How retailers can adapt, post lockdown zeitgeist

by Craig Hannabus. New consumer habits post-lockdown could exclude going to malls and shopping centres; and coupled with the inevitable economic woes, may mean that we’re in for a societal reset. 

by Craig Hannabus. Recently, Beijing experienced a temporary month-long lift in COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The expectation was that people would return to their normal lives, rushing out to malls and shopping centres, picking up where they left off. Strangely, that did not happen. Instead, shopping centres remained by and large, empty.

There are a number of reasons for this. China is the ground-zero of COVID-19. For the longest time, the country had the highest infection rate and death toll. The fear amongst the public is palpably real. It has meant that a lot of other concerns have had to be relegated to the backseat. But as the retailers of Beijing experienced first-hand, a brief reprieve by the government did little to settle the fears of the public. Many businesses suffered during the lockdown and continue to suffer post lockdown with retail sales dropping 20.5% from the same period last year. A recent survey showed that 41% of respondents will reduce their monthly spend to save for future crises. Only 8% of the respondents expressed any willingness to return to normal shopping habits.

What will the picture look like for South Africa?

It’s hard to say what the picture will look like for South Africa. Culturally, we’re a little different from China, but there are some basic human traits that we need to consider; the most notable being how habits are formed. Phillipa Lally, a health psychology researcher at the University College of London, worked out how long it would take the average person to form a new habit. Her research indicated that it could take anything from 18 to 254 days. At this stage, we would have been in lockdown for five weeks (35 days). As the saying goes, ‘habits maketh the man’; and the fact is that many of us will walk out of lockdown with new habits.

In the lockdown, our focus is shifting to prioritising relationships and general wellbeing over materialism. This is brought on both by the dramatic change in our daily habits, but also the forced introspection that lockdown will inevitably bring. These new habits are likely to exclude going to malls and shopping centres. Our new habits, coupled with the inevitable economic woes that lockdown has brought on, may mean that we’re in for a societal reset.

What can you do as a retailer to get people back in-store again?

The one big lesson we’ve learnt from China is that people need to feel safe in stores. While the temptation is there to try and attract people with specials and products right now, a better route to take is to begin talking about the safety measures that you’ve put in place to mitigate any further infection risks. Right now, people are prioritising their safety over the need to go shopping. Any messaging that you can circulate now around your current and planned sanitisation measures would go a long way to assure shoppers that you care for their safety.

This is also the right time for brand-building through relevance and resonating with customers. Brands like Seattle Coffee and Nandos have gotten it right. People are more open to engaging with their favourite brands because they miss them during this time. If you’re not doing any social media, get on it now. You are missing a massive opportunity.

If you don’t have ecommerce set up yet, now is the time to accelerate that move. China has shown us that people have gotten used to working from home. Big business has seen that not only is it feasible, but that in most cases, their employees are happier and more productive. Working from home means that people are not going to be swinging past their favourite shop on their way home. The only way to be part of a commute in this anticipated new normal is to be part of the internet. Digital transformation through e-commerce may bring about a few changes. Overseas, the trend shows competitors collaborating to leverage either a variety of products or to facilitate delivery more efficiently.

The consumer will realise that shopping in the real world is for the most part, less convenient than online shopping. Turning shopping into less of a chore and more of an experience will change perceptions. It could be a case of bundling relevant items into ready-made packs or making sure that there is always some entertainment happening in-store. Consumers will need a stronger reason to come to a brick-and-mortar store in this new future. A great example of an experiential store is Tiffany& Co. Style Studio in London’s Covent Garden. The store features vending machines stocked with Tiffany perfume and a #MakeItTiffany jewellery customisation bar. The interior of the store is also highly ‘instagrammable’. It isn’t just a store; it’s an experience destination.

Finally, whatever you do during this time to prepare for post lockdown, make sure that all your communications are sensitive. People are going through something that they’ve never been through before. Ensure that your brand exercises a degree of caution. Our industry has talked about authentic brands for years, but the time has come to stop talking and start doing. The new consumer is walking out of lockdown with a new set of values, a new set of concerns, and a new set of expectations. Are you ready to meet them?


Craig Hannabus is strategy director at Rogerwilco. He has spent 11 years in the digital marketing industry. During his career, he’s gained exposure as a community manager, content writer, developer, and UX strategist, before embracing a new role in business strategy. Craig has worked on blue-chip brands including the likes of Standard Bank, Nedbank, General Motors, Nestle, Reckitt Benckiser and Caxton, to name a few.

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