In the current enforced lockdown across much of the world, there has been a shift towards greater use of online shopping for essential and non-essential goods – a shift we discussed in one of our earlier commentaries* (Changing online behaviour). More than half of respondents surveyed in the last few days in the UK are buying more online than before the start of the Covid-19 responses by the UK Governments.
In this respect however, the restrictions are however merely reinforcing what has been a well document long term shift in our shopping behaviour away from purchasing goods in the traditional high street shop to online platforms – some of which of course have a presence in the High street too!
Over the past few years, responding to this trend, traditional shops and stores have sought to re-imagine and re-image themselves. Bookshops have become reading areas with cafes and soft seating. Cafes and coffee shops have encouraged people to sit and communicate online with friends alongside the ‘pick up and go’ offerings. Fashion clothing shops have emphasised their unique position in showcasing the latest trends to ensure that people visit. And across all sectors, there has been a focus on ensuring that there is the ‘best’ customer service and advice and a welcoming shopping experience that extends beyond the product purchase.
Collective attempts have been made also to ensure that shopping centres – not just the single buildings but also the collection of high streets that contribute to making a city shopping centre – offer attractive environments which are more than just shopping. The increase in theatrical performances in the public spaces in the ‘shopping district’ for example is one dimension of the redesigning of such spaces in terms of accessibility, physical quality and sociability. Only a couple of years ago, it was suggested that the successful high street shopping centre formula had at this heart an attractive public realm and a diverse retail offering that appealed to the ‘leisure-tourist-shopper’ (Jones et al, 2016).
In short, the aim has been to reimagine the stores are offering a sociable and leisure dimension to retailing in the battle to compete with online simplicity, accessibility and (often) price.
The likely imposition over the medium term (long after the lifting of lockdown restrictions) of social distancing measures is a new and fundamental challenge for the high street and city centre store.
Shopping with social distancing
Social distancing is the anathema of Jones’ et al formula for success. It precludes social gathering, deters lingering in public spaces, and discourages making time to view shopping as leisure and sociable. For the retailers themselves, social distancing makes it harder to offer customer service when close contact is to be avoided, whilst the notions of browsing and trying on or even touching products as part of the shopping experience will be frowned upon as perceived to be potentially unsafe.
And it is evident from data gathered by Appinio** in their latest wave of survey on the impact of Covid-19, that restrictions and need for social distancing is likely to impact on future shopping behaviour. The data suggest even after the crisis is over and curbs on shopping are eased – as we are seeing to some extent in some European countries this week – people will continue to be hesitant to return to former shopping habits.
Asked about future use of shops for purchases, just under half signalled the likelihood that they will use shops for fewer purchase than before and only 1 in 10 being more likely.
Implications for shops
In this new ‘normal’ context of social distancing, are there actions which high street shops can adopt to help allay fears and continue to compete with online providers? In partnership with Appinio, we have been exploring possible responses – actions that stores could take to help meet concerns of customers and encourage them to return to high street shopping.
Reassuringly for the retailer, many potential customers can identify measures which implemented would offer them some reassurance and encourage them to return to non-food shops. The most frequently mentioned are those that are already familiar to the shopper, having been introduced in many of the essential (food) shops in the last few weeks. Clear floor markings at cash desks, having access to hand sanitisers and having staff to encourage and ensure social distancing top the list.
Source: Appinio, 2020
Such alterations may of course not always be easy to implement in each store, especially in smaller shops and those with limited circulation space, but the data indicate that where present more than 2 in 5 people feel encouraged to shop. Much less concern is given to the need to reduce risk by limiting the shopping experience through restrictions of numbers of shoppers or the more tactile aspects of trying on clothes or touching products.
As the response to the Covid-19 crisis adapts over the coming weeks and months, and as the possibility of re-engaging with more retailers is made possible through changes to current ‘lockdown’ conditions, it is likely that other possible adaptations will emerge as retailers themselves, Governments and most importantly the public become more familiar with new ideas about social distancing and virus protection.
As the above results show, shoppers have had to adapt quickly to new ways of undertaking what for many was (previously) a sociable and leisure pursuit. It is important to remember that social distancing was for most people an unknown concept only a month ago.
The implications of such distancing on high street shops are thus only beginning to emerge and the Institute will continue to explore this in the coming weeks and months.
*Changing online behaviour by Robert Rogerson and Thomas Schoenberger. This commentary is part of a series of Covid-19 responses and implications produced by the Institute for Future Cities. Other commentaries in the series ‘Urban Futures after Covid-19’ can be found at www.ifuturecities.com
**Appinio has been tracking the effects of coronavirus over the UK and Germany for the last few weeks. The UK survey is based on a panel of 1,000 people representative at the national level in age and gender, with respondents aged between 16 and 65 years. The full report of the second UK survey will be published at https://www.appinio.com/en/ in a few days.
Dr Robert Rogerson is Academic Director of the Institute for Future Cities based at the multiple awarding winning University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. He works with city authorities and academic around the world to help develop solutions to urban problems, including his current research into the Future of the City Centre (www.futurecitycentre.com ).
Image: Thiis Magazine, 2020