Learning the Lessons of the ‘Retail Apocalypse’

Article by Martyn Jones | 4th March 2020

Apocalypse is a strong word.

One that has been widely banded around in industry news pieces describing the trends changing the fortunes of once-mighty high street regulars. Yes, we’ve lost some big names, yes other big names are facing serious challenges, but no… there is no ‘apocalypse’.

Or at least, not as some would describe it.

Defining the Retail Apocalypse

The shift in consumer habits that brought a flurry of high street casualties recent, and not so recent, for a while triggered industry narratives predicting ‘the end of bricks and mortar retail.’

In a recent post I listed three of the TED talks inspiring ‘future retail’—one of these caught my eye specifically because it illustrates just how relevant physical retail remains—despite the arrival and success of online ‘e-tail’. In his ‘omnichannel’ take on the future of retail, Kilian Wagner gives the example of how…

“4 people out of 100 buy eye ware online today. What does that tell you? That online hasn’t taken over bricks and mortar—so bricks and mortar is still relevant for 96% of customers in prescription eye-ware”

Omnichannel: Retail (R)evolution | Kilian Wagner | TEDxHSG

I’ll spare you the full history lesson, but it’s interesting that the word ‘apocalypse‘ comes from the ancient Greek word apokálupsis—meaning ‘revelation’ or ‘uncovering’. 

Read from this angle, it’s reasonable to say that the real ‘retail apocalypse’ isn’t so much in the nay-say forecasting of an obsolete model of physical retail pedalled by industry alarmists.

Instead, the apokálupsis, or ‘revelations’ are in the green shoots of progress being found and nurtured by trailblazer ‘growth retailers’ and being documented by people like Kilian Wagner.

Beneath the ash, the seeds are there.

Finding the Lessons

Kilian’s observation that physical retail remains relevant for 96% of eye ware shoppers is just a tip-off-the-iceberg revelation that retailers can place at the centre of conversation around transformation strategy. The lesson from Kilian is that the most productive approach for rebuilding from the ashes will be a mixture of strategies that harness the potential of multiple channels at once.

Here are a few more of the lessons to learn.…

Panic cost-cutting alone isn’t the answer

The early stage panic that crept in as big names started dropping triggered a market response of trying to stop the rot by pulling investments and cutting costs—the right thing to do in the short-term in order to limit potential damages, though cost-cutting as a survival strategy just won’t cut it. Here are a few reasons why…

Cutting costs only is as good as burying your head in the sand.
Since it’s effectively ‘prevention‘ and not ‘cure‘—yes, it protects short term financials, but does nothing to reposition strategy in-line with where consumer habits are taking the market sweet spot.

Cutting costs can actually harm the customer experience.
The temptation to cut costs in crisis is an obvious one. If poorly executed though, it can weaken store functions and departments that are critical to maintaining and nurturing the customer experience that has become critical to store and brand value.

Cost cutting is often a copycat tactic in response to competitor moves doing the same.
|t takes a gutsy strategy to pull different moves compared with what others in the market are doing. Just because competitors are taking certain steps, it’s no measure of how wise those steps are. As we’re seeing now form the growth retailers, sometimes, being the only player to take a different angle can really pay off.

Customers are in the board room

You need only look to the industry literature to realise that, more and more, there’s a metaphorical seat at the boardroom table for customers and their views—and the brands at the tip of the arrow aren’t just letting them have their say, they’re listening closely and factoring into strategy customer sensitivities.

In their piece on how consumers are defining brands, industry resource merchants, Raconteur comment on the thoughts of Carbon Trust Advisory consultant, Tom Cumberlege.

“Many haven’t necessarily listened to consumers’ interest in environmental issues. They haven’t invested the time or effort to understand the full impact of what they provide.”

– Tom Cumberlege, Carbon Trust

The Raconteur take-home: “Consumers have become a key part of building a brand’s reputation. While brand strategy has traditionally been built around “command and control”, it is now about turning customers into your brand advocates.”

Lesson of lessons…
Invest in tech and people.

It’s no secret that the right investments in the right moment can become the springboard for recovery and growth. Despite the obviousness of this, it’s staggering how many got it wrong when the chips were down.

Retailers that continue to suffer might do well to review how they’ve invested in those key moments. These are the 3 key areas that need to be closely nurtured if retailers are to steer their way out of the woods in good health.

Customer intelligence
Treat customers as inert and unchanging, and you’ll soon see that dreaded tumbleweed rolling through stores. Retailers need to maintain a constant view on and measure the shifting customer appetite for different things and the retail technology to help them do this is widely available.

Learn more: About store tech and customer tracking

Business technology
Brilliant technology is brilliant because it either gives us new abilities, or it makes better the abilities we already have. The future of bricks and mortar retail depends on and will arrive when stores bridge the gap between customer expectation, and the retail reality. Only technology has the power to pull out the right insights and respond with the right incentives that will put offering and consumer back at the same level.

Learn more: How growth retailers build store value from ‘unmanning’ and ‘self assistance’

Team knowledge 

While most prepare for automation, the few savviest are realising that people are and will continue to be a massive part of retail’s success. Yes, customers have grown more used to the independence of ‘self-assisted’ experiences, but no, this doesn’t mean people will fall completely out of the equation. More and more, consumers are combing online research phases with in-store visits for pickup and retail teams are being left behind as consumers educate *them* on their own products, pricing and policies. Invest in providing teams with a way of instant knowledge-sharing, and you’re effectively investing in the long-term resilience of your brand.

Learn more: why retail needs investment in ‘team knowledge’ to ride out the turbulence

Stay connected

Connect with the author Martyn Jones