On 15 June, the UK’s media was filled with pictures of socially distanced queues outside Primark and Sports Direct shops across England, and crowds pressing to be let into Oxford Street’s Nike Town.

In fact, by 5 pm that day, Research firm Springboard said that “footfall was 38.8% higher” than the week before, as pent-up demand sent many shoppers racing to the stores.

However, they also reported that the number of visits to high streets in England was down 45%, and all shop visits had dropped 35% year-on-year. Meanwhile, retail parks saw footfall decrease by 26% year-on-year.

More recent reports show that overall footfall across the UK decreased 57% year-on-year in the first full week since lockdown. Footfall on high streets declined by 61% year-on-year (up from 74% the week before), while shopping centers reported a decrease of 64% year-on-year—an improvement from a decline of 81% the week before.

For retailers, the lingering question is whether behaviors we are seeing now will eventually revert to pre-pandemic spending, or reveal a permanent change in attitude. The numbers suggest that health concerns remain very much front-of-mind for consumers and many continue to be wary of stores.

Learning and adapting

One advantage for UK retailers is that we can learn from the fortunes of countries who are further ahead in their post-COVID-19 recovery.

In Germany, which was the first country in Europe to reopen shops, enthusiasm to return to stores was low. Kaufhaus Ernst Ganz, a department store in the West German town of Bensheim, reported that sales were between 33% and 40% of what they were prior to lockdown, back in February.

Meanwhile, only 7% of Polish shoppers said they’d visit a shopping center on the day it opened, although 48% said they would in the first two weeks after opening. Unsurprisingly, clothing (38%), home decor and garden (30%), and footwear (28%) were among the products Polish shoppers would purchase first.

Further afield, and further into recovery, come reports of the effect of ‘revenge spending’ in Chinese retail, as richer shopping-starved consumers overcompensated with spending splurges as their favorite stores reopened. Luxury goods retailer Hermes took $2.7m on its opening day in April and other luxury brands like Prada, Gucci and Louis Vuitton also saw fast bounce-backs.

However, while some Chinese consumers are spending significantly, overall retail sales growth in China was at -2.8% year on year in May, recovering slowly from the low of -21% in January.

Harnessing agility

In the UK, rapidly fluctuating consumer behaviors—and the threat of localized lockdowns—means that agility across all areas of retail business is key. Retailers with mature market and customer insight capabilities will be at an advantage, as they will be able to spot and react to trends the fastest.

Businesses that have been agile in their digital marketing activity have seen increased brand awareness and online trade throughout the lockdown and will be well-placed as stores reopen.

Nike made premium subscriptions to its online Training Club app free throughout the crisis, increasing active users by 100% in the US. Meanwhile, Scottish brewery BrewDog funneled British frustrations with its newsworthy tongue-in-cheek beer, while donating over £1m worth of BrewDog hand sanitizer to frontline workers and hospitals.

Consumers will remember how their favorite brands reacted during lockdown, and those retailers with relevant propositions who responded ethically and listened to the public mood while staying authentic to their brand and servicing consumers’ changing needs, will be best placed to build on their success moving forward.

"Businesses that have been agile in their digital marketing activity have seen increased brand awareness and online trade throughout the lockdown and will be well-placed as stores reopen."

Test and try

Along with practically demonstrating their commitment to the necessary social distancing and health protection measures, retailers need to be agile enough to test and try out new channel innovations to encourage customers back to shops.

Some, such as Selfridges, are offering after-hours shopping trips by appointment, while others are investing in scan-and-pay apps to reduce queuing. Many stores have also looked to Deliveroo for the first time, with Morrisons even extending its grocery deliveries through Deliveroo to its cafés in some locations. And John Lewis is investing in digital solutions to help staff count customers coming in and leaving through different doors.

Retailers will find that different solutions will work best for them, but will need to experiment with new solutions and have processes in place to enable them to be agile and switch track when needed.

Negotiating cost bases

While the landscape remains changeable, retailers should look to make their cost bases more flexible through labor force and rental agreements.

Throughout the crisis, many retailers have taken advantage of the ban on evicting tenants until 30 September, agreeing payment plans with landlords, or halting rent payments altogether—as Primark has done—while discussing revised terms and negotiating lease renewals.

As stores reopen, retailers should develop flexible contracting arrangements with previously furloughed store staff, providing the agility to react quickly to trading levels.

Moving forward

Harnessing real data insights will be key in the next few months, enabling retailers to react quickly, spot, and use trends to their advantage, and adjust activity based on consumer demand. Management must be pro-active, think holistically, and make decisions outside organizational silos.

Retailers who have already embraced an agile mindset will have an advantage—they will be able to grasp opportunities and accelerate plans ahead of the competition. Those who have not will soon find they are left behind.

Having a strong and relevant core value proposition remains the most important element. But as we head into the unknown, agility will be the real deciding factor as to who comes out the crisis fighting, and who does not.