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  • The Future of Retail: Online-First

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    At the beginning of June we saw the UK government starting to lift lockdown measures, including enabling non-essential retailers to open their doors to high-street footfall. The idea that things would return to normal was somewhat of a fantasy for anyone who believed it, the high street was already facing big challenges pre-Coronavirus and the same applies once lockdown 2.0 is eased.

    Those who shopped in bricks and mortar stores solely for the ‘experience’ can, in many cases, now have a better customer experience online than in store. Social distancing, facemasks, queues, one-way systems, and a lack of confidence among consumers doesn’t make the high-street shopping experience a pleasant one.

    Jonathan Bellwood, VP at Descartes, explores the brands that have failed, those that have triumphed and that the key differentiator for success is an online-first approach...

    The Tangible Experience

    Brands with physical stores have been clinging to the argument that consumers want a great customer experience, and this is what keeps the high-street alive. Of course, there is a place for these types of stores, but it’s limited to areas where there is high foot traffic, places like Covent Garden, London, for example. And during the current pandemic, even the stores that used to perform well, based on the physical store experience, have taken a massive hit. We’ve witnessed this with Victoria’s Secret going into administration, John Lewis closing some of its stores and Cath Kidston shutting all 60 of its UK stores. These are all brands that had a great emphasis on the in-store experience.

    In the future, post-Coronavirus environment, it’s not to say that there isn’t a place for some physical stores. But it has to offer a truly unique experience, something that is bespoke and something that consumers can’t have all the time. Gymshark, for example, one of the UK’s modern retail success stories and a consistent performer atop the Fast Track 100, hit the nail on the head when it opened its first pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden earlier this year. The store opened for a limited one month run, creating much hype among its fitness fanatic followers on social media. The experience even included a variety of free gym classes across its three-story store. This limited opening strategy creates buzz, exclusivity and demand. It’s a chance to have a physical encounter with your much-loved online brand, and in a competitive marketplace, these interactions drive both engagement and brand loyalty.

    For brands that have been forced to shut up shop and pivot to online only, it is therefore crucial to consider how they are able to take the ‘magic’ of their stores and translate that into the digital world for every single customer. Consumer demands haven’t gone away, they have pivoted too: It is brands like Gymshark and Lounge Underwear that have reset the standard within the online only world. To keep pace, luxury brands, for example, need to ensure that the aesthetic experience isn’t lost, when the parcel arrives, the final consumer experience is unwrapping a hand tied ribbon enclosed around a scented shiny box – something that can be filmed and shared on social media.

    Beating The Competition

    The less-tangible ecommerce experience needs to be exceptional too, for all brands. This is especially true with the surge in demand for online transactions and rising customer expectations, particularly around fulfilment, delivery and returns. The need for ecommerce businesses to be ever more efficient and seamless is crucial.

    Order fulfilment is the key part of the chain that must be flawless to keep the customer satisfied. This can be achieved by utilising smart software that operates in real-time to automate the most efficient delivery route and to ensure it will work in the real world, allowing for traffic and time.

    By providing the customer with complete visibility of the order fulfilment process from picking, shipping, location of their delivery van, alerts for delays and confirmation of delivery road transport operators can support their retailer partners in not only maintaining customer satisfaction but also increasing mutually efficient business operations and revenue growth.

    Modern, integrated sets of systems, if applied throughout the supply chain, can also be used to make the returns process as transparent as the order process, again providing status updates in real-time and getting inventory back into the sales channel as quickly as possible.

    In the ever-growing competitive ecommerce space, returns need to be treated with the same priority as the order and delivery process. Those retailers that are able to connect all parts of the end-to-end supply chain through technology and automation will win over new customers, keep existing ones loyal and, ultimately, optimise profits. If the online-first approach is successful, there may be a demand on the highstreet for them, but not in the traditional form as we once knew it.

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