With all but essential shops in England being ordered to close from 5 November until 2 December, it goes without saying that the usual bustling ‘Golden Quarter’ for retailers will have taken a hit. This is a time when shoppers start their Christmas shopping and flock to the high street to take advantage of Black Friday offers. In this feature, Dr Tim Denison, director of retail intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, explains what the lockdown means for footfall and how retailers can prepare for customers returning to stores.
The re-closure of non-essential stores in England early November was the last thing that retailers needed, particularly when people’s confidence to return to the high street has steadily recovered over the past five months.
The changes also unfortunately arrived at the most important time of the year for retailers with the festive season fast approaching and Black Friday just around the corner – an eagerly awaited fixture on the retail calendar for the past decade.
Ipsos Retail Performance had forecast that footfall during the week commencing 22 November, in which Black Friday falls, would be the busiest of the year with predictions of it being even higher than the week before Christmas. But with non-essential stores closed over Black Friday for the first time in history, this was no longer the case.
Since March, retailers have known that they needed to invest in their online operational and marketing capabilities in order to be able to serve their customers remotely. The silver lining to the latest closures is that they have already scaled up and are more fit-for-purpose than ever before.
I agree with the British Retail Consortium’s advice to encourage people to begin their shopping earlier this year and to spread it out over the weeks rather than leave it to the last minute. Any steps that consumers could have taken to flatten the demand curve over this peak trading period should be encouraged. The last thing families will have wanted this year of all years is to suffer further disappointment with presents failing to arrive in time for Christmas, and the last thing retailers want is to let their customers down.
Even as restrictions were lifted from 3 December, store teams were back to actively managing customer capacities, meaning that footfall levels never reached the heights of Christmases gone by. I think the best estimate will be that store traffic levels in non-food stores during December will be 58% of what they were last year.
The key to store success will have been putting processes in place that make shopping experiences and journeys as efficient and friction-free as possible to the customer. Simple visual prompts will aid wayfaring, simpler approaches to merchandising will help customers find products easier, lower product densities and smaller offerings in-store will also simplify and speed up decision-making.
Shoppers will have still wanted to leave stores on a festive high and won’t want to be robbed from feeling the traditional ‘wonder of Christmas’ emotions. There is a fine balance to be struck between safety and efficiency as well as excitement and experience.
Click-and-collect services will also have thrived this festive season. These services provide a win-win solution, as retailers have the opportunity to sprinkle some special Christmas sparkle on customers at the pick-up points at the same time as delivering a seamless, quick throughput operation, so long as they prepare, plan and train their teams well. This Christmas was like no other, but whether it will become the tipping point for the template of ‘Christmas Future’, we shall have to see.
We have faced a different set of challenges this year to those we initially expected, and the global response to the virus has changed how all businesses and retailers will think and operate forever. Caution should be taken so not to fall into the trap of believing that all shopper and consumer behaviour patterns and attitudes will see permanent change – we already have evidence that that is simply not the case.
Where we end up in terms of our future shopping patterns is uncharted territory at present. However, I believe that the sector will come out the other side changed but free from the legacy systems, practices and thinking that have held it back in recent years, setting the foundations for a stable and brave, new future for retail.
For more information about the Ipsos Retail Performance footfall counting tools, visit www.ipsos-retailperformance.com.