<title-serif>Digitalisation saved the retail sector<title-serif><title-sans> during Covid-19<title-sans>

What did leading iconic brands get right during the pandemic? Jess Tyrrell, former Managing Director at Beyond in London, explains what we can learn from traditional retailers who embraced their swift upgrading of their digital presence during the pandemic and how they retained their brand personality online.

Retail Experience
5 min read

A line of shopping trollies that stretches across the the image. Behind it is a solid wall and underneath is asphalt.

Almost overnight, the global pandemic changed how we worked, socialised, learnt and purchased everything from clothes to the weekly shop. This rapid digital growth resulted in huge implications and challenges for the retail industry to overcome; major operational shifts were made at speed to remain competitive and ultimately ensure brands survived. Whilst online shopping was far from new, government restrictions meant that we were all left with little option but to do much more online, far faster than industry analysts predicted.

The changing nature of the UK’s shopping behaviours.

Despite 88% of UK consumers doing at least 50% of their shopping in person before Covid-19, consumer behaviour soon surged as we quickly became accustomed to the convenience, speed and free home deliveries, some even on the same day. 93% of all buyers have changed their shopping behaviours, switching to online due to the pandemic. More than half of us purchased products we’d never bought online before. In 2021, it was reported that smartphone e-commerce purchases had doubled since 2018. It’s a trend that has stuck - leaving businesses vying for position in a highly competitive digital marketplace.

Continuing their long-standing history of innovation and adaption, the iconic brands who relied on their now-closed high street stores chose to accelerate their digital plans – many at record speed.

In 2020, a whopping 83% of decision-makers reported double-digit growth in digital revenue. A vast jump from the 9% experiencing this growth in 2019.

State of Commerce Experience Report 2021. Bloomreach.

As restrictions saw shutters remain closed, the retail industry held onto the fact that nothing could replace the social tradition of shopping with friends or physically seeing, touching or trying products in person. Thankfully, these rituals have remained important for many shoppers as we start to return to normal. It is the fondness for such traditions that have seen consumers form strong affiliations with the brands we feel connected to, from retailers such as Liberty and Brompton to department stores like John Lewis. These admired, respected household names gained consumer trust and brand loyalty by delivering a consistent, first-class customer experience. Of course, personal service is far easier to deliver in person, so how did businesses engage with their customers to provide the meaningful, personal digital experiences they were looking for.

Digitalisation saved the retail sector during Covid-19.

Innovative businesses found creative ways to serve customers and weather the storm. We can learn from leading brands that took the human experience, making lasting emotional connections with their customers, but online. After all, we all make our purchasing decisions with emotion and back them up with logic.

And it is not just iconic brands, according to Salesforce, 71% of growing SMBs say their businesses survived the pandemic because of digitalisation.

Digital-first retail helps businesses improve both in-store and online. Web analytics turns real audience data into actionable insights, whilst bricks and mortar stores, e-commerce and mobile apps enable brands to offer one unified, omnichannel customer experience.

Retailers had to get inventive.

So, how did the most successful iconic high street brands digitalise?

Luxury retail brand, Liberty, is famous for its historic, striking grade II-listed Tudor timber-and-plaster building, which is home to its landmark store. Yet it had seen its online sales treble in the three years leading up to the pandemic. During the pandemic, this accelerated even further with the high-end fashion and homeware retailer experiencing triple-digit growth online.

Eric Fergusson, director of e-commerce at Liberty told Salesforce UK that it is a “pivotal moment” in the company’s history, with the company rapidly scaling up customer service and “using technology to pre-empt customer queries”. Liberty retained its personal service with its curated, sharable customer-centric content. Following the rise in dressmaking, quilting and home crafting during lockdown, interests at the core of the brand; this included tutorials, news pieces and interviews with leading quilters.

With its reputation for exceptional quality, national favourite, John Lewis, is trusted for its knowledgeable staff instore who are on-hand to offer advice and a personal service. After closing its doors for the first time in 155 years, the brand launched a virtual styling, home design and nursery advice so it could continue to provide the premium service they are known for. Each week, the company chose product topics and offered videos and articles with style ideas and recipes.

Brompton’s e-commerce evolution

A screengrab of Brompton's online store that lets the user select customisations for their fold-up bicycle.

In a remarkably swift e-commerce evolution, iconic folding bicycle brand, Brompton redeveloped their digital retail store, levelling up their entire customer experience in 8 short weeks following the boom in cycling nationwide - it being one of the few unrestricted activities under lockdown.

Recognising that the old site was built at a time when people preferred to buy in person, the brand sought a centralised design theme to unite their physical store and digital presence, known now as ‘Unfold your Story’.

The highly recognisable brand rooted in personality, Brompton is much loved by its bicycle owners; they form social groups, generating somewhat of a cult following. It was important to reflect the individuality of the riders who do not pick a bike from a rack, they customise each element of their design from over 116 possible variations - perfect for an online showroom configurator. Not only did this provide a highly engaging interactive digital customer experience, it streamlined the Brompton website, negating the need for separate model landing pages, saving significant website development costs.  

A selection of branding assets that coincide with Brompton's product line, with the title "Unfold -- set go."

We’re all grateful that the pandemic shows signs of abating but significant challenges remain in the retail sector. As Deloitte’s 2022 Retail Trends report states, stretched supply chains, semi-connector chip shortages, staffing issues, the cost of living crisis and now the war in Ukraine mean that retailers are far from out of the woods. There is still the need to increase productivity, sales and improve business agility to remain competitive whilst offering customers and staff a convenient, safe environment.

Much like Brompton’s rapid response, whether in-store or online, it is essential that digital to consumer (D2C) brands focus on providing a seamless experience across the entire brand. Today’s customers expect the omnichannel approach as the lines between physical and digital become increasingly blurred.

A grid of Brompton hero images with titles that say "Brompton Reimagined", "Find your ride and joy", "Never middle of the road", "Take the streets", "Made for Speed", and Unfold -- set go."

It’s simply no longer enough to be online, iconic brands must fully embrace the transition to a progressive digital service, capitalising on their existing brand recognition, moving their identity and personality online. When it comes to the future of retail, an effective digital presence is a necessity.

Technological innovation paves the way for a more interactive, immersive experience. At the same time, real-life, valuable customer data helps businesses create a highly effective digital content strategy, which not only attracts and engages consumers but rebuilds brand loyalty, turning happy customers into raving brand advocates for the world’s most iconic brands.  

Retail Experience
5 min read