Four Hard Truths for Retail Brands to Consider During Their 2021 Strategic Planning, Post COVID-19

Total online spend dur­ing May hit a stag­ger­ing $82.5 bil­lion, a 77% YoY increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Adobe’s Dig­i­tal Insights Man­ag­er Vivek Pandya explains to Forbes it would’ve tak­en upwards of six years to reach May’s ecom­merce heights if growth con­tin­ued at the same lev­els from the past few years.

With six years of dig­i­tal growth crammed into mere months, retail brands have learned some harsh lessons about the nature of their online oper­a­tions. Encour­ag­ing­ly, many have react­ed and adapt­ed well, and are already look­ing towards next year at the changes they can make in order to meet the increased demand, shift­ing con­sumer atti­tudes and expec­ta­tions, and envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns of the 2020 ecom­merce boom.

1) Bricks and mor­tar over­haul: Time to re‑think your high street strat­e­gy?

It’s no sur­prise that, during the height of the pan­dem­ic lock­down, dig­i­tal boomed and phys­i­cal out­lets suffered. According to GWI, online gro­cery shop­ping across Europe is up 110%, while ‘buy-online and pick up in store’ (BOPIS) pur­chas­es sky­rock­et­ed by 208% YoY.

With non-essen­tial retail out­lets begin­ning to re-open across the con­ti­nent, many brands have been re-eval­u­at­ing the strate­gic role that bricks and mor­tar stores play. Microsoft, for exam­ple, has all but com­plete­ly with­drawn its high street pres­ence. Its flag­ships stores in Lon­don, New York, Rich­mond, and Syd­ney will remain open, but the rest of its 83 stores will per­ma­nent­ly shut their doors.

Inter­est­ing­ly, Microsoft’s flag­ship stores will remain open as ‘expe­ri­ence cen­tres’, rather than sales dri­vers, per­haps a pre­cur­sor of things to come?

Apple, on the oth­er hand, is inten­si­fy­ing its pur­suit of cre­at­ing expe­ri­ences with­in its phys­i­cal stores (while still dri­ving sales), with rumours cir­cu­lat­ing that cus­tomers will soon be able to book one-on-one appoint­ments with spe­cial­ists at Apple outlets.

Whether it’s through an increased focus on cre­at­ing expe­ri­en­tial spaces, the BOPIS approach, or sched­uled pick-up times, it’s vital that retail brands work hard at bal­anc­ing their in-store and dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences, ide­al­ly mar­ry­ing the two to cre­ate com­plete­ly fric­tion­less transactions.

2) Dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion has accel­er­at­ed, but expec­ta­tions have also changed

For many con­sumers, lock­down rep­re­sent­ed their inau­gur­al for­ay into online shop­ping. And, while dig­i­tal com­merce has been evolv­ing for years it is main­ly cater­ing to ser­i­al online shop­pers, who with an innate under­stand­ing of how brows­ing, pur­chas­ing, and deliv­ery process­es work are not imped­ed by glitch­es and occa­sion­al complexity.

All brands should pos­sess healthy and robust ana­lyt­ics capa­bil­i­ties, but now would be shrewd tim­ing to re-eval­u­ate how you inter­ro­gate that data, with first-time inter­net shop­pers also in mind. For example, using mouse track­ing to cre­ate heatmaps make it eas­i­er to under­stand what is work­ing and what isn’t on key web pages. Determining com­mon drop-off points and aban­don­ment points will be crit­i­cal to retain­ing first-time online buy­ers as well as enhanc­ing the expe­ri­ence for sea­soned shoppers.

Ease of use is crit­i­cal and your com­merce plat­form should be acces­si­ble and intu­itive to every­one, regard­less of their lev­el of expe­ri­ence with online shopping. And, despite phys­i­cal stores now re-open­ing, many first-time online shop­pers will become dig­i­tal con­verts over the com­ing months. The lock­down has forced many peo­ple to shift their shop­ping habits, and these changes will like­ly remain permanent.

3) ‘I don’t care how, but I want them’: Cus­tomers still expect per­son­al expe­ri­ence

The abil­i­ty to cre­ate an expe­ri­ence that felt per­son­al proved to be a prime indi­ca­tor of a brand’s abil­i­ty to roll with the punch­es through­out lock­down. Con­sumers, after all, are much more like­ly to side with a busi­ness that took the time to com­mu­ni­cate with them on a human, authen­tic, and per­son­al level.

Mov­ing into 2021, what’s impor­tant for retail­ers to con­sid­er is that con­sumers have two basic needs; they want to be treat­ed like an indi­vid­ual, and they want things to work. What they won’t tol­er­ate is 35-ques­tion sur­veys that dig into their per­son­al lives, or a clunky brand app that pro­vides no dis­cernible extra ben­e­fit from its orig­i­nal website.

Brands that can unearth the val­ue in data to deliv­er per­son­alised expe­ri­ences, with­out harass­ing their cus­tomers in the process, will be the ones thriv­ing over the com­ing years. Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence will be one of the most crit­i­cal tools here. AI can iden­ti­fy pat­terns, unlock insights that were pre­vi­ous­ly hid­den, and help brands use their data to inform the way they present con­tent, deliv­er expe­ri­ences, and set prices – or make fore­casts for when increased stock is need­ed.

After all, the surge in demand for many essen­tial goods dur­ing the COVID-19 lock­down meant many brands – espe­cial­ly super­mar­kets and online retail­ers – couldn’t ful­fil orders and were actu­al­ly los­ing busi­ness as a result. Post-lock­down, retail­ers will use AI for more accu­rate demand fore­cast­ing, pre­dict­ing surges in demand and man­ag­ing stock inven­to­ry and ful­fil­ment cen­tres in real time.

4) Eth­i­cal poli­cies and sus­tain­abil­i­ty goals are more impor­tant than ever

With lock­down forc­ing many retail brands into sur­vival mode, short-term demands such as cost reduc­tion and cash flow man­age­ment were, understandably, the imme­di­ate priority.

As restric­tions are eased, however, retailers must not for­get their com­mit­ments to sus­tain­abil­i­ty and putting pur­pose at the heart of their brand and the cus­tomer expe­ri­ence. To relent now would be dis­as­trous to con­sumer trust.

Already, gov­ern­ments across Europe are look­ing at ways to min­imise the envi­ron­men­tal impact of the e‑commerce boom. How­ev­er, respon­si­bil­i­ty also falls on brands them­selves to con­tin­ue inspir­ing pos­i­tive change.

Pre-pan­dem­ic, a brand’s eth­i­cal poli­cies rep­re­sent­ed one of its key dif­fer­en­tia­tors. Con­sumers are now more edu­cat­ed about the sup­ply chain and its envi­ron­men­tal effects than ever, and this has seri­ous­ly influ­enced their buy­ing habits and behav­iour. For exam­ple, two-thirds of con­sumers are will­ing to dig deep­er for sus­tain­able goods, while almost half (47%) would ditch a brand that vio­lat­ed their per­son­al val­ues.

Most impor­tant­ly, con­sumers recog­nise that this has been a tough peri­od for many busi­ness­es and that cut­ting cor­ners, in some areas, was crit­i­cal for sur­vival. Many are will­ing to go above and beyond to sup­port their favourite brands, particularly on a local lev­el, if that ensures busi­ness sur­vival. What they won’t tol­er­ate is a regres­sion to old ways of think­ing and doing, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regards to sus­tain­abil­i­ty and ethics.

This will, hope­ful­ly, result in high­er lev­els of col­lab­o­ra­tion between chains and local businesses, more inte­gra­tion between brands and mar­ket­places to get products/services in front of new audiences, as well as an increased focus from a more inclu­sive, diverse, and envi­ron­men­tal­ly-con­scious sup­ply chain.

Retail and Com­merce in gen­er­al will nev­er be the same again

For many brands, the surge in online demand exposed seri­ous flaws in their dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture. Encour­ag­ing­ly, those who had well-estab­lished dig­i­tal oper­a­tions – or react­ed quick­ly to re-plat­form, refine, and opti­mise – were able to mit­i­gate the impact felt dur­ing lock­down, and now pos­sess a robust infra­struc­ture that can serve them for years to come.

For those hop­ing that the return to nor­mal will mean they don’t have to invest in what it takes to be suc­cess­ful online; from an easy-to-use web­site to a robust com­merce plat­form to qual­i­ty data-led expe­ri­ences through AI-dri­ven insights it will be extreme­ly challenging. High street foot­fall is unlike­ly to return to pre-covid lev­els as con­sumer retain their new found dig­i­tal shop­ping habits in ever greater num­bers and an effec­tive dig­i­tal pres­ence will be critical.

To learn more about how Adobe has helped brands cre­ate busi­ness growth through com­merce go the Com­merce Cloud cus­tomer suc­cess sto­ries on