Non-essential retail is now firmly open. As we (hopefully) approach a full relaxation of lockdown restrictions later this month, many are taking a deeper look at the trends which emerged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in an effort to define the long-term shape of the sector.

Adapting to the new normal in retail: why a considered communications strategy is key to avoiding the pitfalls

By Ellen Wilton, Associate Director  

Non-essential retail is now firmly open. As we (hopefully) approach a full relaxation of lockdown restrictions later this month, many are taking a deeper look at the trends which emerged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in an effort to define the long-term shape of the sector.

Throughout the pandemic, for some having a compelling digital story became a component for success, while for others, maintaining strength of brand while stores were closed was the priority. Retailers were, and still are, required to articulate their agility quickly and clearly, highlighting the ways in which they have adapted to the new world. For many, this was through a display of innovation, digital advances, or online conversion rates.  Ultimately, careful messaging and issues management are essential to demonstrating the potential for sustained growth in a post-Covid era. ESG considerations associated with both physical and online retail are also now mission critical for investors and a robust sustainability narrative is an opportunity for everyone in the sector.

A carefully considered approach to communications, one which highlights the strength of market position, and crucially, the ability to scale across the chosen channel (on or offline), will be critical. This will require a clear demonstration of growth potential over the coming years, as well as a strategy that allows for and navigates potential pitfalls, including high delivery costs, fierce competition, high carbon footprint, or simply looking like an opportunistic beneficiary of the pandemic.

Some companies will need to shift stakeholder perceptions to acknowledge new omni-channel models, while others may need to work harder to demonstrate the resilience of a physical-only business model. Either way, remaining relevant to their traditional customer base while also retaining and attracting any new customers is vital. To achieve this, they will need to broaden their communications approach. While previously, newsflow may have consisted of press releases announcing a milestone store opening, or entry to a new territory or market, now, new brand partnerships, product innovation and third-party endorsements (including by social media influencers) are all examples that will boost appeal to all audiences and crucially, have a solid digital footprint.

Arguably, the strength of a retailer’s brand has never been so important. If your brand is well-regarded and loyal supporters are rewarded, particularly within the physical retail space, you have a strong foundation for success. Communicating brand loyalty to other stakeholders can require a delicate approach however – there is a fine line between hype and substance. For online retailers, the only measure of performance is sales-based evidence, while for physical retailers, brand loyalty can be communicated through other collateral such as photographs showing high volumes of shoppers queueing safely ahead of a post-lockdown store re-opening.  

According to the latest BRC-KPMG Sales Monitor, total sales “increased considerably” following the reopening of physical retail, up 7.3% for the month of April; the data has been compared with 2019 in order to enable more meaningful analysis. Retail sales soared 46.3% on a like-for-like sales basis from April 2019, when they had increased 3.7% from the previous year, as shoppers returned to stores.

With growing confidence in the economy and the ongoing success of the UK vaccination programme, consumers appear to be rushing back to bricks and mortar stores in droves. To illustrate the benefit of such dynamics to their business, companies should seek to draw parallels between their own data and initial data from platforms such as Springboard or the BRC-KPMG Sales Monitor. Communicating customer patterns alongside third-party evidence-based lends credibility and provides an indicator of consumer confidence.  

Identifying and celebrating unique differentiation is also an important tool. The business media is always looking for a novel ‘success story’. Companies that are unique and that provide innovative products and expertise offer the opportunity to communicate and champion success. In addition, positioning any business as a leader within a particular field provides the opportunity to become a ‘go to’ commentator on specific issues, which in turn, can demonstrate thought-leadership and showcase a successful strategy.

After a turbulent year, UK retail remains in a flux with continued live debates around the future of physical retail, business rates and tax. Now more than ever, having a considered communications strategy is vital to establishing a differentiated position within the sector and presenting stakeholders with a distinctive and compelling growth story.

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