Michael Smollan
Michael Smollan

Pandemic scramble or boosted trend?

by Michael Smollan. 'Covid didn’t change the future - it just accelerated our speed into it’. Never a truer word has been said when looking at modern trade retail.

by Michael Smollan. I keep reflecting on the early pandemic words of author and public speaker Scott Galloway, where he stated that, ‘Covid didn’t change the future – it just accelerated our speed into it’. Never a truer word has been said when looking at modern trade retail. Indeed, the retail landscape may have shifted to a digital space due to these strange times – but this is no more a new trend than something like remote work, which has also had a timeline boost.

Physical retail was in trouble long before the pandemic. It had been suffering on a few fronts and those who were bold enough to be investing ahead of the curve have benefited massively. Is it a reflection of the accuracy of their predictions? Of course not. Is it fair reward for their bravery? Absolutely! Take for example the planning and preparation of the now widespread success of Checkers Sixty60. This was not a pandemic scramble that paid off. Instead, this took a few years of slow planning way ahead of the competition, that got set alight during Covid.

If you zoom out more broadly to physical retail, the department store was in a dire place. Certain categories like beauty, consumer electronics and others were disappearing from physical market share as digital retailers were starting to make a dent in the physical sense. Fast forward 18 months and what had started as a gentle jog, turned into a sprint.

The question now remains more critical than before – how does physical retail compete with digital given the acceleration around consumer spend; investor finances and the trend factor gained in a year and a half? Consider this:

  • Omnichannel is no longer a catch phrase, instead it’s a do or die. The categories under the spotlight are those that often require the most physical interaction. An EY report revealed that 47% of personal care and 57% of electronics bought online is first tested in store. This means the physical retailer is the place of consumer curiosity but not always of purchase. An easy fix with an omnichannel approach.
  • Phygital is an annoying word, but it must be the way we think. Some innovation that came from the Covid-push has really helped physical retail. Take the digital ambassador programs we are launching around the world that provide a cost-effective solution for brands and retailers; and offers consumers a platform to connect to an advisor, via video or text, allowing them to review products in-store.
  • Purpose: Doubling down on purpose. Now more than ever we realise the desperate state of our world and the people in it. Retailers bringing purpose into stores will bring consumers with it. Take the recent commitment from The North Face; or Patagonia’s focus along with others, to draw consumers closer to experience their in-store commitments.
  • Entertainment: Theatre is always fun and there is nothing like a physical in-store experience – a space where digital just cannot compete. From shop windows that visually inspire, to in-store experiential campaigns that capture shoppers – it’s all about entertainment. I always think of Nike Town in London with the DJ playing; the perfectly designed ground floor display of the newest gear; and the feeling of ascending into a world of Nike as the escalator pulls you heavenward. Pure. Retail. Dopamine. Pleasure.
  • Safety will remain with us for a long time to come. I often wonder how people prepping food didn’t wear face masks before the pandemic – one of the many things I cannot believe took a pandemic to make us conscious of. Retailers need to make consumers feel safe with the pedanticism of sanitisation. We need to continue with strict protocols and to keep some of the things we saw as a pandemic effect, as permanent.

In short, physical retail is very much alive. The numbers are telling us people are coming out of their hiding places to seek out their once familiar on-site footprints. Most banks have made transactions contactless (finally!) making the pathway for a resurgence of physical; or should I rather say omni-retail, on track again. The question remains – will retailers manage to take the lessons learnt and accelerate into this space?


Main image credit: Photo by Marcela Laskoski on Unsplash.



Michael Smollan is Chief Growth & Innovation Officer of Smollan. Smollan is a leading retail solutions company that delivers growth for retailers and brand owners across five continents by covering every aspect of how their brand is managed at the point of purchase, from field sales to in store and digitally. Smollan partners with brand owners and retailers to deliver accelerated growth by increasing reach, driving availability and visibility, increasing efficiency and delivering superior shopper experiences; operating across emerging and developed markets, in modern and general trade, and across physical and digital channels.


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