How are you? Those three little words that used to be no more than a throwaway greeting have become imbued with so much more meaning over the course of the past few months. They form a question that’s at the heart of the crisis, the very question we asked our community. Your answers painted a picture not only of the current situation but of what the future may hold, showing that having our wings clipped has actually kept us moving forward more than ever before and inspired us to reinvent our trades.
Let’s start with the facts. The crisis is unprecedented in terms of both form and scale. Almost half of the world’s population has been affected by lockdown. Within our sector, that resulted in 91% of retail outlets having to close their brick-and-mortar stores, affecting independent boutiques and retail chains alike. Those businesses’ saving grace has been online sales, which have helped them keep ticking over.
31% of our community’s retailers have successfully maintained their online sales volumes, with 21% even seeing sales rise. One American designer has been delighted with the growing interest his garden products have generated. An Irish e-shop owner, meanwhile, points to the rise in his sales of children’s toys and a substantial increase in his board game sales - after all, kids need to be kept busy whilst their parents are working from home. The figure is nonetheless far from rivalling the growth recorded by Netflix. Tailoring the offer to meet current needs was one of the most achievable options available, and one adopted by 33% of retailers. At the end of May, e-store building platform Shopify announced that its sales since mid-March were on a par with those recorded on Black Friday. The crisis has unquestionably been a powerful accelerator for the digitalisation of operations within numerous firms. Within our community, 22% of retailers say they launched an online sales channel during this period.
A somewhat inevitable choice. But what the figures fail to convey is just how attached the members of our community are to the in-store aspects of their business, interacting with customers and running their point of sale. Social distancing put an abrupt stop to all that, making those aspects all the more alluring. The feedback we received in our survey shows that the desire to get back in-store and further enhance the in-store experience is clearly stronger than ever: “Customer proximity, a friendly welcome, offering advice and sharing a smile is far more important than earning a few euros less!”, “We’ll have time to serve customers calmly, one by one”, “My customers always love having a chat, touching the products... but in the meantime, online sales will help us weather the storm.” Respondents evidently recognise the value of interaction and even solidarity between customers, retailers and wholesalers, as was demonstrated during lockdown. A prime example would be the retailer who decided to join forces with some of her Maison&Objet suppliers and gift hand care products to hospital staff working on a maternity ward. In her words, “I think that going forward, independent retailers will have a key role to play in our society, engaging with people and offering a listening ear. That, in turn, will make us love our jobs even more, faced with customers who may feel totally lost faced with the pathogenic climate!”
So, what does the post-lockdown period hold? What will our new normal be? Whilst 70% of the firms surveyed recorded a drop in turnover of 30 to 60%, 36% believe their businesses will eventually bounce back to normal, and 39% even see it as “an opportunity to shake things up”. Everyone knows it’s not going to be easy, but both the need and the desire to make changes to the way things are done are there. In concrete terms, this will be achieved by developing local sourcing, focusing on “simple design”, choosing eco-friendly manufacturing solutions and being willing to carefully weigh up what “value for money” truly means.
In the current context, short-term customer behaviour is the great unknown. Our respondents are imagining everything, from consumers going shopping crazy having been deprived of shops for so long to people cutting back on purchases either voluntarily - in an effort to be better consumers - or through no choice of their own as they feel the squeeze in spending power. Looking further down the line, however, 86% of those we surveyed, be they retailers, interior designers or stylists, believe that customers are set to increasingly back production methods that have a positive social and environmental impact, further reinforcing an already strong trend. One direct consequence of the crisis is the need to develop suitable home office spaces. “Most of my husband’s contacts do their video conferencing from their bedrooms”, comments one interior designer. “It’s vital we encourage everyone to set aside a space where they can work from home. It could be any space whatsoever, as long as it is totally soundproofed and visually isolated whenever more than one person’s living there! Take it from a Dad who knows...”, exclaims another respondent who’s recently discovered the joys of homeworking.
At a time when so many of us have been staring at nothing but our own four walls for the past few weeks and months, 86% of those surveyed believe that “feeling truly at home in our own homes will become increasingly important, and we will see bigger budgets being set aside for home improvements.” Now there’s the perfect reason to be optimistic.