Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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11th March, 2020, will go down in history as “This Day That Year when the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic”. Businesses, and lives, as we all knew it underwent massive disruptions as a result of which the retail space across the globe transformed. The Coronavirus outbreak took the global retail industry by storm, and like everywhere else where movement was restricted, India too saw reduced footfalls in stores, changing consumer behaviour patterns, acceleration in adoption of online platforms etc. The list is rather long, but suffice to say that the retail industry has undergone a complete makeover.

The digital acceleration was very rapid, in fact, almost coerced, on both ends of the spectrum – consumers and organisations – spurring brands to adopt numerous technologies in the retail space to remain relevant to target audiences. The mandated movement restrictions and safety concerns witnessed rising digital influence as people spent all their time online – a major shift in terms of consumer behaviour. Even as the world is reopening now, discerning consumers are still acutely aware of the ground realities of the pandemic still being very prevalent, and therefore practicing social distancing and self-mandated restrictions on movement.

Besides the virtual world where brands have made relevant investment and concerted efforts to enhance the browse to buy journey, brands also need to re-imagine in-store experiences. Being able to navigate and enhance the physical purchase experience by mimicking consumer behavior, especially in high-touch product categories is what will make brands relevant and caring in the eyes of the consumer. Those who can successfully create unique virtual experiences and offer seamless services on online platforms and offline platforms will continue to thrive despite the initial setbacks caused by the pandemic.

As some people are now venturing out for a quick break from their mundane work-from-home routines, while others prefer to stay home, the need of the hour for organizations is to find a strategic balance between both channels – clicks and bricks – of sales. In addition to ensuring a complete virtual path-to-purchase (from browsing to payments, to after-sales assistance) is possible, it is also crucial to streamline physical operations at storefronts, and make sure customer service centers are also fully functional. With this background, here are a few trends I’d like to point out, that have caught on like wildfire:

Contactless, but also seamless: While ensuring contactless services and delivery has become an integral part of serving consumers amid COVID-19, what’s more important is making the process of purchase absolutely seamless for our consumers – whether they’re shopping online or stepping out to brand stores.

Personalization: As people were forced to stay home, it freed up a bit of their time and reignited their passions and hobbies – from cooking, to sewing and embroidering, to even sprucing up the décor of one’s home. Many people also jumped on the fitness wagon in a bid to remain healthy while staying home. This has in turn led to a rise in demand for personalized products like niche kitchen appliances, sewing machines, decorative lighting, etc.

Hyper-local: An increasing impetus is now being laid on localization. Brands should strive to focus on diversifying their existing product portfolio, extending more product offerings, and strengthening partnerships across regions as they introduce customized region-specific products. The idea is to serve products to consumers in their vicinity itself, in order to reach out to larger audiences across the country.

Best of both worlds: With the ubiquity of mobile connectivity now accelerated, lines between the physical and digital worlds have now blurred. This has led to the adoption of omni-channel strategies by brands.

Despite the fact that e-commerce is now flourishing, brick-and-mortar stores continue to pull in a huge amount of sales, an indicator that the physical retail is a turf you ignore at your peril. This is where the ‘phygital’ approach comes in, which combines the best of both worlds. An Omni-channel strategy allows for providing consumers with an integrated shopping experience, which in turn gives them the choice to shop via various channels, including online or in a retail store. Brands need to realise that neither pure e-commerce nor purely physical sales will ever deliver a desirable customer experience and the answer lies in adopting a hybrid model. Customers now want hyperlocal and personalized experiences both in-store, as well as online.

Unified commerce: A centralized unified commerce platform eliminates the bottlenecks of data silos, and ensures sharing of systems and date. The problem with data silos is that it is only held by one group or department, and is not easily or fully accessible by other groups. They limit an enterprise-wide view of data, which in turn discourages collaborative work and leads to duplication of efforts and resources.

Unified commerce allows organisations to connect all the dots within the business on a single, centralized platform, combining e-commerce, m-commerce, order fulfillment, inventory management, customer relationship management (CRM), and other technologies. In the end, a unified commerce prioritizes the organisation’s customers without having to rely on multiple internal channels of operation. It’s literally saying that all pic code areas can be serviced, no restrictions of any kind.

While the pandemic has acted as a catalyst for all these trends, I believe that these are here to stay for a long-term period, well into the post-pandemic future. Now is the time to pay attention to these details while on that whiteboard in the boardroom, ensuring your retail strategy is on point and in sync with the times or you could be left trailing.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Times – ET Edge Insights, its management, or its members

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