Shops and shoppers are starting to adjust to the new realities of a post COVID-19 retail experience and it’s not pretty. From locked changing rooms in fashion stores to limits to the number of people in shopping centres at one time, retail is having to rapidly adjust to some harsh new realities.

While food retailers have largely been able to scale their online businesses much more quickly than expected, non-food retailers are continuing to struggle. In May 2020, the BRC-ShopperTrak Footfall Monitor reported footfall on high streets declined by 77.8% year-on-year, while shopping centre footfall declined by 84.9% year-on-year. Even with the much-publicised Primark and Sport Direct queues on the first day of reopening, anyone that has visited a shopping centre will have noticed the vast fall in the number of people there.

A unique experience

Unlike grocery shopping, fashion retail is still an experience that people enjoy.  On one of the last weekends before the lockdown began, I was at the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham and the place was as packed as any retail experience I can remember. And this was February, not Christmas.  There is still a joy about discovery in retail – finding something we were not expecting to find – rather than the functional online approach of searching for something online because you know exactly what you want. If I am after a jar of marmite, I am happy to click and collect with any of the supermarkets, get a delivery from Amazon or wherever else I can find it. It’s always the same stuff so it doesn’t really matter. 

However, if I want a striped t-shirt and I search online, I can get pages of stuff I don’t want without seeing anything I do. Discovery is so important to the retail experience. Retailers that understand this and offer a richer experience both online and offline are likely to bounce back fastest from the current crisis. Technology has a big role to play here.

Deploying technology to sharpen the retail experience

Arguably non-food retailers need to stop trying to sell online and instead use online engagement to encourage a more personal engagement and interaction with the brand. It amazes me that no retailer has included full body scanning as an in-store option for customers. Imagine if you were to receive emails with your own image, kitted out in the latest gear from a retailer, based on real images of you and the kind of purchases you’ve made before. This could be accompanied by the opportunity to shop at a specific time in store to see the clothing for real. 

Better still, why not let shoppers drag and drop clothes onto their own image to see what they will look like in real life, shortlist items online and then book to visit the store when they are in stock?  I suspect I would end up buying more stuff if the experience was a more engaging and personal one.

There’s an old saying ‘retail is detail’ but innovation seems to be thin on the ground. Perhaps now is the time to start re-envisioning the retail experience away from piles of clothes spread around a room into something more personal and engaging?