How offline retailers can overcome brand challenges right now

It’s July 2021, pubs and restaurants are open and so is non-essential retail.

The chance to get back to the shops that the easing of restrictions in May brought was much anticipated by the UK public, only beaten by getting a draught pint and a professional haircut. We certainly saw plenty of enthusiasm for shopping. Queues formed outside the likes of Primark and retail footfall was up 330% versus the previous week, according to data from Springboard.

So, there’s certainly cause for optimism, but there’s a long way to go for bricks and mortar retail. Overall footfall for May was down 27% vs May 2019 with high street locations faring even worse with a 36% decline.

The main challenges for physical retail at this time are that, firstly, there is a significant split in people’s perception of the risk to their health from being in public spaces. While some people are happy to spend time browsing the shops, data from YouGov shows that 38% of people feel uncomfortable going into clothing retailers.

The second issue for physical retail is that, although we don’t know exactly to what extent yet, people’s lives and habits have changed. People will work from home in significant numbers and the increase in online shopping will stick for many. This means that the battle for retailers who have physical store space against the online specialist will get tougher. It’s a battle rooted in the conflict in what people want from shopping.

On the one hand we love the experience of physical retail. It’s not just the chance to touch and feel things before buying, it’s also that ‘going shopping’ is an event way beyond the functional online experience., The lighting, music, smells, and textures make it immersive. It’s something you can share with other people and often involves doing other things along the way, like having a nice coffee.

But we also love the convenience of online shopping. We can get exactly what we want, often within 24 hours and it’s easier to check if we are getting a good deal or not.  

People being people, of course, we really want to have our cake and eat it.

Online specialists are starting to address this demand from people to have it all, giving people some of the experience of physical shopping along with the convenience of online. For example, Amazon Prime Wardrobe allows customer to try clothes on before buying.

How then, can retailers with physical retail space give people more of what they want, draw more customers in and avoid becoming the next casualty on the high street?

Of course, for now, it’s paramount for retailers to convince people that their store environment is safe. No debate on that one. The trick is doing it without interfering with the in-store experience that people are seeking.

What else?

The first approach is to elevate the offer beyond purely functional benefits. Online can’t be beaten on function so don’t focus your efforts there. But it is much easier to demonstrate empathy with your customers when your business provides face-to-face contact. If you can show your customers that you understand what really matters to them then you can win. By showing empathy in your brands communication, you can trigger an emotional response in your audience. Triggering emotion means that next time someone needs the thing you sell, your brand will come to mind before others who are only talking about functional benefits.

A fantastic example of this is the recent B&Q “Build A Life” campaign. The brand has moved away from its product and price led messages to something that gets to the heart of why people really do DIY.

Next, think about what new reasons there could be for people to visit your shops. For many people, the occasion that caused them to visit a retailer (like commuting to an office) might now be happening less often or not all. This means you need to find new moments in people’s lives to become relevant to.

If you have the same luxury of space that Apple stores do then you might set up your equivalent of Today At Apple, which offers classes and workshop style activities. Most shops don’t have this sort of space so what about finding a moment that your brand can own? Vestel, a home appliance retailer in Turkey, sells what are effectively gold gift tokens. Those tokens replace the increasingly expensive gold coins that are traditionally given to the bride and groom on their wedding day that were then spent on appliances. Vestel have neatly woven their brand into this moment and ensured people come to them rather than an online competitor.

Finally, and I think most powerfully, physical retailers need to find ways to offer an experience that trumps online specialist retailer’s choice and convenience advantage. Crucial to this is using technology to blend the online and offline worlds together. After all, your customers won’t see the distinction between your online and offline stores. This could be as simple as being able to return something bought online to a physical store and get a refund. Sounds simple but not all retailers do it.

A more sophisticated example comes from Alepa, a chain of convenience stores in Finland. Being a local store makes Alepa convenient, but of course range was limited compared to big supermarkets. Alepa changed this by using a chatbot to let shoppers request specific items to be stocked in their local store. The top requests for each store then appear on the shelves. In this way, Alepa gives its customers more relevant choices plus the personalisation they are used to online.

The challenge for physical retail is a tough one but for those who start with real people, understanding their lives and what matters to them, and then delivering solutions and marketing to match, the future is bright.

About the Author:

Ed Steele is a Senior Strategist at CreativeRace. Alongside developing client strategy, his broad experience across 13+ years in marketing includes brand management, retail marketing and insight & effectiveness roles. Ed has worked on brands including Asda, Co op, Greggs, Anchor and Cravendale.

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