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'I think the pandemic has changed everybody's thinking forever'

A sentiment that’s crossed many of our minds this year as a, hoped for brief lockdown, stretched on for longer and longer and knee jerk and forced shifts have become ingrained behaviours.

These are in fact the words of Anne Pitcher managing director of Selfridges as she launched the department store’s Project Earth five-year sustainability plan which includes a move away from single-use plastic, collaborations to encourage reusable materials in fashion, the introduction of vintage resellers and the launch of a hireable collection.

A bold statement but one that appears to hold an ever-increasing amount of water as we see evidence of numerous other retailers accelerating the use of technology, examining their products and supply chain and exploring new offerings and routes to market in order to keep up with the fast-changing behaviours, expectations and principles of their customers.

The statement echoes that of M&S CEO when he launched their programme ‘Never the same again’ in response to changing customer behaviours as a result of the pandemic. However, in the case of M&S, the strategy is far more multifaceted recognising not just a fundamental shift in the way people shop but also a promise to shift the business’s philosophy and approach to avoid repeating past mistakes. With both companies announcing significant job losses this week radical approaches to adapt and survive are certainly needed.

In some circumstances, as above, COVID-19 has led to the more widespread adoption of emerging trends and behaviours, in others, the impact and solutions were far less predictable.


No stranger to the world of retail, shops have been grappling with the thorny issue of balancing product space with areas for innovative experiences for the past decade, but with store traffic down the need to create a standout, yet highly pragmatic, visitor experience as well as an excellent online one is critical.

While Burberry led the field with the likes of magic mirrors, Amazon Go laid down the marker for convenience with its checkout-free stores, and their imminent arrival in the UK comes at a time when low-touch and queue-less experiences are much in demand. And Amazon isn’t alone, there are numerous other retailers, predominantly in China (but a few in Europe) using varying levels of technology to facilitate a self-serve, till-less experience.

Lowe’s the US DIY store has shifted its focus to those away from stores, with one initiative seeing a partnership with Streem.

The business combines video, computer vision and augmented reality to help its professional contractors evaluate repair and maintenance projects. During virtual consultations, they video chat with customers, detect serial numbers and product details, and make suggestions. They can also use the on-screen laser pointer and AR quick-draw tools to guide customers through a virtual consultation.

For those conscious of reducing footfall to their own homes during the pandemic, this will be invaluable, while aiming to drive increased sales and NPS for the retailer.

Welcome back my old friend

Not quite the cutting edge of those technologies utilised above but the humble QR Code, once the laughingstock of digital pitches, finally appears to be finding its mojo.

While a long way off the successes seen in Asia, technological developments in mobile handsets mean a downloaded app has been replaced by a much more seamless camera solution. And anyone who’s taken advantage of the ‘eat out to hep out’ initiative will have experienced its usefulness in providing instant access to touch-less menus.

But it’s no one-trick pony, it can also be used as quick access to product provenance and supply chain insights, especially relevant for customers seeking to understand food miles or the treatment of the workers responsible for creating a product.

As shoppers become more au fait with its usefulness, expect supermarkets to adopt it more widely as a way of driving cross-promotions i.e. tasting notes for wine with pairing recommendations for food.

The need for distance

Even as the lockdown eases, social distancing remains a critical measure in preventing further upticks in the pandemic, something that retailers are painfully aware of. With this in mind, consideration needs to be given to how this will impact the shopper experience and what can be done to compensate for it.

Sainsbury’s has already started piloting virtual queues via a partnership with ufirst. The initiative will allow customers at participating stores to join a virtual queue, only needing to come to the shop when it’s their turn. The convenient solution is designed to help manage the customer flow in and out of stores.

If successful, expect others to follow suit along with an increase in the number of retailers accepting digital payments i.e. ApplePay, Klarna, PayPal, etc offering a low touch check out experience.

And as we’ve touched upon in our last blog, AR, has huge potential, both instore and remotely, allowing customers to experience and visualise products without the need to physically touch or try them on.

Responsible consumerism

Much has been written about this over the past few years, with many studies pointing to Gen Y & Z being increasingly purposed-driven in the brands they associate with and want to buy. Momentum built further when Greta and Extinction Rebellion caught the attention of many but, like so many things, it appears that the pandemic has been a tipping point for accelerating actual change.

The PwC Consumer Sentiment Index shows that the number of people making and mending at home, buying from brands that support the vulnerable, and buying from those who show responsibility to their staff is predicted to increase by circa 20% post lockdown.

Mintel further reports that in the UK, 55% of polled adults try to buy from local retailers where possible. Again, evidence this trend is likely to remain is the fact China and Germany are still seeing a similar rate of local shopping having emerged from lockdowns ahead of the UK.

Keying into this, there are a number of businesses that have long been built ethics-up with the likes of Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s continuing to campaign for social change via recent Facebook boycotts and Twitter trolling of Priti Patel as well as a plethora of new purpose-powered entrants to the market. Others are having to adapt and adjust, re-evaluating their values and conducting more stringent assessments of their supply chain, whether striving for B Corp status or just looking to avoid a Boohoo moment.


There is no silver bullet for retail success in the wake of the pandemic however those with a customer-centric approach to both product and experience stand the best chance.

The need to redefine the end-to-end journey is critical, with delivery/returns, customer services, and aftercare being ever more important aspects of the experience but as many have found recently, all brand and experience loyalty can be undone if the ethics of your brand or supply chain come into question.

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