Brick and mortar retail is not dead, it's an experience, say retailers
Local retailers confident that brick and mortar will still be relevant post-COVID-19Sunday, May 17, 2020
BY ABBION ROBINSON
Despite the accelerated use of existing and new technologies and tools as COVID-19 forces the world to work remotely, some retailers are confident that brick and mortar will still be standing after the threat of the disease has receded.
Anthony Pearson, managing director of Lloyd's Department Store in Montego Bay, described the shopping experience as an event, which is one of the most important differentiating factors for retail companies.
“Customer service is not something that you can get with online shopping, that face-to-face customer service is what is really going to keep brick and mortar going. Retailers have to create a whole new experience — shopping is an event, not just coming to pick up a pair of socks or handbag. It's a whole event and experience that the shopper is going to enjoy,” Pearson asserted at the Jamaica Observer's webinar 'The Future of Brick and Mortar Retailing' held Tuesday last.
Pearson, who has been operating the business since 1965, also indicated that despite a 70 per cent decrease in sales, he has no plans to lay off, or make any of his 50 employees redundant.
“The business has been significantly affected. Obviously there is not much things to do or places to go, so the party shirts and dresses are not a priority, but thankfully babies are still coming into the world and our baby department is doing very well. What we find is that a lot of people who would have normally bought items online or get them from overseas, are “forced” to buy things locally,” he added.
To Pearson, this just further strengthens his argument for retailers to offer customers a unique shopping experience.
“This pandemic has just fast-forwarded what retailers need to do in the future — which is to embrace technology. Retailers have to invest in technology to take the in-store capabilities to the digital age. Our competition is obviously online shopping but you have to remember that statistically still 75 per cent of shopping, takes place in brick and mortars. I'm batting for brick and mortar obviously, but we have to embrace the technology around us and we have to work with it and we understand just how important our customers are and good customer service,” he maintained.
Michael Ammar Jr, owner of the Ammar's chain of fashion stores, shared similar sentiments.
“To make your brick and mortar stand out, you need to have first-class, efficient and safe service, especially in this time. We actually just finished a $50-million renovation of our main store in Village Mall and just wrapped up the renovations of our downtown Kingston store, so I'm a wholehearted fan of brick and mortar. I also understand that for the millennials, brick and mortar is not what they like as they prefer to stay at home, look, click and buy, but we're actually about to launch our website,” he revealed.
“Somebody once told me that only after the rain do you really see the rainbow and I'm a true believer in that. I know it sounds hard now, but now is actually the time to put the foundation down for tomorrow and to make sure that everything you do is the best. At first, sales were probably down about 90 per cent and now we're building back slowly. I feel that by August, unless something really terrible happens, we should find that we're back to where we want to be,” he added.
According to him, when COVID-19 was first detected in December 2019, he began to prepare by implementing safety protocols at the three stores — King Street in downtown Kingston, Village Mall in Constant Spring, and the Sovereign Centre on Hope Road.
“We implemented sanitising the stores every half-hour, as well as the point-of-sale machines. We also put our staff in masks and gloves and placed some monitors at the doors to check temperatures, and everything else possible to make the stores safe. We wanted customers to come in and not be afraid to touch anything, and we certainly didn't want our staff to feel that they're not in a healthy environment,” Ammar stated.
Like Pearson, Ammar stressed that the welfare of his employees — whom he refers to as his family — is a main concern and does not intend to lay them off .
RETAIL BRANDS AND TECHNOLOGY
According to Radhe Vaswani, COO of Global Clients at MullenLowe Profero Singapore, customers will always have unwavering support for their favourite retail brands.
“Most of the retail brands that are on here today have been around for 40-50 years and it takes a really long time to build a brand and a loyal customer base. By just tapping into the one per cent of your loyalty base and showing them that you care, they in return will support you. That's why I recommend a customer experience that you can bring to life virtually, whether it's through storytelling or videos. There are many different ways that [retailers] can substitute that offline experience that they're so used to creating online,” she advised.
MullenLowe Profero is a digital marketing agency operating across 12 offices, with over 600 employees globally. Its services typically include digital marketing, creative, media, technology, user experience and strategy.
Sonia Trehan, general manager of Lee's Fifth Avenue, also attested to the benefits of utilising social media to build and maintain a brand.
“We have 3,000 followers on Facebook and about 20,000 on Instagram. Social media has helped us a lot in the current crisis. Personalised shopping experience is what we are depending on right now. Our staff calls our top 20 customers and they ensure that they don't spend a long time browsing in the store as we understand that they don't want to come into the stores as much as they used to. So this is a new time, and working with our customers before they even come to the stores is a key element,” she stated.
GOVERNMENT AND BANK ASSISTANCE
According to Trehan, local retailers also require assistance from the Government.
“We are expecting help from the Government in recognising that there is a threat to local retailers, not from other local retailers but from foreign online shopping. Competition is good but we want a level playing field. We want the Government to come to our assistance and assist the retail sector just like it does other sectors — we need to see the love towards the retail sector as well,” she declared.
“There are some exemptions being given to shipping companies which [local retailers] do not get. We need to make sure that we do everything possible for the survival of our businesses. Retail brick and mortar is definitely not dead. People are not going to stop going to stores just because of this temporary situation. I think we need to look for more long- term development strategies to put ourselves in a position where we can survive — not just for the next two years but even beyond,” Trehan continued.
Meanwhile, Kevin Donaldson, executive vice-president of Sagicor Group Jamaica and CEO of Sagicor Investments, indicated that the banking sector has been on a track to digitising small and medium-sized enterprises.
“What the pandemic has done is fast-track a lot of the initiatives. The future of the banking sector and interactions with clients is through the digital space and we're prepared for it. It will require changes to how we do business and it will even require changes to the laws. At Sagicor, we are allowing clients to trade online, send their orders online and also allowing clients to call their representatives and book appointments, knowing that when they get in, they can get out as quickly as possible,” he stated.
“It is about making the space interactive enough and comfortable for clients, so that they feel OK doing business with you. I think that's what the banking and retail sector have to do as there are different ways to look at it. You have mass market and niche market and you have to prepare for those in different ways. Every crisis that has happened to the world, we have transformed and come out better because humans are adaptable, and that's what we expect to happen. The retail space is no different.”
Powered by Sagicor and hosted by Novia McDonald-Whyte, the Jamaica Observer's senior associate editor for lifestyle and social content, the webinar also featured Nichole Bartley, managing director of Fashion 911 Ltd; Anup Chandiram, CEO of Bijoux; Mae Wayne, CEO of St Lucia Star and director of Haute Couture; Sir Paul Altman, realtor, developer of Limegrove Lifetsyle Centre; and Peter Elias, designer, style arbiter and merchandiser.
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