Interviews, insight & analysis on Ecommerce

As retail reopens, will shoppers turn their backs on e-commerce in favour of bricks and mortar?

By Ryan Findlay , CEO of Glasgow-based e-commerce agency Hudson

“If your business is not on the internet, then your business will be out of business”. Given the year the world has just experienced, these words from Bill Gates will have resonated strongly with millions of businesses as they sought to move their own operations into the rapidly developing e-commerce space. 

If people felt they couldn’t live without the internet before the pandemic, reliance on technology hit a whole new level during it. Online shopping, while previously popular, soared as physical stores closed and consumers took to digital platforms in their millions to satisfy their retail fix.

Online transactions leaped 84.7% in comparison to 2019 to account for over half (51.6%) of all retail spend in March (2020), while online grocery spend rose by a staggering 116.5%* as home deliveries were favoured over shopping in store.

But as the world starts to reopen ‘non-essential’ retail, has the online boom had its moment? Has the digitalisation of so many businesses over the past 12 months been a mere stop gap or means of survival that will drop off as consumers return once more to the relative embrace of the shopping centre?

For those who have already ventured out, the palpable excitement in the air among eager shoppers, itching to get back into stores after being deprived of the ‘real’ bricks and mortar experience for so long has been clear to see. The seclusion and screen time over the last year has left behind a thirst for a physical presence, which has led many in our industry to question whether restrictions lifting will see a lull in e-commerce’s successful year.

We are among the lucky few who closed on a profitable year in 2021. We grew a massive 150% with the sudden, increased demand in creating and building efficient, visually appealing online platforms for retail. But if you’re wondering whether we’re planning for a quieter period as the world resurfaces to shop in-store, the short answer is no.

The fact is, that the online shopping experience is now better than ever. The rise in e-commerce was notable pre-pandemic but as the physical economy shut down, companies quickly adapted and built their brand presence and customer base in the virtual world. – By using data to map, track and respond to target audience habits across multiple channels, brands have been able to effectively convert browsers into customers and customers into repeat business.

E-commerce is not simply about the online transaction. It is the creation of a personalised journey, making use of the wealth of data we have at our disposal to tailor site visits to the individual’s interests and tastes. And as older generations found themselves switching their own habits from the physical to the virtual during lockdown, many have woken up to the ease and efficiency of shopping online and kick started a whole new generation of silver surf – savvy consumers. As e-commerce undoubtedly saved thousands of businesses – big and small – as the shutters went down last year, the question also needs to be asked: how does this bode for bricks and mortar shops, whose ‘death of the high street’ concerns existed even before Covid-19?

Put simply, it’s not an ‘either, or’: today’s retail winners will be those that can offer a linked up ‘omnichannel’ approach. Retailers with the tools to let shoppers easily ‘click and collect’ and ‘check store stock’ on a product they’ve spied online, so they can see colours and materials in the flesh, before committing to a purchase. Retailers will need to mirror that clear and memorable brand experience of the smell, sound and look of the store with the one that sits in their customer’s pocket on their trusted app. With endless choice online, consumers want fewer, but better, choices offline; mediocre players won’t cut the mustard and this will lead to a decline in reputation and ultimately, sales.

But as e-commerce grows, we mustn’t forget that a brand’s physical presence is invaluable; there’s a reason why Londoners were queuing round the block for Selfridges as England reopened, leaving hours later with their iconic yellow bag.  The public won’t stop loving physical places – a day out spent shopping remains a habitual and thoroughly enjoyable activity for many. And showing off products in the flesh is an age-old marketing technique to demonstrate a proud brand.

The rise in e-commerce will only continue, and it may be a turbulent year for bricks and mortar retailers as we resurface to a changed world, but Covid-19 has only hit fast-forward on the evolution of the high street – not its death.

Related articles