Is bricks-and-mortar back in business?

Australian shoppers were back in force at shopping centres over the weekend, as more retailers began welcoming them back through their doors. According to the latest figures from ShopperTrak, foot traffic has been steadily rising lately and last week, it was up by 31.2 per cent over the previous week.

“While everyone wishes to remain safe, a general relief was felt over the weekend – by stores and customers alike – as people were able to venture out of the house,” Hush Puppies general manager Charlene Perrera told Inside Retail.

 “Customers were understanding about extended wait times due to our new cleaning measures after every customer interaction and were supportive of the brand. It was great to hear our store managers reconnecting with their loyal customers.”

Women’s fashion retailer Sheike has been reopening its stores in stages and by this Saturday, more than half the store network will be open again.

“We will continue to be agile in our approach with the market still volatile and operating in an unknown and new way. We want to be agile, but also considered, making sure we are giving our customers the most consistent message we can and ensuring their experience is a positive one all the way through,” said Gabrielle Roux, head of retail at Sheike.

“It’s quite a balance right now… making sure we respond to the immediate circumstances but also keeping the long-term approach in mind. This moment will pass at some stage in the coming months and we don’t want to lose sight of that.”

Prior to opening stores, luxury lingerie brand Honey Birdette created an online appointments page to give customers the option of reserving a private shopping experience and being the only customer in-store with a sales assistant. More than 320 private appointments were booked last weekend, indicating that customers are ready to go shopping again, said Honey Birdette founder Eloise Monaghan.

“The average transaction value from the sales through booked appointments is 57 per cent higher than our usual benchmark. We are not the kind of boutique that hosts more than a handful of customers at one time – we offer a curated, one-on-one experience,” said Monaghan.

“We’ve prioritised and respected our customers who have booked appointments and closed our doors while the appointments take place to adhere to social distancing regulations.”

Outside of the appointments, only two customers are limited to entering the store at a time. Future Honey Birdette stores will also include custom-built sanitisation stations in each fitting room.

Meanwhile, Superdry plans to reopen its full store network by the first of June. The retailer opened its Queensland stores first, then began trialling some in New South Wales, followed by Victoria last Friday. The brand will start to slowly extend trading hours, based on shopping trends.

“It has been a faster start to trade than we had initially forecasted in early April. Time will tell and we need to take a cautious approach but it appears as though customers are keen to get back out. Whether their routine or shopping habits change for the long term will be interesting to see,” said Superdry general manager Antony Hampson.

“I think you will see some aggressive deals in the market over the coming months, as retailers’ stock positions are going to be much higher than [originally] planned and this may continue for some time through winter, I believe.”

A new world of challenges

However, reopening stores creates new challenges for retailers – it’s not simply a case of returning to business as usual. As professor of marketing Gary Mortimer pointed out, customers now want to see obvious indicators that retailers are attempting to abide by social distancing rules.

“I think the major discounters like Kmart, Target and Big W and the supermarkets have done it really well. Customers are looking for observable change to instil confidence, so they’re looking for someone who’s sanitising baskets, sneeze screens, social distancing stickers on the floor,” he said.  

“If I see a supermarket that’s full of shoppers, I tend to avoid it, and I think there will be overly cautious customers actively looking for what retailers are doing to instil that sense of confidence.”

Unfortunately, lining up to enter a store does not create an engaging experience, however necessary it is to limit the numbers of people inside and keep everyone safe. Some retailers also decided to close their changerooms over the weekend, so customers may have felt some frustration after spending the time lining up, to then find that they were unable to try on clothing.

“The reason why we go into a store is to try things on, otherwise we could just buy it online and while I think there is a small group of consumers who are confident buying footwear and fashion online and get their size right every time, I think the majority still want to touch and feel and try things on,” said Mortimer. “Closing your changeroom, while it’s a necessity at this stage, is also a disservice to customers and has a negative impact on your business.”

While many stores may have opened, there are still other major retailers whose doors are shut for the time being. Mortimer pointed out that these businesses may still be considering what their new physical spaces will look like and how they will operate in the current climate.

“They might be thinking, ‘Do I need to put someone on the door to count how many people come in?’, ‘Do I have to measure how many square metres my store has and calculate how many people can come in?’ or, ‘Do I need to move some of my racks so there is room for people to move around the store and what do I do with that inventory I’ve taken off the floor?’”

Retail expert Danny Lattouf from The G Store also believes physical retailers need to consider a containment strategy, like McDonald’s. Over the weekend, the fast food franchise closed 12 of its stores in Victoria after it was revealed that one of its drivers tested positive for coronavirus. The stores are currently being deep cleaned.

“I believe the McDonald’s 12-store closure over the past 24 hours is a really good learning for all retailers,” said Lattouf. “Everyone needs a containment plan that can be put into action immediately should there be a situation that requires it. It’s going to happen, it’s inevitable – we need to be ready for it.”

The future of physical

While shopping centres may be buzzing with customers right now, it will take a long time until the retail sector bounces back, said Dominique Lamb, CEO at the National Retailers Association.  

“Retail has certainly been hard. The sector won’t be fully back up on its feet until all business restrictions are lifted and the fate of thousands of businesses still hangs in the balance,” she told Inside Retail.

Beyond that, the retail landscape is forever changed, predicts Roux, as customer expectations have risen and people will crave new, interactive experiences after months in isolation. While Sheike launched several new digital initiatives in the past couple of months, e-commerce still does not compare to the meaningful human connections often felt within physical stores, she noted.

Now is the time for brands to reassess, rebuild and reinvent.

“We all have to get on that bus and be really committed to creating something new, which is super exciting. What an amazing time to be part of an opportunity in an industry to almost rebirth something,” said Roux.

“It’s incredible and what a privilege to be a part of that. While it’s been tough and everyone’s found it challenging because it’s so unknown and we’ve never done it before, it will be incredible to see how our favourite retailers continue to grow with their customers.”

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