There’s a good chance one of your favourite retailers has closed its doors this year. You haven’t been able to go to the mall, and ordering online has come with extra costs, delays or limited stock. Now, one of the biggest physical shopping events of the year, Black Friday, is also facing existential challenges.
It’s been a tough year for consumers and retailers alike, and for many, yet another disruption to life as we knew it may feel just plain cruel. But what if the demise of the largest symbolic shopping event of the year is actually a good thing? As a retail expert dedicated to helping retailers succeed, you’d think I’d be mourning Black Friday as we know it. But I actually think these headwinds have the potential to usher in a new era of commerce that could benefit both consumers and retailers, and be even better for society.
Rethinking retail consumption
Even before this year, consumers and brands were navigating massive shifts in the retail landscape driven by evolving consumer expectations around diversity and social responsibility, climate change, and cultural and technological factors. While COVID hit fast-forward on retail’s journey into ecommerce, from a consumer standpoint, shelter in place forced a necessary change of pace. For a time, there were no malls, movies, restaurants or travel, and quarantined at home, people even ran out of things to watch on Netflix. Lockdowns, a recession and financial insecurity have encouraged shoppers to rethink their relationship with “stuff,” and as a result we’re more focused on value over volume when it comes to shopping.
Now don’t get me wrong, the hunger to shop is still very strong. In fact, when U.S. lockdowns lifted in May, the country saw its biggest month-to-month surge in retail ever. Black Friday is still going to happen in some form this year — albeit mostly online. But thankfully, we’re unlikely to see the same lineups around the block or stampedes in parking lots. Hopefully we won’t see the mobs, the deaths, or the frenzy of consumption; even if consumers were up for it –– and I’m not so sure they are –– health regulations in many places wouldn’t allow it.
Some people might miss this tradition, but like many of the structures COVID has disrupted, this is an opportunity to look at things differently. This year’s Black Friday represents a chance for us to reset and rewire our habits –– and an opportunity to get more out of the purchases we do make in 2020 and beyond.
A new measure of consumer value
Thanks to COVID, the best predictor of future behavior is no longer past behavior –– at least when it comes to our consumption habits. If the hype around Black Friday is to be believed, our top priority as consumers in recent years has been hoovering up cheap products at rock bottom prices and caving into impulse buys. In the COVID economy, we still care about saving money. Financial insecurity has kept us frugal where necessary, but we’re also willing to spend more on products that bring true value to our lives through healthy living, supporting our local economies or enabling more conscious consumption.
The interesting thing here is that all evidence suggests that we were concerned about our health and the environment before 2020. But entrenched behaviours prevented us from acting on these imperatives. So in a way, COVID has acted like a shock to the system that has created the mental and physical space for us to adopt new habits that reflect the values we already had.
As the pandemic drags on, many of us will continue to stay home for work (when possible) and play for the foreseeable future, meaning we’ll continue to shop online. We have more time to research products, compare against competitors, and ultimately make more thoughtful purchases. In this environment, we can expand our definition of value beyond “inexpensive” in favor of well-curated, reliable and sustainable products that are both fulfilling and durable. As a result, consumers now and going forward will demand much more from retailers and brands.
Retailers who survive will step up their game
Given all this, companies have to change their approach, and that doesn’t just mean setting up an online store, which many have done with limited success. To thrive in a post-Black Friday era, retailers must shift from a purely transactional approach to thinking about how they can cultivate deeper customer relationships where value flows both ways.
At the outset, this puts added pressure on brands during an already tenuous period. However, companies like Apple, Patagonia, and REI have already demonstrated that investing in product quality and customer loyalty — not relying on fire sales and rock-bottom pricing — is not only good from a sustainability point of view, but also for long term financial stability: shoppers with an emotional connection to a brand are at least four times as valuable as an average customer. Add to this the fact that a third of consumers are using the pandemic to try new brands –– and most will stick with the new ones –– and the imperative for companies to cater to recent consumer shifts becomes even greater.
In the end, retailers that transform their business models to embrace a more thoughtful approach to commerce and appeal to these new consumer values will be the ones that survive today’s turmoil. They’ll also be more resilient when the next challenge hits.
It’s been a challenging year for retailers for sure, but the changes that 2020 has wrought so far have allowed us to move the shopping industry forward to provide better value for consumers and retailers alike. We now have the opportunity to elevate this industry into a superior version of itself –– one that is kinder to consumers and retailers and better for society over all. That’s worth celebrating.