Welcome to the digital evolution

This is part of a special report on life after coronavirus. Find more stories on what economic recovery looks like, how the fashion sector could emerge even stronger and tips for managing the remote workplace here.

The impact of COVID-19 on retail can be felt in all corners of the industry. Businesses that felt safe no longer do, and those that felt at risk after the devastating bushfire and drought season are no doubt fearing for their future. 

Much of this is due to the rapid change in consumer behaviour. While footfall was already falling, many of the traditional customer touchpoints are irrelevant as many Australians are self-isolating at home.

And while it may be obvious that the best channel to focus on is online, players across the industry are handling this reality differently. Some are simply keeping up their regular online service, while others are putting in the extra effort to win over customers by experimenting with livestreaming or launching delivery services.

It is this second path that will reap the rewards, says Andrew Homan, creative director at digital agency Process Creative. 

“Frankly, brands cannot afford to be complacent, and there’s a renewed focus on customer experience. That’s a great thing,” says Homan. 

“I feel like in the past, a lot of bricks-and-mortar retailers have really wanted to drive people in-store and just viewed online as somewhat of a secondary sales channel. 

“As a result of the pandemic, many of those businesses have been forced into a rapid digital transformation. Retail was already transforming – the virus has just sped it up.”

A new spin on an old classic

Furniture brand Coco Republic has embraced this opportunity to try virtual design consultations, private appointments outside of regular trading hours and a redesigned online styling course.    

“Now more than ever, our homes are both our sanctuaries and places of entertainment – they are our new favourite bars, restaurants, cafes and hotels, as well as our offices,” says Anthony Spon-Smith, Coco Republic’s creative director and founder. 

“We can continue to deliver our signature design services to help our customers curate these spaces in their homes.”

And with Australians currently stuck inside their homes – and perhaps feeling inspired to give their interiors a makeover – retailers have a unique opportunity to offer customers new homewares and furniture options.

In fact, data insight company Attentive released figures showing that online sales in home furnishings and supplies rose 28 per cent in March compared with February this year, largely driven by people’s need for home office furniture.

As such, while Coco Republic regularly relies on its large showrooms to connect with customers, the business has moved that experience online for the time being.

In addition to the virtual consultations, short showroom tours allow customers to view a range of furniture in various configurations and gather ideas from the comfort of their own couch.

“If consumers are confined to their homes in a lockdown, then why not give them a taste of the showrooms from their homes, consult online and then let them buy online?” Spon-Smith says. 

And, according to Spon-Smith, the business’ online sales have doubled since restrictions began and these digital initiatives were put in place. 

Similarly, in order to maintain an engaging customer experience throughout the COVID-19 crisis, King Living launched a mobile-friendly virtual reality showroom, where customers can interact with products, add them to cart and check out. 

“The actual experience has been designed to make you feel like you are in a retail store,” says King Living’s global head of brand, Natalie Culina. 

A customer is able to walk around the product in virtual reality, look at the fabric watch a video to explain the product, and ultimately click through to the King Living website.

Doing it live

Other businesses are taking the opportunity to do something beyond recreating their physical experience in a digital format.     

As part of Fashion Revolution Week, made-to-order clothing retailer Citizen Wolf, for example, recently hosted live classes on Instagram to teach customers how to create their zero-waste tote bag – something that typically only happens in their Sydney factory.

The business sold the basic materials necessary and invited customers to watch one of several livestreams over the course of two weeks. Customers could sit at home and remain safe in isolation, but interact with the brand in a new and engaging way.

“I think the world is going to come out changed, in some ways permanently. And for us, this makes a lot of sense,” says Citizen Wolf co-founder Zoltan Csaki. 

“If we can deliver a workshop on Instagram Live to around 100 people, when we could only do it for around 10 people in our factory, that’s a huge win.”

Meanwhile luxury designer accessories retailer Loewe launched Loewe en Casa, a series of online workshops and events with artists, poets and writers through Instagram Live. The series, which ranges from poetry and book readings to studio tours, aims to provide customers and viewers with an injection of culture and inspiration rather than a hard sell.

Similarly, luxury brand Bottega Veneta launched its Residency series recently. Each week, the brand is handing the reins over to a different ‘resident’ who will offer a curated range of music, art, food, film and more. 

“Creativity and strength lie at the heart of Bottega Veneta,” explains the brand’s creative director, Daniel Lee. 

“In this highly distressing time, we feel a responsibility to celebrate those values and ignite a sense of joy and hope in our community and beyond.”

Lingerie retailer Honey Birdette is also taking the opportunity to further the education aspect of its business, launching a new streaming service called HB Live. 

The service allows customers to book spots in regularly scheduled livestreams that range from no-holds-barred sex toy tours and happy hours with its staff members, to a private pleasure party for a maximum of eight people. 

Adapting to the new normal

While the restrictions put in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 will inevitably be relaxed, customers will remember the level of service and experience they had online from retailers during self-isolation.      

For many, there will be no reason why these service standards can’t continue into post-virus life – a new normal. And as customer expectations continue to increase, brands must rise to meet them or be left behind. 

“I think the horse has bolted. A lot of people who might have avoided online shopping have now familiarised themselves with the process and convenience,” Homan says.

“There’s undoubtedly a lot of businesses doing it tough, and it’s often difficult to think innovatively under such circumstances. But there is opportunity out there for businesses that aren’t afraid to try something new. 

“Not everything will work, but it’s about changing your frame of reference and adapting quickly to new market conditions.”

Additional reporting by Heather McIlvaine.

This story is from the May 2020 issue of Inside Retail magazine. Subscribe here.

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