Over the past year, the world we were so familiar with changed at an unimaginable rate. As drastic measures were taken to control the virus, businesses had to close their doors, many for the last time. Images of empty highstreets and closing down sales left a feeling of emptiness and dread for the future of the retail sector that many likened to the Depression of 1920. That being said, we live in a dynamic and ever changing world and with the opportunity of online sales and social media marketing, could there be a way to survive the death of the high street as we know it?
Following the initial March lockdown, the Office for National Statistics recorded the sharpest month-on-month fall in retail sales values on record. The following months of continued closure and tiered lockdowns led to many retailers being tipped into administration including household names such as Debenhams and Topshop owned by the Arcadia group. However, the closure of these stores did not come as a surprise for many, the stores are said to have been struggling long before the pandemic as they fought to keep up with online-only competitors such as ASOS and the BooHoo group.
Despite a package of help from the government designed to keep businesses afloat, for many it was not enough. The Centre for Retail Research estimates that over 20,000 stores may not reopen after further lockdowns. Alongside this, job losses meant that some consumers were no longer shopping at all or began looking for cheaper alternatives pushing businesses further to the brink. As a result, many were forced to look at other options. Turning to online sales and home delivery became the most promising choice.
The joy of browsing a beauty counter. Swatching shades of lipsticks on your hands and spraying countless fragrances until you’ve forgotten which is which. For many, online beauty retailers just cannot replicate the experience of shopping in a physical store. Despite this, demand for beauty products during lockdown still continued to grow. In the year of working from home and wearing a mask, the beauty industry has seen a significant overhaul in our attitudes to beauty and skincare. Our beauty routines saw a dramatic adjustment as salons closed their doors and many turned to at home hair dying and DIY facials. By June online retailers had seen a 70% rise in searches for at-home beauty tools such as facial steamers, and as make-up sales took a hit, skincare products prevailed.
Brands like Glossier who have continued to redefine e-commerce were a shining example of how savvy Millennial and Gen-Z shoppers dominate the virtual beauty shopping experience and their continued success in social media marketing inspired others to follow their lead and push online sales during this time.
Pre-pandemic, online beauty stores such as Sephora and Cult Beauty were taking beauty market share from department stores and proved that shopping for beauty products can happen online. However, for many consumers beauty shopping is an interactive experience and the inability to test and try products before buying will put them off of buying at all. When lockdowns were introduced in March brands such as Dr. Barbara Sturm began sending out samples to buyers homes whilst others updated product descriptions and added images with swatches on a variety of skin tones to make shopping online slightly easier.
As the majority of brands saw digital sales accelerate during the months of lockdown, key players were forced to review their online presence with a focus on direct to consumer e-commerce and shoppable social media pages. Prior to the pandemic, our shift into a more digital way of life saw many brands rethinking their shopping experiences and placing a greater importance on online shopping, but the pandemic has hit the accelerator and in order to stay afloat brands have had to adapt quickly. Consumers desire for a tactile and immersive shopping experience just wasn’t possible during this time, brands like L’Oréal and MAC opted for virtual colour testing to bring the in-store experience home with the simplicity of an app.
The shift to more consumers shopping online throughout lockdown could have even worked in favour of smaller independent businesses as prior to the pandemic many of these businesses focused on their online stores as they have greater reach. Their physical stores just didn’t attract such a large number of shoppers, but what does this mean for the larger department stores who dominate the high street and rely on their bricks and mortar stores?
Retailers such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols have become iconic London landmarks and pride themselves on elaborate window displays and a luxury shopping experience. Relying on footfall from large numbers of tourists and frequent closures of the stores meant these highstreet heavyweights recorded significant sales falls over the past year. The online experience just didn’t live up to what consumers wanted, many used to shopping in the physical stores for gifts or souvenirs that were just not necessary during this time.
For some shoppers the online shift was not welcomed. For Millennial and Gen-Z consumers the world of e-commerce comes with much greater familiarity, but for Baby Boomers the desire for a physical shopping trip is much greater. According to a LoyaltyOne survey on generational consumer habits, this stems from Boomers high expectations of customer service. Boomers place immense value in brands based on their interactions with sales associates. As retailers continue to try to replicate these interactions on their digital platforms, for many dipping their toes into the e-commerce waters for the first time was not quite as enjoyable. In order to retain this group of consumers moving ahead, retailers will need to review how they use their online stores to interact and make these customers feel valued. Even when stores are allowed to open freely, restrictions such as testing products and reduced numbers of shoppers in store means pressure will be on to create unbeatable customer service regardless of the situation.
Despite some rapid adjustments and steady online sales for many retailers, the need for physical shopping experiences remains the goal for the following year. As we begin to reopen and return to some state of normality, the focus will be on how our highstreet begins to attract consumers back in store with unique experiences such as pop-up stores, complementary treatments and experiential retailers. Think Benefit’s 2013 Temptation telephone or MaxFactor’s Facfinity pop-up in 2019.
For newer brands entering this uncertain time has been challenging. Launching a product without the ability to host events or store experiences has meant a greater reliance on digital and social media methods. Independent brands like Annabelle Minerals have utilised the reach of beauty influencers and the emergence of Tiktok tutorials. Many small brands have been sending out products to influencers with a large following who used their time in lockdown to create content, encouraging sales in a subtle yet effective way. Opportunities like this mean a great deal to emerging brands and looking ahead will become a vital element of their marketing plans.
The beauty industry has been famously resilient and its ability to sell a product that not only makes the consumer look better but feel better too will undeniably be one of the greatest selling points for the next few months.
The pressure on retailers over the past year may just become the catalyst for a transition into a newer and more exciting shopping experience that spans across both online platforms and physical stores. Creating a more dynamic industry that is best prepared to adapt to new trends and live wherever the consumer may be.