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The data presented in nightly news broadcasts is a strange hybrid of bad news and good news. Of course, we have the all too familiar grim updates on hospitalisations and deaths as a result of covid. But we also now have a counter-narrative – the numbers of people vaccinated who can look forward to a fear-free life again. We may be in the midst of a  lockdown, but hope is not only on the horizon but in front of our eyes and shortly to be in our arms. The best of times and the worst of times.

Retailers are also facing a mixture of challenging and hopeful data. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) recently revealed sales growth overall falling by 0.3% in a year dominated by the Covid-19 impact – the worst annual change since the BRC began collating figures in 1995. Yet this is hardly surprising, with the Government forcing retailers to close. Unlike in the midst of other recessions, we can be confident an unprecedented bounceback is looming. A recent KPMG/Ipsos study points to a sales growth of up to 3% for 2021, despite the huge challenges in the first two quarters. Indeed there are several signals that point to a swift route to recovery in 2021.

 

Weathered and tested

The resilience of retail has been a remarkable success story of 2020 in the face of continuing huge challenges. Throughout the pandemic, retail has been written off only to bounce back whenever it has been allowed to trade. This is evidenced by the figures for lockdown two. According to the ONS, the headline figure for retail sales volumes in November during the second lockdown were 3.8% lower than in October, ending six months of growth. However, the drop was smaller than analysts had expected and, remarkably, sales remained 2.6% above February’s level in the year to November. This was all the more impressive given lockdown forced many shops to close during the month.

Throughout the past 12 months, retailers have had to adapt their trading at short notice, whether closing altogether or introducing a variety of safety measures and still enticing customers to spend. They have also needed to embrace new ways of trading, from click and collect to virtual shop floors to having sales experts in call centres rather than in person. This experience and ability to weather these storms and still attract customers mean retailers will be in much better shape when the good times return.

 

A shot in the arm for consumer confidence

Retail has always needed and relied on a confident consumer to sustain itself. You feel hopeful about the future and you are more likely to splash out. Over the past few months, we have had a perfect storm of negativity. Daily charts showing exponential infection and death rates highlighting the problem now, with no end in sight creating a feeling of hopelessness. This has created a mental health crisis to add to the immediate public health crisis. However, just as the confidence has been sapped by one thing – the coronavirus, so the cure can be the vaccine – a literal shot in the arm for consumer confidence. Of course, millions have been negatively financially impacted by the crisis, but due to the furlough scheme, many have been protected in a way that hasn’t happened in previous recessions.

Indeed this was the analysis by a KPMG/Ipsos retail think tank, which said retail should be able to look to a brighter second half of 2021. Pent-up savings, demand, a more confident consumer and a successful vaccine roll out all point to a strong rebound. However, it also points to some consumer behaviours changing during the pandemic, with performance varying across different categories.

 

Retailers have embraced an omnichannel strategy

The pandemic has speeded up the adoption of an omnichannel strategy for many retailers that was probably overdue. Dunelm is a good case in point. Despite huge challenges in its retail estate, the company’s investment in the online channel has paid dividends. Despite all of Dunelm’s 174 stores in Britain being closed to customers, the company expects pre-tax profit for the first half of its financial year to be about £122m, up 33.9% on the previous year. This is due to the investment in online and the trend for home furnishing during the pandemic. Similarly, Dixons Carphone Warehouse announced pre-tax profits of £45m for the six months to 31 October with online sales up 145%. Those brands that have a strong online presence have been able to trade successfully and will benefit even further when their physical stores re-open. Particularly given the next key signal.

 

Pent-up demand for physical retail experience

Despite online retail’s undoubted increase of the share of the cake, reports of the death of physical retail have been greatly exaggerated. After each lockdown, there has been huge pent-up demand in evidence whenever shops have been allowed to operate. This is despite uniquely off-putting circumstances for consumers to venture out. While we are in the midst of a third lockdown, we know from the end of the second one that footfall increased by nearly 20% as determined consumers returned to stores. With increasing numbers being vaccinated, we can expect an even stronger rebound this time. I am really confident we will see an unprecedented retail re-emergence when the impact of max vaccination is felt. Even retailers like Primark, which recently revealed a £300m hit to profits, remain bullish. As Jason Bason, finance chief of its parent company Associated Foods, pointed out, when its shops had been open sales were only down 14% despite the restrictions. After all, if people are still wanting to venture out during a pandemic, we can be guaranteed they will flock to stores when we have the vaccines rolled out and no longer have to be scared of strangers. People miss the retail experience. 

 

Capitalising on the new trend of ‘shopping with purpose’

One real trend we have seen during the pandemic is ‘shopping with purpose’. This is consumers wanting to make fewer journeys out, but when they do, not returning empty-handed. Our own analysis for the last trading period, December showed really healthy growth in conversion rates of 51%. This was due to pent-up demand and people returning to stores with a real purpose to buy. Again, the result of lockdown is to make the return to retail all the more profitable – something that can give retailers something to look forward to as we focus on getting through this difficult time. This particularly applies to categories like consumer electronics with higher ticket items and people less willing to buy online. The pandemic has underscored we may be less willing to venture out, but when we do we want to make it count.

While we are in the middle of a really difficult period it may be difficult to keep optimistic, but as we approach the end game of this crisis we can be sure that the public will want to celebrate their new-found freedoms. Retailers that have adopted the right strategies can benefit when good times return.

 

Daniel Todaro is managing director at Gekko.