The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have sent ripples throughout all facets of life – from the shopping habits of the everyday consumer, to various industries as a whole and indeed even the economy in its entirety. Although the effects of COVID-19 have stretched far and wide, one industry that has perhaps been hit the hardest is retail.
This was due to unprecedented circumstances such as lockdowns, a policy which saw many retailers forced to close their physical stores. As a result, shopping was massively affected and many brands found themselves in a situation where they would need to adapt in order to survive. One of the ways to achieve this was by embracing the digital shift – utilising ecommerce and online marketplaces to keep their products available to consumers.
In this Retail Without Borders webinar, we welcomed several guests to dive into this topic in more detail. One organisation that has spearheaded the charge in this space is Bira – the leading trade association for independent retailers in the UK. Bira have recently built a new collaborative trading platform called Neartoo, which connects retailers with customers who want to support their local communities and shop with independent retailers.
So, how did Neartoo go about addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? How can you ensure that Neartoo’s offering works in conjunction with retailers wanting to keep their brick and mortar stores? What has been the most successful aspect of the hybrid model? All of these questions and more were covered in this year’s exclusive Retail Without Borders session.
How Neartoo addresses the impact of COVID-19
To begin with, there have been two significant shifts that were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and have even continued post-pandemic. The first of these is that with shops closed, people started to shop more online. This trend is to be expected and brought new customers into online shopping, as those who had not previously shopped online now had to.
Secondly, with furlough and an increased number of employees working from home, consumers were spending more time where they live. This has resulted in a surge in local shopping and local high streets, with people spending more time and money in their local economy. With this in mind, Neartoo recognises these two trends and combines the power of engagement online with shoppers’ desires to shop locally more often.
Although independent retailers have a lot of enthusiasm, energy and commitment to changing their business model, the challenge was that they do not necessarily have the skill or the ability to know how to do it. Therefore, the goal is to bridge the gap between independent retailers’ desire to move to a hybrid model and take away some of their fear. This has been achieved through an online platform in the shape of Neartoo, which made this transition really easy for independent retailers.
So, Neartoo helps to capture some of the increased online traffic as a result of the pandemic, and satisfy their desire to shop locally by connecting them with local independent retailers. Additionally, Neartoo removes some of the barriers of entry for retailers of starting their journey into a hybrid retail environment, enabling them to utilise a platform that is both owned by and designed for them.
Neartoo: Complementary to Bricks and Mortar
Another interesting question that arose during the discussion was around independent retailers wanting to keep their bricks and mortar operations in place. When moving to a hybrid model, how do you ensure that Neartoo is complementary to physical stores? To answer this question, let us take a look back to March 2021 when there was a sudden lockdown.
In March, there was a massive influx of businesses with a sudden urge to get online to sell so that they could continue to trade. This demonstrates how powerful of a channel ecommerce can be. Despite having their doors closed, stores were still able to trade – an option that saved many retailers’ businesses. Although initially born out of necessity for many stores, the move to online going forward can operate in conjunction with physical shops.
To a certain degree, shopping online is here to stay, so now companies will need to find ways to bridge the gap between online sales and brick and mortar stores. One key factor is that when customers come through the doors, independent retailers form connections with people and build relationships with them. If that customer discovered the shop in the first place via a marketplace and the retailer subsequently builds that relationship, then the platform has succeeded in that element and plays a complementary role.
The Hybrid Model and Ongoing Relationships
As mentioned, one crucial element of being a successful independent retailer is the relationships you build with your customers. One brilliant aspect that makes the hybrid model so great is that it’s encouraging people to shop locally. This is crucial, as the idea of the online marketplace Neartoo, for example, is not to replace physical stores. On the contrary, it can actually help to foster new, ongoing relationships rather than remove the need for them.
In fact, it has encouraged shoppers to find local stores near to them that they may not have even realised were there. Overall, the hybrid model is complementary in that it helps to build new relationships with consumers, as it can introduce stores to locals who may have not previously been aware of their existence. Ultimately, this can only open more doors to new customers and give consumers the opportunity to choose how they want to shop with stores as well.
The most successful aspect of the hybrid model
Finally, another important question that a lot of independent retailers who are considering a strategy like this may want answered; what has been the most successful aspect of moving from bricks and mortar to a hybrid model? According to some, the most powerful impact is the additional channel that it has created for independent retailers.
Using a marketplace such as Neartoo has given stores so much more exposure to people who may never have entertained the idea of visiting that store previously. So put simply, the hybrid model helps to make additional connections; so if someone finds a store online, once they come through the doors they can become a customer for life.
This model can also be viewed as a way to break down barriers. This is retail without borders and in a way, the marketplace/high street hybrid model is retail without barriers. All too often, smaller businesses see this type of development as something only big businesses do – whether that is due to a lack of knowledge, technical skills or knowhow. What Neartoo and the hybrid model do is break down those barriers of fear and lack of technical expertise, giving smaller businesses help and support.
In summary, it is clear that the hybrid model provides a flourishing two-way opportunity for online marketplaces and high street stores to complement each other. We know from experience that consumers are increasingly shopping online, but also due to the pandemic, shoppers began spending more time and money in their local economy.
Additionally, customers have a growing desire to shop locally as well as being more conscious about environmental topics such as sustainability and ethical shopping. Using the hybrid model, marketplaces like Neartoo help bring these two ideas together: connecting shoppers with local independent retailers and allowing both to thrive.
Overall, the marketplace provides an additional sales channel to help make shoppers aware of the local stores around them as well as get them through the door. Once this happens, it is down to the store to build those relationships and make a customer of them for life, something which independent retailers really excel at.