Life after coronavirus
It’s fair to say some of the crystal balls we were using to predict 2020 in retail at the end of last year have now been proven cracked by current events. Not just a “usual” economic downturn, social distancing and self-isolation practices and the concomitant increase in online living will result in longer-term behavioural and mindset changes with ramifications for retail and consumer buying patterns beyond the current “essentials only” crisis.
Stepping back in time
If the Roaring Twenties after the 1918 Spanish flu were anything to go by, people flocked back to venues. The 1920s were a decade of conspicuous consumption and hedonism before fiscal irresponsibility brought it to a crashing halt in 1929, bringing on the Great Depression. This resulted in an entire generation embracing frugality. On the other hand, there was a boom decade after World War 2.
The events of 9/11 temporarily ground US business to a halt due to fear and uncertainty, but daily life resumed as an antidote to terrorism. And while the GFC slowed retail growth for several years, consumer spending on discretionary items bounced back and economies progressed. For now, the focus on sustainability has gone out the window and I expect the issue of climate change will take a backseat as people focus on survival. However, some positive environmental impacts of the shutdown have been noted, such as cleaner waterways and better air quality due to fewer carbon emissions.
So historically, economies bounce back and “normal behaviour” resumes. But what makes this time different for us? Enforced social distancing combined with technology, changing how, when and where we work and live. These will have psychological and behavioural impacts on us all beyond the economic fallout.
The impact of working from home
Temporarily, the consumer focus in economic downturns moves to essentials. According to Bain Brief’s China’s Consumer Industry Prepares for Coronavirus Legacy report, luxury retailers expected sales in mainland China during the lockdown period to decline 60 to 95 per cent from the prior year.
But the impact on luxury goods may be longer lasting, even if consumers can afford them once the economy recovers. The anticipated normalisation of working from home post-crisis means as people become used to seeing each other (via video platforms) in tracksuits in their kitchens, corporate dress will become even more casual. Conspicuous consumption – flaunting brands as status symbols through high fashion and luxury accessories – becomes redundant.
Similarly cosmetics, already fairly stagnant in growth, may slow further due to working from home, less socialising and the normalisation of seeing working women on Facetime and MS Teams makeup-free. I would expect skincare to remain in growth however as it’s more intrinsic and healthcare related, not merely aesthetic.
The reduced sociological requirement to be seen wearing something different to work every day may see a decrease in apparel sales in the longer term. More broadly, the nascent “no-buy” movement may increase, as people working from home realise they already have enough stuff. Being based at home may result in a short- to medium-term rise in DIY, homewares and furniture sales as people seek to fix or upgrade things they are bored with, and have more time on their hands.
Increased working from home may also change consumer retail shopping hours and patterns, potentially flattening out shopping mall and supermarket weekend peaks as people punctuate their working week with trips to the shops.
And while people’s cooking skills may improve at home, many may want the occasional break, and will try something new via takeaway and on-premise dining when it resumes.
Upping the ante
A reduction of the physical retail (and on-premise food and beverage) outlet universes is anticipated due to retail closures, which will accelerate in a depressed economy and saturated retail universe. According to a Washington Post article from last Friday, Deborah Weinswig, head of retail analysis at Coresight Research, said more than 15,000 stores in the US are likely to announce closures this year.
Working from home, requiring less office space, and vacant stores and malls will result in a surfeit of commercial real estate, and a subdued consumer mindset combined with being at “peak stuff” may mean an even greater need for physical retail spaces to become experientially driven. The repurposing of malls as social gathering spaces may thus be accelerated.
Even with this though, the nature of public events and leisure spaces in malls may change. Universal Pictures recently announced its animated adventure Trolls World Tour, originally due for cinematic release in April, would instead be available for streaming. Livestreaming of performances ranging from individual artists to large opera companies may continue post-crisis and create a shift in how audiences expect to access content. Esports are another example of this.
Online retail, already growing rapidly, will obviously be further normalised. This combined with social distancing and handwashing will see a further deceleration of cash transactions. Buy-now-pay-later platforms, useful in an economic downturn to encourage discretionary spending, may be normalised beyond their core millennial base.
Retail loyalty programs may require rethinking. Last week, Facebook launched a pilot program with Sephora which connects a person’s existing brand loyalty membership with their Facebook identity. This enables brands to use Facebook ads to connect with their loyalty program members on the platform, using Custom Audiences to target those who’ve previously created a profile with the business.
Once connected, members will be able to track the status of their brand loyalty account via Facebook. They will also be able to earn points for their on-platform activity, get member discounts on purchases, and have any points for online shopping linked back to their customer ID. This system enables better incentivised repeat purchase among the most loyal customers and improved ad targeting.
Manufacturing, supply chain and delivery
Contactless delivery, quickly becoming the norm, may well remain post-crisis. Free delivery may become an expectation as the economies of scale of online improve. Retailers in the short term need to carefully manage and minimise delays and disruptions to deliveries, which could frustrate customers and have a potential negative impact on brand reputation and loyalty in both the short and long term.
The risks and flaws of an interconnected global supply system have been exposed by the coronavirus, along with having a single country (in this case, China) with a substantial base of global manufacturing power. Countries may realise manufacturing locally is economically safer and faster and consider a return to local production in some categories, so buying local may also increase.
At the other end of the spectrum, another scenario is the big businesses getting bigger, as smaller players with lesser capital reserves collapse in the short term.
According to Azeem Azhar, an analyst who runs newsletter Exponential View, the coronavirus is “creating a fundamental opportunity to remake the economy. People will sit down and re-evaluate what life means to them, what they appreciate and what they can take away.”
On the other hand, Carnegie Mellon economics professor Lee Branstetter expects the increase in living and working online will convince many to return to routine human contact once they can: “People are going to be so sick and tired of takeout,” he said.
In China, where public gathering restrictions are slowly being lifted, this is already evident, as narrow food stall pavements and shopping malls are crowded once again.
We may have collectively temporarily slithered back down to the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (physiology and safety) but this too shall pass eventually. A new Roaring Twenties – even if in a more subdued redux form – and a slowdown of an overtly consumerist ethic give us all something to look forward to.
Norrelle Goldring has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, planning, research and marketing, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers, research and consulting houses. Contact: 0411735190 or email email@example.com
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