Before the COVID-19 lockdown began in the UK, Lord Simon Wolfson, the head of fashion chain Next, warned high street retailers to expect a significant decline in sales. He said: “When the pandemic first appeared in China, we assumed that the threat was to our supply chain.
“It is now very clear that the risk to demand is by far the greatest challenge we face and we need to prepare for a significant downturn in sales for the duration of the pandemic.
“Online sales are likely to fare better than retail but will also suffer significant losses – people do not buy a new outfit to stay at home.”
At the time, Lord Wolfson predicted that these issues would most likely resolve within the first half of the year. As the situation developed, the Next boss admitted that the chain had suffered a “faster and steeper” sales decline than even he had expected, updating his projections to assume a further sales drop of at least 17% in the fourth quarter.
It is easy to assume that, with the high street reopening across the country, sales are beginning to pick up again. The media has been full of images of people queuing outside stores, and with new safety guidelines in place, it can be assumed that physical shops are as safe now as they have always been.
However, research has found that high street footfall is at less than half of what it was this time last year, with experts concerned this trend will continue, thanks to the restricted shopping experience caused by social distancing rules.
For those shocked at this reduction, it is worth remembering that the British High Street was already struggling pre-COVID, with a number of major retailers including household names like Mothercare and Clinton’s closing down or going into administration just last year.
It is conceivable that the popularity of online retail is at least partly to blame for the death of the high street. For this reason, an outbreak of coronavirus could be considered the final nail in the coffin.
For those companies who rely on their physical stores, it is necessary to start thinking of new, innovative ways to attract and retain customers. The high street of the future is likely to house businesses who unify their commercial and digital presence, so that consumers can flow between the two effortlessly.
One of the ways in which high street retailers have managed to stay in business throughout the coronavirus crisis is through embracing technology. A raft of eBay and Amazon Marketplace stores opened up in the early days of lockdown, allowing businesses to continue to sell their stock, even if they were only a small, independent retailer.
Entering into partnerships is another great way for businesses to combine forces, ensuring each enjoys better business and allowing them to stay afloat. A good example of this would be M&S, who teamed up with Deliveroo to provide an online grocery service that allowed customers to buy and receive shopping within minutes. Convenience store chain Costcutter made a great choice in teaming with catering organisation Compass, opening stores in hospitals to keep their business afloat.
Even with the high street reopened, it is clear that embracing the ideas of technology and partnerships could be a positive step for any independent store.
One of the best outcomes of COVID-19 for local stores was the intense support many of them received from their communities. Government figures found that 63% of consumers were making an active choice to support local businesses during lockdown, and these habits look set to continue for the foreseeable future.
This offers less hope for larger chains, however, who operate in local areas, as with less people heading into town and city centres for casual shopping, they are likely to lose the passing foot traffic that they rely on.
High street stores are relying on a raft of new services and elements to help consumers to feel safe, in an effort to tempt people offline and back into physical stores.
Automation is a huge part of this, helping customers to avoid having to deal with other people face-to-face, as well as providing more efficiency so that they can move quickly through stores. Touchless services, contactless payments and automated service points are being slowly introduced into stores, and holding onto these services after the pandemic is likely to inspire loyalty from customers going forward.
For larger stores and shopping centres, making shopping more ‘experiential’ could be the solution for tempting customers to head into stores. Stores are looking at providing things like coffee shops, such as those offered in Primark and John Lewis, as well as virtual reality screens where customers can ‘try on’ outfits, in lieu of changing rooms.
Finally, consumers want to know that the store is clean and safe for them to be in. Whilst masks are mandatory in stores for the foreseeable future, stores can offer a healthier feel and better air quality by installing an air purification system, such as the Airius PureAir series.
Airius PureAir uses the latest in PHI Cell technology, manufactured by one of the worlds leading specialists in air, water and food purification – RGF Environmental, which has been independently tested by Kansas State University and found to neutralise more than 99% of micro-organisms including viruses and bacteria.
Whilst the coronavirus is still too new to have definitive research completed on it, our PureAir range has been proven to significantly reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs), odours and allergens, as well as 99% of germs including Bird Flu, Norovirus, E. Coli, Listeria, Strep, and other airborne germs and bacteria.
Creating a healthy environment in a retail space is critical for earning the trust of consumers, and this type of air purifier is able to clean and distribute the air evenly throughout the space 24 hours a day, so even with a high footfall the air can be considered to be clean and free of pollutants.
Many consumers are still cautious about returning to old habits, including visiting the high street and buying from their favourite shops.
Making sure you provide a safe shopping environment, by following the latest government guidance and installing proven air purification technology such as our PureAir fans is a common sense measure to give them the reassurance they need to come back and start buying again.
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