilaterally imposed the rules on Greater Manchester after failing to reach a funding deal with its mayor Andy Burnham, a former Labour MP for Leigh. But locals say widespread confusion and fatigue with Britain's Covid-19 response risk undermining the government's latest plans. (Photo by OLI SCARFF / AFP) / To go with AFP story by James PHEBY (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, research by Barclays Corporate Banking has shown that consumers in Scotland have returned to physical stores with confidence since restrictions have eased, with 69% saying they felt safe, or very safe, returning to the high street. Pent-up demand for the physical retail experience has translated into increased footfall (albeit across a very low base during lockdown) and a growth in sales, fostering a renewed confidence among retailers.

With hybrid working set to remain as the new normal, retailers are seeing the benefits of localisation strategies. Remote working has shifted how consumers shop and the ‘go local’ trend is here to stay: partly for convenience and partly as consumers seek to support local, independent businesses.

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Barclaycard research found that 91% of British consumers who shopped locally throughout the pandemic will keep doing this even after all restrictions end. A quarter (25%) of consumers said retailers should open more stores in local towns and areas, with 29% of retailers believing localised retail is the future.

The pandemic has accelerated change across all sectors and retail is no exception. Consumer behaviours evolved during the pandemic and retailers are responding innovatively, refreshing and reinventing in-store operations and experiences to attract, engage and retain shoppers. Thinking creatively and offering in store experiences such as exhibitions, community events or live tutorials are a smart way to link the bricks with the clicks, driving footfall while building brand awareness and engagement online.

To create this synergy, an omnichannel strategy is key. This leverages data insights gathered from online activity to interact with customers across multiple touchpoints and offer personalised incentives to shop in store. This partnership between the physical and the digital world of shopping is crucial for future proofing, particularly as Gen Z grows up, a generation immersed in the online world practically from day one.

Retailers investing in data and technology are investing in their future. With consumers expecting a seamless and swift shopping experience, optimising the back-office and operational productivity is essential. Ensuring point of sale methods are quick and compatible with card and mobile payments is non-negotiable.

With so much uncertainty still present, retailers need easy access to finance. This is important for their customers, suppliers and business and it is vital to have a strategy in place for all three. There are many ways to access this finance through capital, debt or liquidity, depending on individual needs.

And what of the traditional high street as we know it? It’s hard to tell at this point in time. With many office workers heading back to the office in some shape or form, footfall could start to return. We may see city centres evolving, with empty lots repurposed into leisure facilities or for residential use. With our social lives on pause for so long, consumers are viewing shopping as more of a social experience than ever before, combining this with other activities. By viewing the city centre through this prism, retail is just one part of the puzzle that could encourage people back.

It’s been tough, there’s no two ways about it, but real resilience has been shown by retailers. Those that keep up with, and deliver on, ever evolving consumer behaviours will reap rewards.

Euan Murray is a relationship director at Barclays Corporate Banking team in Scotland.


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