COVID-19 is forcing digitalisation – it may just save physical retail

  • Published: 01 October 2020,
  • The Say Team

Consumer spending habits change over time – there’s no doubt. However, COVID-19 has caused such a shift that instead of long-term change, we may be seeing the retail market heading in a whole new direction. Despite the cost, angst and disruption this has caused the industry, it also might not be a bad thing.


Before the pandemic, retail was distinctly heading in one direction – online. But the pivots required due to Coronavirus, both by retail tech vendors, retailers and consumers, means that many have been forced to change their approach. This forced hiatus and taking away what people naturally took for granted could help make physical retail become a behemoth again, but with a distinctly digital edge.


We all know that right now the market is skewed. Groceries are up as people are cooking more at home, as is tech, entertainment and homeware as people make their current COVID restrictions more comfortable. Encouraging people back into physical stores will not be an easy feat, as many will not want to queue or don a facemask for longer than necessary. But the fact that retailers have needed to implement technology to help not only manage, but improve the holy grail that is customer experience, we may actually see more people venture back into brick and mortar stores.


This is because nothing takes away from physical shopping. Being able to touch and try on clothes, or look at homeware before you buy is invaluable. Millennials may be the driving force behind online, but would they be so comfortable buying bigger ticket items? Cars? Houses? However, if they can browse with the relative ease of online but get the perks of physical retail too, then we may just see a renaissance.


This is because bricks and mortar is catching up. Take ASDA – to help deal with the significant queues and to save customers unnecessary hassle, it implemented a virtual queue. A UK first, it enabled shoppers to register and check-in on their smartphone, and then simply wait until their turn. Consumers were also able to compare waiting times and choose a store according to their convenience. The ultimate user experience. In German, Decathlon introduced a mobile self-checkout. Meaning a simple scan of a barcode in store and they could walk out with a new pair of shoes – showing how physical and online could combine effortlessly.


With retailers thinking about how to introduce this hyper flexible approach, more consumers may wish to shop in store more regularly. This is accentuated by the fact online only retailers like ASOS has increased its free delivery threshold, and Next couldn’t cope with its online only proposition. If a retailer is built for physical, stick to what will deliver the best customer experience – but if you can automate and digitise it, then do, as that’s what consumers are increasingly looking for.


Retail won’t return to normal for years, and it’s the case that window shopping or impulse buys will be restricted for some time as people look to curb their spending in light of the pandemic. However, this does not mean the death of the high street. Looking at what online does well and mixing that with that digital can’t offer (the chance to get up close with the product in hand) means physical has the chance to strike back. Tech providers will be at the heart of this and the future could be very exciting indeed. However, all must follow one principal. Customer needs come first – that will be the difference between the winners and the losers in the new normal.


by Geraldine F.

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