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2020 - a defining year in retail

By Retail Technology | Wednesday January 6 2021

2020 may be over but its impact on the retail industry will be permanently felt. Braze’s James Manderson examines the year that changed retail forever

2020 has been a year like no other. The global challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic have dominated the news cycle as the UK has faced two national lockdowns, store closures, thousands of job losses and the start of a recession. Shopper behaviour has also changed dramatically, as consumers have been forced into an online-only world, accelerating digital trends that were already in motion. At the same time, consumer attitudes also pivoted, as we witnessed a rise of significant social movements such as Black Lives Matter, heightened support for the LGBTQ+ community, and a call for retailers to improve ethical business practices, following scandals such as the Leicester factory incident back in July.

These issues have regularly brought brands and retailers into the spotlight, as consumers increasingly scrutinise their responses, and the stance they choose to take. More conscious and ethical consumerism has been a growing trend for some time, but this year has brought to light that brand and retail Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is no longer just a ‘nice to have’, but an expectation.

A shift in consumer behaviour

As the pandemic took full grip in March this year, and the country was brought to a standstill, consumer behaviour and attitude shifted. With people locked down at home for weeks on end, attention turned towards crucial social issues, such as human rights, fair treatment of workers and cutting carbon emissions which prompted a call to action for brands and retailers to show their support. Communicating with customers during these unprecedented times was challenging, and whilst some retailers got it right, others got it wrong. A number of retailers were accused of coming across as insensitive and in some cases appearing tone deaf.                           

Braze’s research report ‘The Future of Retail: Opportunities for Brands in the New Normal’ highlights that customer loyalty is directly linked to aligning values with retailers and brands. In fact 94% of UK shoppers said they’d likely switch to a competitor if they didn’t like a retailer or brand’s response to COVID-19. Furthermore six in 10 (61%) UK shoppers, and nine in 10 (86%) UK Gen Z shoppers admit they had already dropped a brand this year because of something they heard or experienced that they didn’t agree with. Of those surveyed, specifically 11% of UK shoppers said they walked because a brand failed to take a stance they agree with on a certain issue, 20% said it was due to polluting or damaging the environment, and 21% because of how their products are made.

These findings highlight a shift towards more values-based purchasing, showing consumers are conscious of where and how they shop - a trend that is likely to continue into 2021. In response to this, retailers and brands need to understand the issues that matter most to their customers, and communicate their values with them in an authentic and transparent way, avoiding any token activism, and thus building long term loyalty and trust.

The power of engaging online connections

It’s clear that one key takeaway from this year is that online shopping has been king and important for survival when trading amid the pandemic, and its strength is likely to continue. According to Braze data gathered in August this year,, 78% of UK shoppers are still not entirely comfortable with shopping in person and plan to do a considerable amount of Christmas shopping online.

Retailers that relied on a physical in-store presence pre-pandemic were naturally hit the hardest with store closures,while for those with a strong online proposition soared - like Braze customer Gymshark, which hit a £1bn valuation and unicorn status earlier this year.

Brands and retailers that have invested in their online channels have been able to stay connected to, and retain customers, when in-store bricks-and-mortar interactions have been unable to happen. With an engaging, and real-time, communications strategy brands like Gymshark were able to connect with customers in meaningful and personalised ways - wherever, whenever and whatever tier they found themselves in.

Looking ahead to the new year, to achieve customer retention and loyalty, retailers must ensure they are focusing on delivering strong cross-channel strategy, through multi-channel messaging and engaging online experiences. Those that have already done so have taken the right steps towards achieving customer retention and loyalty in one of the most difficult trading years to date.

A focus to retention is imperative

As retailers and brands leave behind a challenging year and continue to navigate the uncertainty of the pandemic, and the rightly increased prominence of social movements, communicating with customers in empathetic and engaging ways has never been more important.

The Golden Quarter, including Black Friday and Christmas spending, has been incredibly difficult amid various lockdowns and store closures. Retailers have had to work extra hard to create engaging and personalised online experiences to win back lockdown shoppers this holiday season. With this in mind, retailers and brands must now shift their focus from customer acquisition to retention in 2021. In order to build loyalty and drive ROI, it's critical that retailers have in place a customer engagement strategy that demonstrates their values, provides clear benefits to the customer, and does so with humanity. To do this, retailers must examine their lifecycle marketing programs to ensure that every touchpoint, in every channel – from onboarding, through transactional messaging and reengagement – creates relevant, human and memorable experiences that engage customers.

One thing we’ve learnt from this particularly turbulent year, is that customers are looking to align with brands and retailers that they believe understand them and represent their values. Brands need to be able to communicate with customers in a transparent and human way, whilst taking into consideration the challenging macro-factors we face ahead in the new year. 2021 will be the year that brands are required to take responsibility for their actions and take a stance on socio-political issues, in order to compete in the new post-pandemic retail space.

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