Retailers have weathered storm after storm of partial, full, or reversed lockdown restrictions. There is no sugar-coating a tempestuous 2020 and its grim figures. But adapting to an evolving world is part and parcel of retail – it was before the pandemic arrived, and will remain so after.
In this post I want to look ahead to when non-essential brick-and-mortar stores will reopen their doors. But first, we have to look at what the situation is now.
COVID-19: impact on retail priorities
Roughly a year ago, Panasonic and WBR Insights teamed up for our Future Stores Benchmark Report on the challenges retailers face in the 2020s. As highlighted in a previous post, the pandemic upended many of these plans. The report’s conclusions remain relevant, but with some twists.
First and foremost: safety and security are always paramount. But now they are, by far, priority number one. Virtually overnight, the definition of a safe retail environment changed radically, leading to rapid and significant investments in health safeguards. In turn, the customer experience is currently centred around reassurance. Even for personalised campaigns – which will remain key to driving store footfall in future – the present focus is safety, encouraging people to venture out.
In short, retail now looks very different from pre-2020. With more and more people flocking online – even for grocery items – will physical stores have a future?
Brick-and-mortar’s unique appeal
I certainly think so. People’s habits have changed, but they can boomerang back: how many friends and colleagues have said they cannot wait to “live a little” again? They are looking forward to treating themselves, and that includes going shopping. Even now, the stores that remain open have long queues snaking outside. That is heartening, and it makes perfect sense.
In-store shopping offers a rich tactile, visual, and acoustic experience; it appeals to our human nature. We want to see and feel what we are buying. Simply the act of going to a store and looking around can be rewarding. People browse to gather information, and to have fun – to escape, socialise, indulge. Being in-store can lead to serendipitous moments that algorithms cannot deliver.
So, following a slow start post-lockdown, we may have a physical retail boom. However, questions remain: how much will stay online, and how can traditional retailers adjust? What will the “new normal” be, and how do we get there?
Bridging the online-offline gap
Retailers have to tap into the reasons why people enjoy going to physical stores. And that will require a mixture of creative solutions and smart technologies – solutions that seamlessly blend the online and offline experience, to engage with their customers wherever they are.
In concrete terms, that will mean providing more options, such as click-and-collect, additional touchpoints, and tools that provide rich information, making the in-store experience more like the online one. One way to do that is through Electronic Shelf Labels (ESLs).
ESLs offer benefits relevant to both the current lockdown situation and the post-COVID future. First, they enhance safety: they update labels automatically, so fewer staff need to be out on the floor, making changes by hand. That means more customers can come inside while observing social distancing rules, boosting revenue.
ESLs also help brands to win customers’ trust, and improve their reputation. For instance, when staff switch out labels manually, there is room for human error. There may also be a brief window of time where customers see out-of-date information – and an item ringing up with a different, higher price at the till is understandably off-putting.
ESLs in action
Panasonic recently installed ESLs at two UK businesses. A family-run supermarket in the south of England wanted, in particular, to strengthen pricing compliance and customer brand loyalty. Now, by changing prices on the master list, labels across the store are adjusted automatically. This has led to a 100% reduction in errors and an 80% time saving for this process – not to mention lower expenditure on paper, ink and printers. Plus, as the Managing Director of the store underscored: “The real benefit is customer confidence. This new development has given the customers the reassurance and our store colleagues the knowledge that the store is at all times fully compliant.”
At Costcutter Culverstone Green, ESLs’ ability to update prices in mere minutes is key to remaining competitive, as sales can be driven through price matches and promotions. Owner Peter Juty is pleased with the results, noting that staff can now “concentrate more on the customer's needs. There are fewer disagreements over product prices and this leads to a stronger relationship between staff and customers. The customers also love the look of the labels."
Furthermore, information can be added to ESLs – on the product’s origin, on ongoing promotions, and much more besides. For Juty, that means on Valentine’s Day, for example, "the label can include a photo of a love heart and a simple message which says how the product is an ideal gift for a valentine. This was tested in another store and the result was an increase in turnover of up to 100% on such products.”
“The ESL's will provide us with a lot of flexibility and potential to market products around the year, and we look forward to seeing how this will impact our sales.”
Preparing for retail in a post-COVID world
Though there is no denying COVID-19’s impact, there are things retailers can do. Moving forward, plenty of choice, and rich, accurate product information will be vital to continued growth, in both the analogue and digital spaces. To make a successful comeback, retailers will have to ensure a balanced business, with both a strong online presence and an engaging in-store experience. Each enterprise will have to decide what the right balance for them is.
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