Cast your mind back for a moment, to those heady days of spring last year. We went online crazy. Ordering up anything and everything from a new Peloton (other brands are available) to a hot tub to a puppy. With just a few clicks, ‘stuff’ arrived, usually the next day, and that made us happy.
It pushed online as a percentage of total retail sales to the high thirties, in contrast with before the pandemic hit, this figure had plateaued at around 19%. A shift within just a few months, greater than that which occurred in the preceding 13 years.
And not only that, it was just as easy to return the unwanted stuff. That white van obligingly turning up and removing the detritus from our late night, alcohol fuelled, sessions at the keyboard.
As we enter the winter of 2021, exercise bikes sit idle and hot tubs gather, well, what abandoned hot tubs gather, and our new found ‘freedom’ online gave us seems, well, like a bit of a distant memory.
According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) non-food online accounted for 24.9% of all retail sales, down 1.3% from the previous month. This all begs the question, are we on a trajectory back towards pre-pandemic online volumes? It’s a key question which any retailer with an online presence (which is nearly every one of them bar Primark) needs to try and get behind, because so much of their business is now geared towards eCommerce.
Because whilst it appears that online, especially online mobile traffic through all kinds of channels such as Instagram, Tik Tok and Twitch to name a few, is becoming ever more popular, this doesn’t yet represent the mainstream.
For many of us, the pleasure to be gained from entering a physical store (properly protected from nasty infections of course) outweighs the ease and convenience of online.
And this usually applies when we are purchasing a more personal item. For years we’ve known that the trend was towards online for the more commodity-based purchases, (ink cartridges and tennis balls spring to mind) but if we’re looking for that big ticket item like a new jacket or widescreen TV, most of the time we need to use all our senses before making the purchase. And this means going to an old-fashioned shop.
And although Zoom wear and working from home will continue to be popular for the foreseeable future, this shift back to stores has to be good news for the high street. In a recent Retail Week research report, Retail 2022, commissioned by Reflexis and Zebra Technologies, 71% of retailers said that they were investing in staff enablement tech to allow store staff to better serve the customer. And even more encouragingly, 49% said that they plan to open stores on local high streets, reflecting that work from home trend.
And further supporting the future of physical stores, of the 53 CEOs who took part in the survey, 88% said that ‘digital engagement’ (investment in personalisation and experience) is a core focus for 2022.
The pandemic brought many changes to our lives, some of which we are still working through today, but at the outset, little did we know that it would accelerate many of the trends that had been predicted for years prior to March 2020. And whilst a spike in online traffic was an inevitable by-product of us not being able to visit stores, it appears that the pandemic has also been the reset that physical retail probably needed, and as a result of which, will be stronger for it.