How To Navigate The Future of Retail By Sara Roberts

Each new year introduces new opportunities and challenges, but 2020 was exceptional. The pandemic massively disrupted retail organisations due to ongoing lockdown restrictions and social distancing requirements, both of which look set to continue to varying degrees throughout 2021. 

Sara Roberts is the founder of Healthy Nibbles, offering several innovative retail experiences within the workplace and eCommerce, having previously run an international brand and innovation agency for over a decade before she returned to the UK and set up Healthy Nibbles in 2015. We asked her to share her insight into how best to navigate the future of retail in 2021 and beyond.

Begin with the customer in mind

From the words of Dr Stephen Covey, “Begin with the end in mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of the desired direction and destination”. There is no better way to describe how a retail business should be approached, whether it is a startup or well established. 

When most retail businesses are founded, the owner usually has an intimate knowledge of their customers because they spend much of their time engaging with them. Many times, the owner is a consumer of the product and so naturally understands the needs and preferences of their customers from personal experience. As businesses scale, the distance from founder to the consumer becomes wider and requires careful navigation. 

Before investing a penny, take stock of the current position and know the destination (or at least the direction of travel). Is the goal to have a local retail store serving a community, an eCommerce lifestyle business or a global enterprise? Understand what influences are at play, available capital, manpower, seasonality, location. Most importantly understand the customer, not based on reports and focus groups, but engaging directly and intimately, ensuring this is and remains a focal point in the strategic development plans.

Consistent innovation

With the customer as the focal point, be innovative. But do it consistently. Too often creative ideas are pursued to the detriment of everything else, existing customers, scalability, fit; or because the competition has done something similar. The misconception that innovation has to be monumental is incorrect; know what makes the business brilliant and build a process for getting 1% better every day through tiny, easy to achieve changes. Consistent innovation will deliver big results when it becomes embedded in the culture of the business. 

Technology integration

There is no question that the impact of the pandemic has driven unprecedented innovation at scale particularly within retail; over 80% of UK consumers have altered their behaviours, more than 50% do not feel comfortable visiting stores and over 25% intend to make permanent changes to the way they shop. 

Addressing this through an engaging online experience is essential. Although there are varying complexities, there are no products off-limits. However, as a retailer, it is important to fully understand the demands of any new technology and ensure seamless integration across platforms, systems, shipping capabilities and technologies to build and maintain a positive user experience. 

The future of retail is likely to see an integration of technologies like augmented and virtual reality, the internet of things, sensor-driven packaging and connected appliances. This will result in an exponential impact on e-commerce volumes.

The evolution of bricks and mortar

Physical stores are very often the first point of contact between brands and consumers with the opportunity to become a powerful media channel. Taking inspiration from live events, social media and the rapid adoption of technology, consumers will crave a far more engaging and better physical retail experience. And so, brick-and-mortar spaces will offer retailers and brands the opportunity to draw the consumer into the brand story, deliver a remarkable and immersive brand and product experience, and ultimately galvanise their relationship with consumers. 

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