When the Chinese government first eased the tight restrictions in place since the initial outbreak of coronavirus, back in April last year, the first thing thousands of people did was go shopping. And after weeks pent- up at home many of those people had one type of purchase on their mind: luxury goods.
In one day during the ensuing shopping spree, at its Guangzhou flagship store, high end fashion brand Hermès racked up £2.2 million worth of sales; reputedly the highest ever sales day for a boutique store in China.
Perhaps it was an anomaly. There might have been many reasons for shoppers flooding that store on that day. But it shows beyond doubt that the extreme pressures of a crisis such as the current pandemic affects consumer psychology, and in turn, shopper behaviour.
After 12 months of strain on the economies of the world, and the consumers who drive them, the questions retailers need to put at the top of their lists now are these:
- What else has changed during lockdown?
- What new shopper habits have emerged as a result of lockdown? And
- Are they here to stay?
Purely in terms of how much people are going to be spending, rather than how they’ll be spending it, various predictions say that recovery could come by the end of this year, but is more likely, as the Centre for Retail Research forecasts, to come in 2022.
But what’s really going to keep the boardrooms busy as the year goes on, is the task of predicting how consumer’s habits might have been altered when they do get back to full swing in the shops and online.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while and have concluded that it’s a question of, when they do get back to it, whether it’s in shops or online where people will choose to spend their money.
A report by by global commerce services company PFS, based on an extensive survey of shoppers, reveals that 77% of consumers anticipate doing more shopping online after lockdown than before. Just consider that for a moment: 77%. Without being hyperbolic this is truly ‘paradigm shift’ territory. Which points towards what omnichannel retail software provider Bright Pearl, in its recent ‘How We’ll Shop: Winners and Losers’ report, describes as a knock-on “permanent lasting change on retailers, as consumer buying habits and priorities continue to change drastically”.
The sheer increased volume of traffic and sales to ecommerce sites is likely to pose an obvious but crucial challenge: a need for more sophisticated, heavy duty tech driving the whole system under the bonnet. Across the board retailers need to be prepared to cope with steadily more consumers over time. A nice problem to have, if you’re ready for it.
Equally retailers need to be aware of crucial wider digital trends, of which the past 12 months have been a catalytic period. The pandemic hasn’t just driven people to shop online; it has highlighted in the process the need for more comprehensive systems of digital identification, [link to Digital ID blog], and other tech innovations to enable fast, seamless shopping across multiple platforms and devices.
Gone are the days when shoppers will tolerate a fiddly shopping platform. As Zach Thomann, executive vice president & general manager at PFS commented on the publication of the company’s future shopper habits report, “consumers will both reward and punish brands in accordance with their response to the pandemic. Those that are there for their customers, staff and the community will be rewarded with brand loyalty and repeat purchasing”.
While the Hermes example reveals one possibly anomalous effect of lockdown – or more precisely, what happens when lockdowns are lifted – a more likely result across the board will be similar to the one witnessed in the wake of the big crash of 2008 when consumers became more conservative and thrifty, and remained that way long past the depths of the downturn.
Anxious about the future, and the very real prospect of post-pandemic economic aftershocks, consumers are likely to stay cautious in their spending, and more selective about what they buy. If habits have a habit of lasting after the initial causal effect is over, shoppers might well maintain a muted level of non-food purchases, choosing instead to prioritise essentials.
Couple this with an increased cultural consciousness of ethical sourcing and high moral standards from the retail boardroom downwards, which the pandemic has arguably intensified, and small, indy brands, thrift stores and charity shops could well see a resurgence in the post-pandemic era.
Related to this, there is plenty of evidence too to suggest that the habit of shopping locally might last as well. The community spirit that lockdowns engendered in people out of necessity could last out of the sheer pleasure of supporting quirky local businesses.
It’s what London Designer Outlet (LDO) general manager Sue Shepherd describes as the “15-minute city” – a little localised economy with a range of shops large enough that people don’t need to go into town to get their retail therapy.
“In the year when our worlds were confined to a 15-minute radius,” Shepherd says, “we all began to appreciate our corner shop and our local independent retailers a little bit more. Lockdown forced us to rely on the shops in our neighbourhoods in ways we hadn’t before.”
With so much uncertainty still surrounding almost every aspect of life, the task of predicting the future is doubly hard. That consumer patterns have changed, drastically, over the past 12 months is beyond doubt. How much shoppers revert back to old habits when normality is resumed is the big question now. The answer will shape the future of shopping, and retail, for years to come. A challenge, that those like me, who have a passion for the industry are keen to tackle.