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Retail Reflections: are you feeling optimistic?

Alan Monahan writes:  And so to Spring Fair – and the promise of a more than interesting show following the fall-out from the Brexit vote.

 

The retailers among you will be anxious to discover if importers have managed to hold their prices in the wake of the falling pound. And I wonder if you’ll find suppliers with products made in the UK offering you terrific deals to grab your business.

So, will you be heading for the NEC in an optimistic mood?

Of course, it would be easier to answer that question if you knew if consumers were going to carry on spending in a time of uncertainty. But recent research has only served to muddy the waters.

On the one hand YouGov believes they are marginally more “bullish” and says that its confidence index has shown its biggest monthly increase since last August, while Deloitte’s tracker reveals that confidence dipped in the fourth quarter.

Gfk wades in with statistics that show its consumer confidence index rose two points in January to hit a balance of -5, after dipping to -12 in July following the Brexit vote. As for Donald Trump, I’m not even going there! But, like you, I’ll be hoping that shoppers don’t tighten those purse strings any time soon.

There can be little argument that people committing retail crime are able to act with relative impunity. The BRC’s latest survey has highlighted rising cyber-enabled incidents and a 40% increase in violence and other forms of abuse against retail workers in the past year.

Its report reveals that crimes being perpetrated against retailers and their customers include phishing, theft of consumer data, doxing and social engineering, as well as a host of other increasingly elaborate scams. The overall number of retail crimes committed has risen to 3.6 million, with the direct financial cost of crime to the retail industry reaching £660m in 2015-16.

Helen Dickinson, the BRC’s chief executive, says that this rising tide of crime should be stemmed through even stronger cooperation between industry, the government, law enforcement and the private security industry.

But I seem to have heard that before and it is difficult to imagine the situation improving unless the BRC and other trade bodies step up their lobbying of government and the police.

Dickinson claims that retailers are doing everything possible to ensure that staff members and customers are safe and protected, but admits that a significant aspect of the cyber security challenge for retailers is the attractiveness to criminals of customer data.

So, we will clearly need more than platitudes to catch the villains who operate outside UK borders but can nevertheless gain relatively easy access to UK digital networks.

ShopperTrak says that the ability to see a product up-close and ask an expert more about it should not be underestimated – which is why bricks-and-mortar’s unique advantage over online shopping is its human touch. Indeed, it’s one reason we’re seeing brands like Amazon begin to explore physical retail – and why analyst Planet Retail has predicted the death of pure play retail as we know it by 2020.

ShopperTrak has discovered that a quarter of European consumers want staff in physical stores to be better skilled, so they can offer ecommerce-style services such as sharing detailed product information. But sometimes being too eager can prove a deterrent. Its research shows that more than a quarter of consumers will leave the store if they find salespeople too pushy – save for Germany, where tolerance is slightly higher.

Apparently, what shoppers do want is the same clear, structured browsing experience and endless aisle availability they have become accustomed to on the web; 40% get frustrated by poor stock availability, while a quarter wish that stock was more clearly laid out – with the UK and Italy most affected at an average of 29%.

The analytics firm says retailers must appreciate what shoppers specifically want from their business so they can build a strategy around their desires. That means taking the temperature of their own store or shopping environment in order to analyse where the weak points lie in the current customer experience, and where innovation is needed.

While there are many sophisticated pieces of next generation technology out there that shoppers would love to use, most retailers simply don’t have the budget or resources to implement them all. And while ShopperTrak suggests that they prioritise which technologies to introduce, I suspect the cost would still be beyond most of our readers.

One thing upon which we can agree is that change is the only constant in retail – and creating a fantastic customer experience will safeguard bricks and mortar retailers in the digital world.

May the retail gods be with you.

Email Alan: ajmonahan@aol.com