Hello and welcome to This Week in Retail. Last month, I wrote about the hope, anticipation and nervousness in the UK retail sector stirred by the announcement of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. As a consultant, the only thing I like more than a roadmap is a status update – so let’s take a look at our timeline and check if we’re still on track.
The most immediate milestone is of course Step 2 on April 12th. Following the green light given by the Prime Minister this week, a host of “non-essential” retailers have confirmed their plans for reopening. While “essential” supermarkets, pharmacies, off-licences and garden centres have been able to remain open throughout the third national lockdown, shoppers eagerly awaiting a return to full-fat bricks-and-mortar shopping will soon be able to enjoy a trip to clothing stores, department stores, homeware retailers, mobile phone shops, and car washes.
Retailers will of course be hoping for a bounce in revenue driven by increased footfall, but this will be balanced with concern for shopper safety, which will be very much top of the agenda in the short to medium term. Primark will extend opening hours to help reduce queues and spread demand. IKEA will use a staggered entry system to ensure social distancing, although its in-store restaurants will remain closed until May 17th with the further easing of restrictions planned in Step 3 of the roadmap. John Lewis will open fitting rooms, albeit with a strict hygiene routine and in a reduced capacity, with store staff tightly monitoring customer numbers and queues. Drop boxes will be provided to enable a new Covid-secure returns process, including the quarantining of returned stock for 48 hours.
In theory, fitting rooms should not be an issue at the new Browns flagship store in Mayfair. Augmented reality virtual try-on tools will allow consumers to try on products via “connected mirrors.” Owners of the Browns luxury brand Farfetch have woven technology tightly into the store experience and they also seem to have gone to town on their “retail entertainment” ethos, with an interactive store space set to feature a rotating cast of stylists and performers.
Shoppers emerging from lockdown may notice another new(ish) recently-opened face on the high street. Amazon Go has finally launched its first stores in the UK – hoorah! The “just walk out” payless concept is enabled by an Orwellian network of cameras mounted in the ceiling of the 2,500 sq ft convenience format store, featuring a mid-range assortment of 10,000 products. “Just walk out” could well be the future of convenience retail, but the tech still has its fair share of teething problems to smooth out, plus the challenge of balancing the capex for all those cameras.
Online retailers may be slightly less enthusiastic about the prospect of reopening society – in a purely commercial sense, I’m sure. Ocado has enjoyed strong growth in its grocery retail business over the last year, thanks to the accelerated shift to online. After a rocky start when its website and app went down amid panic buying at the start of the pandemic, it recovered well by ramping up capacity and executing a smart tie-up with M&S. In order to sustain its recent growth and success in a post-pandemic market, the question now for Ocado and other online retailers is how much of the shift to online is permanent? We will find out in the coming months as restrictions are eased. In the meantime, there is no shortage of new entrants to the online retail and home delivery market. The rise of ultra-convenient q-commerce (quick commerce) has seen the likes of Berlin-based start-up Gorillas go from scratch to Unicorn status in a little over 12 months through rapid expansion (recently launching in London) with an eye-catching customer proposition of groceries delivered to your doorstep within 10 minutes, enabled by a network of limited assortment dark stores and an army of e-bike mounted delivery riders.
April 12th will not be the panacea for retail, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. As restrictions continue to ease (we hope) with Steps 3 and 4 in May and June respectively, things are finally looking up for retailers and for the country.
Thanks for reading and stay healthy,
Consultant, Retail Supply Chain (Operations Transformation)
Ed has a proven track record of helping multiple major international retailers through large scale business transformation programmes, with a strong interest and recognised expertise in Business Process Design, across Grocery and GM.