Why retailers will need to find the right blend in a post-coronavirus world

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COO of Gulf Marketing Group, Bhavna Buttan believes bricks-and-mortar outlets still have a bright future, despite e-commerce boom

The future of retail will not be purely digital, nor will it be exclusively bricks-and-mortar, but rather a “seamless blend” of both channels, according to the COO of Gulf Marketing Group (GMG).

Bhavna Buttan believes the consumer habits picked up following a year of shopping almost exclusively online will not fade away now that the UAE’s physical stores and malls are gradually reopening post-pandemic. However, nor does she think the ecommerce boom will signal the end of traditional retail outlets.

“Human beings latch on to the convenience element of everything fairly quickly and that is not behaviour that is unlearned. I would say e-commerce was already growing in the region but the pandemic not only accelerated it, but it also double-charged it by 10 to 15 years,” said Buttan.

“There is no bricks-and-mortar versus e-commerce anymore because, at the end of the day, it is all about one customer and one brand. Our job as retailers is to make sure there is a cohesive relationship and engagement between the two channels,” she added.

GMG had introduced digital elements to its stores prior to the pandemic, but the lockdown skyrocketed demand and the company’s sports division saw its e-commerce sales double in volume between 2019 and 2020.

“There were three buzz words during the pandemic: banana bread, Zoom and fitness. It’s amazing how quickly people can adapt: within the span of three months, an entire world had completely changed their consumption habits. So I think that’s the great part in terms of how resilient consumers are,” said Buttan.

Companies had to be resilient as well and quickly adapt their business or operations model to meet the new consumer needs. Although parts of doing so require technology, oftentimes it is about “leveraging the assets and skillsets you already have”, said Buttan.

“We had been doing treadmills and fitness equipment in-stores for years but we had not launched it on our online store yet because the logistics of delivering a treadmill are very different than delivering a pair of shoes,” explained Buttan.

“The minute we realised that customers needed to buy fitness equipment online, we leveraged our existing service centres and trained our retail staff, who weren’t working because our physical stores were closed at that time, to deliver and install fitness equipment in people’s homes,” she continued.

Bhavna Buttan, COO of Gulf Marketing Group (GMG)

As vaccines are rolled out, and life slowly goes back to normal, Buttan says retailers have to take the best of the online and offline channels to move forward in creating new retail experiences.

“The physical retail space is never going to really go away because we are social animals and people are always going to want to engage with and put a face to a brand. This will essentially mean that retail spaces will be much more focused on experiences,” said Buttan. 

“We learned a lot from the physical experience so it’s not just a one-way street. It’s about looking at what are the elements that people are going to miss in a physical space and how you bring that on the online as well. Ultimately it is just going to become a seamless world,” she added.

The UAE’s physical stores and malls are gradually reopening post-pandemic

For 2021, Buttan is excited about leveraging all the consumer data acquired by monitoring online platforms to create better customer experiences.

“We will be focusing on getting the eco-system and technologies we need to understand what individual customers like. It is super exciting when you can see what customers are looking at and browsing because it helps you serve them better,” she said. 

“Our focus will be on things like customer platforms to help us understand a lot more how browsing behaviour happens online and how transactions happen in bricks and mortar stores,” she added.

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