Open one day, shut the next

Lockdown – the word that entered our collective vocabulary in 2020 has, for many of us, become a fact of life.  As the Coronavirus still runs rampant, with Delta accelerating transmission and vaccinations not yet fully deployed, lockdown is still, for many countries, the major defence mechanism against the pandemic.

Melbourne, Australia, for example, is (as of August 2021) in its 6th lockdown and recently marked its 200th day of restrictions. Researchers at Oxford University have created a ‘stringency map’ of the world, using a scale of 0-100 to show how tight the rules are in each country. There are countries in every decile, including those with a 90+ level of lockdown.

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The word ‘lockdown’ instils dread into the hearts of anyone who runs a retail store. It’s not just that they have to close the doors of their brick and mortar premises, but it is also the uncertainty and ‘yo-yo’ nature of the restrictions. Rule change literally from week to week, with new regulations announced at a few hours’ notice, making planning almost impossible.

Retailers need a survival plan

Not all retailers will survive this seemingly unending round of lockdowns. Consultants Alvarez and Marshall, in the foreword to their report, ‘The Shape of Retail’, note that “Weaker players will, unfortunately, cease to exist, leaving behind a smaller but more resilient sector that have acted fast.”

The question then, very clearly, is what can retailers do to ensure that they are in the group of survivors? Whilst we can’t alter the course of the virus, or whether lockdowns continue, there are some key things that retailers can do to mitigate the impact of repeated lockdowns and maximise their chances of coming through the pandemic intact.

Online/offline integration is the key

The closure of stores sped up the existing shift to ecommerce solutions. The Alvarez and Marshall report, created with Retail Economics, noted that “Across key European markets (the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland) the proportion of online sales rose markedly, from 12.1% in 2019 to 14.8% in 2020”, and that “Markets such as the U.K. saw online penetration rates peak at almost 40% during 2020.”

Retailers know that ecommerce solutions and a digital presence are essential, enabling them to continue to make their products available to consumers even during lockdown. But the really big differentiator and key to success is in the level of online/offline integration that the retailer can achieve. With the ‘open again/closed again’ nature of lockdowns, a retailer’s digital ecommerce solution must be an extension of the brick and mortar store, offering the same level of customer experience, the same loyalty approach, the same stock availability and the same goods and prices. This omnichannel solution approach gives the opportunity to showcase key products and to cross sell up sell to maximise basket size. Customers do not see online and offline as two separate channels – they expect to be able to mix and match, starting a transaction in one channel and completing it in another. They expect to be treated in the same way through both channels, earning and spending loyalty points, for example, or having their preferences known.

Safe and contactless payment options

Online/offline integration enables retailers to offer a wider range of options to help customers feel safe and secure when shopping.

When stores are shut, retailers with car parking space can offer contactless payment and pickup options like curbside pickup. Between lockdowns, when stores are open, there are many customers who are still nervous about shopping in store, but who welcome BOPIS/click and collect as an option. Online/offline integration is the enabling retail technology that makes these options possible. By achieving full online/offline integration, retailers can protect the customer experience, and reduce the impact of lockdown on their bottom line.

Inventory visibility

In order to achieve online/offline integration, retailers need flawless inventory management. Being able to manage inventory in one place helps retailers to ensure that the right goods are available in the right place at the right time. They can be confident that stock is rapidly available whatever the channel or delivery route, enhancing the customer experience and creating a truly seamless online/offline integration that takes the sting out of lockdown.

For retailers in many countries, lockdowns and uncertainty look to be a part of the landscape for some time to come. It will spell the end for some. But for those who are agile, open to change and willing to harness what retail technology and particularly online/offline integration can offer, there are opportunities to dampen the effects of lockdown and ensure they reach the end of the pandemic with their business intact.

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