State of Play: Is This The End Of Retail As We Know It?

As seen in Fashion Roundtable.

With most of the country back in lockdown, remembering the ease of things before the pandemic feels but a distant memory. There was a time I took for granted, when I’d run my hands over a particular fabric or eye a print close-up, but with a new strain of Covid now sweeping the country, the longing I have for this tactile connection will have to wait. Retail capitalises on this connection a real-time interaction between the consumer and the product. But as our high-street closes yet again, further job losses and store closures are to be anticipated.

According to the Centre for Retail Research (CRR) an estimated 180,000 retail jobs were lost in the UK in 2020, up by approximately 25% on the previous year. As retailers continue to face rent-charges and a cash-flow crisis, 200,000 more jobs are also in jeopardy as we enter 2021. This has been accelerated by the Arcadia Group’s administration which put around 13,000 jobs at risk on-the-spot. Topshop’s demise, in particular, has highlighted the death of the traditional high-street as we know it. It’s now fundamental for the surviving stores to focus on providing what consumers want and need, as we learn to live in this new era.

While the pandemic has had a polarising effect on physical retail, analysts have confirmed that online shopping has seen a 75% increase since November 2019. Online stores like Boohoo have continued to grow since the start of the pandemic, and although there isn’t currently a competitor strong enough to take on this price-driven model, this isn’t a long-term sustainable option. Consumers are now far more woke to the sustainability issues surrounding fast-fashion companies like this, and while Boohoo continues to ignore labour exploitations, it is my view that consumers will shift to brands which offer more in terms of transparency, sustainability and quality in the future.

Interestingly, Forbes have predicted that consumer behaviour will never again be what it was and higher-levels of online purchasing are anticipated. As a solo working-mum during the pandemic, I have relied on two things when shopping: safety and convenience. Many stores are now offering buy-online-purchase-in-store (BOPIS) and curbside pick-ups to address some of the post-Covid pain-points, but these offer nothing in terms of the ‘experience’ that many consumers seek out. Seemingly, a 2018 Retail CX Trends study suggested that 30% of respondents felt that a personalised experience in-store elevated their purchase, perhaps confirming that consumers seek the experiential, and not just the transactional. It’s this in-store experience— whether that be the physical touch, a social connection, or the overall atmosphere— which since lockdown began last year, I’ve continued to crave.

It has long been understood that out-of-the-box thinking is necessary to save the fashion industry as we can no longer operate on the tired ‘take, make, dispose,’ model. To be truly successful moving forward, it is my view that brands should look to marry the coveted customer-experience with the convenience of online.

So, how could this look?

The pandemic has certainly been a catalyst for change, with many companies looking to evolve in response to the ever-changing set of circumstances that we find ourselves in. Augmented Reality (an immersive shopping experience) and Virtual Reality provide a promising solution and one that could add significant value for consumers and brands alike. Memorably, in April last year, Patrick McDowell’s virtual show for Helsinki Fashion Week pulled us through the screen into a Vatican City in the clouds, with a boundless number of crystals and a multitude of pink silk. Gucci teamed up with Bellarus-based tech-startup, Wannaby launching an iOS app which enabled customers to virtually ‘try-on’ trainers from its Ace collection. Within the app, users could point their phone’s camera at their feet and pick which trainers to try-on virtually. Without being able to test make-up in-store at present, AR has also seen significant traction in the beauty space, with consumers trying on products virtually to aid in decision-making. In fact, virtual try-on beauty app, GLAMlab reported around 50-million shades of foundation having been swatched virtually since the start of the pandemic. With this in mind, Shopify recently released figures showing products with AR content had a 94% higher conversion rate than those without.

Finally, from a sustainability standpoint, AR usage could have a positive effect in this space. Perhaps if you’ve virtually tried something on before buying, would you be less likely to return the item? Although there isn’t enough data yet, this could provide a compelling solution in offering brands a way to reduce their carbon footprint. The consequences of a truly sustainable fashion-future are hard to imagine, but AR could enable brands to test and examine scenarios along with data which could have a positive future-effect on their sustainability goals. It’s definitely a space to watch.