Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers were struggling with a shift online that threatened to disintermediate their traditional store-based strategies. But retailers that were able to provide essential goods and invest in their digital capabilities benefited during the pandemic. Those that could not struggle with a lack of access to their customers. But unprecedented times are not unprecedented. Retail has emerged leaner and meaner from unprecedented times before. Despite the much-publicized “retail apocalypse” following the recession of 2007–09, which forced the closure of tens of thousands of stores, incumbents have continued to weather disruption and improve their business.
As retailers look to the future, there are two fundamental differences in their operating environment that will cast doubt on their tried and tested strategies.
The first is that the disruptive forces shaping the industry are no longer framed by distinct events, but are instead forming a constant backdrop that continually tests retailers’ resilience and agility. Retailers enjoyed a decade of relative economic stability between the recession and the outbreak of COVID-19. Today, the impact of COVID-19 is being compounded by supply chain shocks, accelerating inflation, the war in Ukraine and wider geopolitical tensions. Together, these factors are collectively undermining the era of globalization and the relative prosperity that businesses have thrived in for decades.
Against this backdrop, the need for customer-centricity is not retreating, but accelerating as consumer expectations evolve, enabled by other factors such as increased transparency and choice, rapid technological shifts (especially in digital environments), mounting concerns and commitments around sustainability, and convergence between different sectors as retailers explore new ways to unlock value.
EY Future Consumer Index
45% of consumers think the way they shop will improve in the coming years.
The second difference is the change taking place in the relationship that retail has with consumers, where the long-held principle of customer-centricity is likely to no longer be enough to confer loyalty. In truth, retail has failed to truly embrace customer-centricity over the decades. Instead, retailers have used their focus on scale, scope and efficiency to drive a value proposition that puts other business needs first. It could be argued that retailers have grown for decades by making their customers do much of the work for them, by making them part of a process optimized around stores and the products retailers sell. Traveling to a store, trudging through aisles of stock, trawling through a vast range of products to get to what you want at a price you can’t negotiate, carrying them to the checkout, queuing to pay, scanning the items and taking the products home yourself hardly constitutes a customer-centric experience.
This is changing as consumers become more central in defining the activities of retailers. The internet has provided greater knowledge, choice and transparency. Online platforms have redefined expectations of choice and convenience by showing consumers what can be achieved. Immersive digital and physical spaces have created new approaches to experience. Smartphones and logistics platforms have exponentially improved the way consumers can access and receive products. Consumer values around social and environmental issues are increasingly shaping what they buy and whom they buy from.
Retailers are now in a landscape where the customer is truly king, and just delivering customer-centricity is no longer enough to confer loyalty or advocacy. Instead, retailers must find ways to integrate themselves into the everyday lives of their consumers by delivering tangible and intangible value. Success is now defined by the ability to build a trusted long-term relationship; the simple act of transactionally selling products will no longer be enough.
This transition will prove difficult for incumbent retailers. They have built vast and profitable businesses spanning channels, categories and continents using legacy infrastructure that will be difficult to disentangle from. Efforts to change are evident, but the scale of change required is not. KPIs built on sales per square meter will not be fit for a customer base that increasingly blends its shopping habits between stores and online. Promotions designed to increase basket sizes are less resonant with customers who want to buy “better” products rather than “more” stuff. Generic layouts in stock-heavy stores ignore the serendipity and enjoyment that consumers crave when they interact with brands.