April 12th 2021 – the day when, in a nation of shop keepers, opening a shop to customers became an event in the UK. It was reassuring to see customers returning to shops after this long and difficult winter, but with footfall still down 30% on two years ago it goes to show there is still a long way to go with the recovery. Out visiting stores yesterday it was clear – there are the retailers that have learnt how to navigate this new world, and those that need to learn very quickly. Recovery of physical retailing will be multi-faceted, but my bet is retailers that evolve the role of their stores to deliver for changing customer behaviours will win over those that simply try to carry on with the same proposition from pre-covid.

I have always been fascinated by new store concepts. Fresh thinking, trying to stay one step ahead of customers, reducing friction and creating experiences that customers love so much, making them want to return time and time again.

The pandemic has accelerated what was already happening in retail, so is as close to a time machine that you are going to get. Customer behaviour changing overnight (both forced and out of choice); a sudden and drastic acceleration of moving sales from physical to digital; businesses scrambling to fulfil these seismic shifts in online demand and, all the while, businesses and brands that are already catering for the future find themselves mopping up at even greater and accelerated levels.

What is fascinating through all of this is the desire to get back out shopping again. Of course I love retail as it is my career, but I have never been one to spend hours aimlessly meandering the shops. I am an intentional shopper. I typically know what I want and where I want to get it. I’ve often done my homework online, I know my choices, the prices, the availability and the decision is made. But I’ve lost count how many times I have made that trip into town to get exactly what I want when I want it, to only return empty handed as it is unavailable, or not in my size, or the queue was too long (my young children do not do queuing, ever!). So, I find myself resorting to getting it online which I could have done, but I chose to go to the shops because I wanted to.

Nobody expects everything to return to exactly how it was pre-pandemic. But it will bounce back over time with different customer behaviours and expectations. Customers that love shopping that have been forced to shop online will return. Customers that are fed up with new virtual and digital shopping habits will gradually seep back to stores taking in that longed for coffee, lunch or glass of wine with friends and family. And customers that have just waited and gone without will contribute to a pent-up demand that will help with the recovery.

All of this leads to the role stores can play in this accelerated futuristic retail world that we all find ourselves part.

Developing, delivering and scaling a whole new customer proposition in an essential retailer during a pandemic allowed me to learn how customer behaviours have shifted throughout all the trials and tribulations of the last 12 months. I am more confident than ever that stores play as significant a role as ever for customer shopping journeys, and it is retailers’ responsibility to ensure their brands are as relevant as they can be for customers – on and offline.

The pandemic means that, for many retailers, the evolution of store propositions has shifted from desirable to fundamental. Trialling numerous new initiatives and all-new formats in a pandemic and successfully scaling to several dozen stores has provided an incredible platform to learn, adapt and scale from in future. All these stores have the ability to teach an enormous amount in and out of lockdowns and helps with understanding even more the role stores must play in this new world in the future.

Through all the research, customer insight and data that has underpinned so much of my work in recent times, here are a handful of key learnings:

Have clear purpose – great stores are a way of bringing to life a brand with clear positioning and propositions to match, aligning everything customers see, hear and experience online and offline.

Focus on why you are famous – maybe this is stating the obvious, but being laser focused on being the best at what you are best at is crucial. Ultimately, this underpins any retail turnaround and when times are tough the core needs to be firing on all cylinders, which means less distractions. Lead instead of follow.

Your people are everything – no matter what the model is your people bring it to life, so invest in them, and keep investing in them. Developing & delivering efficiencies in the operating model helps release much needed capital to reinvest in the customer experience. Sure, evolve what they do, reduce task and simplify the operation. But invest in them – they will repay you time and time again.

Stores are websites you can touch – it is a brand experience. Investment should be framed across the customer journey, not in stores or digital. Delivering customer journeys is retail. Customers have just changed how they behave, how they shop and what they expect so framing the role of stores needs to evolve for today’s world.

Technology enables experiences – implicit use of tech to simplify and remove friction for both customers and colleagues helps digitise stores in a digital world.

The next 12 months are crucial for retail. Seeing how customer behaviours change as society opens back up again, and how retailers respond, will be fascinating.

Written By Nick Ridley – Director, UK at CLX Professionals – Global Retail Consultancy | Customer Experience & Proposition Specialist | Retail Executive | Advisor

See original Blog post on Linkedin here.