In an era of social distancing and, in SA’s case, extreme lockdown regulations, most consumers have become accustomed to a world of convenient, but remote, shopping. Long queues and overcrowded shopping malls are becoming a distant memory, with more people opting to shop online.

It has been many weeks since the family highlight was an outing to the nearest super-regional mall for a spot of grocery shopping, retail therapy and a stop-off at the children’s favourite fast-food chain. And even when lockdown is over the reality is that heaving malls — and seating your family for a meal in proximity to strangers — is never likely to be viewed with the same sense of comfort again.

Consumers are now popping into convenience centres for their grocery runs and planning their apparel and footwear shopping trips with tactical precision to ensure minimal exposure and maximum efficiency. The idea of wandering aimlessly to see where the mood takes you while shopping may now be a luxury of the past. Current shopping expeditions require:

  • Google search ahead of time researching the latest trends to decide what you want to buy
  • Investigation into who has it at the best price
  • Locating the nearest stores that has stock 
  • Deliberating on whether to collect it in person (kerbside or in-store) or order online and have it delivered
  • Placing the order

A few months ago we debated how brick-and-mortar retail was changing. Back then the focus was on in-mall, experiential offerings that connected shoppers to brands in a more emotive and visceral way.

There was a consensus that digital fulfilment would play an increasing role in shopping, but that there was still a real need for malls as lifestyle and entertainment destinations. This meant brands continued to expend the majority of their efforts on in-store transactions and driving customer footfall.

With the reality of the need for social distancing as part of a global Covid-19 transmission containment strategy, the digitisation of retail has become more urgent. Sustainable shopping solutions must incorporate multiple digital platforms that provide customers with choice, convenience, and power.

This shift is already evident across the globe, where retailers are adjusting to their new normal, and reconfiguring supply and delivery chains to meet evolving customer needs. While it may take time to set up these complex systems locally, the train has already left the station, with large retailers making huge investments in online purchasing platforms.

What remains to be seen is how the SA public will react to these changes over the long term. One thing we dare not forget is that for millions of people shopping centres remain an important destination for leisure and entertainment, and how this plays out post-Covid is yet to be discovered.

The Covid-19 pandemic will be imprinted on many minds as one of the most significant global events in recent history. It has changed the way people interact and reshaped how businesses operate, governments administer, and consumers shop.

The SA retail sector, as it emerges into a changed society, will be affected in multiple ways. What this means is that while businesses may survive their business models may not.

To get ahead of the curve SA retailers must accelerate the development of user-friendly e-commerce platforms which can survive minimal downtime, as well as the fulfilment logistics solutions for enhanced customer experience. The industry also needs serious strategising on ways to optimise customer experience via omni-channels that provide shoppers with flexibility, quality, and convenience.

Getting this mix right will ultimately help retailers win and retain market share, as omnichannel shoppers have evidently shown that they are more loyal and tend to have a larger shopping cart.

Finally, this period is an opportunity for retailers to listen to and understand their customers’ requirements better — including their anxieties. Connecting with customers, on whatever platform they desire will be a key indicator in setting apart the diamonds from the dogs, which will be critical to the sector’s ability to recover from a previously sluggish retail market.

Retailers must focus less on the needs of previously prescribed demographics and market segments; rather the next stage of retail demands that they build value propositions that address deeper shopper needs such as purpose, recognition, community, safety, and inspiration. The new normal customers are looking beyond experience to emotion, they are interested in how they feel when they are in a shop or a mall ... more than in what there is on offer to buy.

There has never been a more opportune time to capture an audience, cultivate relationships with customers and build loyalty than when they are searching for new meaning in an altered reality. For retailers who want to adapt, adopt, and engage, the moment is upon you. Your differentiator is in how fast you can act and how “embraced” you can make your customer feel.

• Nkambule is a senior consultant at Instinctif Partners.


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