4 Trends Shaping the Brick-and-Mortar Experience This Holiday Season
How will global consumers’ shopping preferences and external challenges shape the brick-and-mortar experience this Christmas season?
After almost two years of a global pandemic, shoppers are finally returning to brick-and-mortar stores this Christmas season. But everything’s hardly back to “normal.” Far from it, in fact. From lingering concerns over health and safety to supply chain disruption and beyond, a range of factors will mean this Christmas season won’t be like last year’s — but it won’t be quite like any that came before, either.
Here’s what’s different about this year’s Christmas shopping season — and how retailers can navigate their way through it.
Heightened safety concerns are top of mind
“Even at what you might call the height of the pandemic, shoppers weren’t quite as concerned with health and safety as they are this Christmas season,” said Andy Sumpter, Retail Consultant (EMEA and APAC) at Sensormatic Solutions.
Last year, a Sensormatic Solutions survey of U.K. shoppers found that cleanliness was their third-highest priority when shopping in stores during the 2020 Christmas season, with just 17% saying it was a major concern. This year, a survey of shoppers across the U.K. and Europe found that 41% were at least somewhat concerned about health and safety when shopping in stores.
“As we’ve arrived in peak season, people are very acutely aware that the shops are going to be more crowded, and they don’t want to stand in long queues,” Sumpter said. “But it’s not just an aversion to feeling claustrophobic or the inconvenience of long waits. After two years of constant news about health and safety, there’s now a pervasive sense that being in a crowd is risky. Even with the vaccine, that concern is still there.”
To overcome this, Sumpter emphasised that retailers should consider ways to communicate their plans and policies regarding health and safety in stores to Christmas shoppers.
“Retailers need to be crystal clear about what they’re doing to mitigate/avoid overcrowding, what their sanitation policies are and how often they’re sanitising, and highlight mask wearing obligations,” he noted. “Even in Europe, where retailers in many countries require proof of vaccination, this messaging is vital, because as we’re seeing, proof of vaccination is still not enough to put shoppers at ease.”
“Consumers have been inundated with news about inventory shortages for months now… They may or may not understand all the complexities that have created these conditions, but they definitely know these conditions exist. As a result, they’ve been shopping earlier, and that’s largely driven by concerns over inventory availability.”
Andy Sumpter, Retail Consultant (EMEA and APAC) at Sensormatic Solutions
Supply chain shortages led consumers to shop earlier
For much of the world, putting Christmas shopping off until the last minute is a time-honoured tradition. And while that’s no doubt still the case for many consumers this year, around the world, Christmas shopping started earlier this year than ever before.
“Consumers have been inundated with news about inventory shortages for months now,” Sumpter said. “They’ve seen the photos of the ports clogged with container ships and they’ve read the headlines about driver shortages. They may or may not understand all the complexities that have created these conditions, but they definitely know these conditions exist. As a result, they’ve shopped earlier, and that’s largely driven by concerns over inventory availability.”
A Sensormatic Solutions survey found that an overwhelming 76% of Latin American shoppers said they started shopping prior to November, while 44% of North American and 28% of Europeans said the same. Among European shoppers, this trend is particularly pronounced in the U.K., where 46% of consumers reported that they planned to start prior to November. This is likely due to the much-publicised post-Brexit shortages of drivers, labour shortages, and — well — pretty much everything, as reported by CNBC.
For retailers, Sumpter said this means inventory management should be a top priority.
“Consumers don’t care where the stock is or how it’s being distributed,” he said. “They only care about it being where they want to purchase it when they want to purchase it. And if they’re making the journey to a store, and they’re already experiencing some reluctance about going out due to safety, you want to be sure that when they get there, the product is waiting there, too.”
This extends to omnichannel retail, as well. Sumpter noted that with more people using Click & Collect in Europe, and buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) and buy online, pick up at kerbside solutions across North America – being able to accurately convey what is and is not in stock via omnichannel platforms will be critical.
“If I’m going to a store to pick up an item I’ve paid for, and I’m expecting to be in and out in minutes, I’m going to be very unhappy if I discover it’s not available after all,” he stressed. “If I’ve come to a store I was already wary of due to health concerns, now I’m also a disappointed customer.”
Innovative technologies improve the shopping experience
While many remain hesitant to venture back into stores, Sumpter noted that savvy retailers are finding innovative ways for brick-and-mortar stores to add value now, during the festive season.
“In the U.K., for example, there’s an electronics retailer called Currys that sells everything from household appliances to smartphones and computers. Think ‘Best Buy’ if you’re American,” he said. “These are products that consumers typically have lots of questions about, and Currys now has a functionality on their website that allows consumers to talk to an in-store associate online. So, shoppers are getting the same experience that they would in the store without an inconvenient trip to the store or concerns over health and safety.”
Tactics like these aren’t a gimmick or something that will disappear post-pandemic. In fact, data from Shopify found that consumers who chat online with an in-store associate are 70% more likely to make a purchase than those who don’t. That’s a hard number to ignore, and Sumpter predicted it’s likely that technologies like these will become the norm.
“Consumers don’t care where the stock is or how it’s being distributed. They only care about it being where they want to purchase it when they want to purchase it.”
Andy Sumpter, Retail Consultant (EMEA and APAC) at Sensormatic Solutions
Community becomes a bigger priority for shoppers
Whether caution, convenience, or a mix of both led many shoppers to rely on e-commerce behemoths like Amazon during the height of the pandemic, that sentiment seems to be changing some this Christmas season. And while e-commerce certainly isn’t going away, consumers in general, and Gen Z in particular, are eager to support stores in their community rather than relying on just e-commerce shopping. In fact, 51% of respondents to a survey by retail technology company PayPoint said they’ve adjusted their shopping behaviours and plan to continue to support local businesses as a result of the pandemic.
But shoppers aren’t just interested in shopping local. They’re interested in shopping with brands that mirror their values; and that includes how a retailer treats its employees.
“Many retailers have been operating on skeleton crews in their stores during the pandemic for obvious reasons,” Sumpter said. “But now that people are coming back, that’s not going to pass muster for savvy consumers. The stores are busier, but if they’re still not staffed adequately, consumers are going to see that. They’re going to see one harried associate trying to do the jobs of two or three people, and they’re not just going to have a bad shopping experience — they’re going to abandon that brand in favour of one that takes better care of its people and has stores that are staffed adequately.”
But consumers aren’t just noticing how retailers treat associates. According to Sumpter, they’re also more aware of and interested in how retailers treat the communities they serve.
“The big brands employ your neighbours as associates, drivers, warehouse and fulfilment workers, and more. They generate local tax revenue that goes toward schools, roads, and the like. They may not be a local family-owned business, but now more than ever, consumers are taking notice of the impact that retailers have in their areas — both positive or otherwise.”
And, he noted, they’re not afraid to make purchasing decisions based on that impact.
“If you’re a multinational retailer and your marketing is all about community, family, or sustainability, your brick-and-mortar customers need to see those values in action when they’re in your stores,” he said. “If they do, you may win loyal customers. If you don’t, you won’t just lose their spend, you’ll likely risk reputational damage when they tell their friends, neighbours, and social networks.”
This Christmas season will see a sea change in consumer behaviour. Brands that understand European shoppers’ concerns over health, safety, inventory, convenience, and community stand to reap rewards. Those many factors certainly do make for a tall order, but it is possible to fulfil. Doing so requires a delicate blend of marketing savvy, inventory intelligence, and community and consumer awareness — and retailers with the right priorities, technologies, and partners will be in a good place to set themselves up for a Merry Christmas after all.
About Andy Sumpter
Andy Sumpter oversees ShopperTrak’s Retail Consulting projects in the EMEA and APAC regions. He works with retailers and place makers, to help turn their data into insights that can make a difference to customer experience and the bottom line. Prior to joining ShopperTrak, Andy spent more than 20 years in Retail in a variety of roles, from the shop floor to the boardroom. He covered roles in Sales, Operations, and Marketing, and worked with retailers in Electronics, Gaming, Crafting, Furniture and Stationery. He’s passionate about keeping retail simple, driving retail service levels and experience through labour optimisation and operational efficiencies.