At the beginning of June we saw the UK government starting to lift lockdown measures, including enabling non-essential retailers to open their doors to high-street footfall. The idea that things would return to normal was somewhat of a fantasy for anyone who believed it: the high street was already facing big challenges pre-Coronavirus. And those who shopped in brick and mortar stores solely for the ‘experience’ can, in many cases, now have a better customer experience online than in store. Social distancing, facemasks, queues, one-way systems, and a lack of confidence among consumers doesn’t make the high-street shopping experience a pleasant one. It's a useful study to explore the brands that have failed, those that have triumphed, and that the key differentiator for success is an online-first approach.
Brands with physical stores have been clinging to the argument that consumers want a great customer experience, and this is what keeps the high-street alive. Of course, there is a place for these types of stores, but it’s limited to areas where there is high foot traffic, places like Covent Garden, London, for example. And during the current pandemic, even the stores that used to perform well, based on the physical store experience, have taken a massive hit. We’ve witnessed this with Victoria’s Secret going into administration, John Lewis closing some of its stores and Cath Kidston shutting all 60 of its UK stores. These are all brands that had a great emphasis on the in-store experience.
In the future, post-Coronavirus environment, it’s not to say that there isn’t a place for some physical stores. But it has to offer a truly unique experience, something that is bespoke and something that consumers can’t have all the time. Gymshark, for example, one of the UK’s modern retail success stories and a consistent performer atop the Fast Track 100, hit the nail on the head when it opened its first pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden earlier this year. The store opened for a limited one month run, creating much hype among its fitness fanatic followers on social media. The experience even included a variety of free gym classes across its three-story store. This limited opening strategy creates buzz, exclusivity and demand. It’s a chance to have a physical encounter with your much-loved online brand, and in a competitive marketplace, these interactions drive both engagement and brand loyalty.
For brands that have been forced to shut up shop and pivot to online only, it is therefore crucial to consider how they are able to take the ‘magic’ of their stores and translate that into the digital world for every single customer. Consumer demands haven’t gone away, they have pivoted too: It is brands like Gymshark and Lounge Underwear that have reset the standard within the online only world. To keep pace, luxury brands, for example, need to ensure that the aesthetic experience isn’t lost, when the parcel arrives, the final consumer experience is unwrapping a hand tied ribbon enclosed around a scented shiny box – something that can be filmed and shared on social media.
The real question we've got after this - imagine putting all that effort into packaging and the unboxing experience, only for your customer to pick out the first item and it's the wrong size, thanks a sneaky mispick in the warehouse! That doesn't play anymore, and that customer is going everywhere else apart from back to your website.