What will COVID-19 change for the consumer?

After over two months in lockdown, countries around the world have only just began opening up although business for most still remains clouded in uncertainty. The global fashion industry, along with hospitality and travel, have been hit the hardest and it goes without saying that even when lockdowns are fully lifted and countries reopen completely, business for these sectors will be far from what they were before COVID-19. Pivoting and restructuring is the new norm and will change the face of retail as customers have come to associate in the past few years. While it can be hard to precisely measure the impact of the pandemic, there are a few ways that are key to the way the industry will change for customers in the years to come.

Digitisation across all channels

The pandemic has accelerated digitisation for the fashion industry by opening up multiple avenues of collaboration, communication and retail. Now more than ever, customers want to be a part of the brand (and not just buy from it!). Fashion’s attempt at engaging the customer can be seen through it’s many initiatives – including the #GANNIWFH by Ganni, the #CHOOSKETCH challenge by Jimmy Choo and the #McQueenCreators challenge by Alexander McQueen. Spurred on by the high volumes of online engagement, brands like Chanel, Chloe and Dior also have turned to their archives to allow audiences an insider view at brand legacies and collaborations with house friends to engage a population that is stuck at home and devoid of inspiration. Jimmy Choo’s #CHOOSKETCH challenge and Alexander McQueen’s #McQueenCreators challenge also enable audiences to actively collaborate with legacy houses and as in the #CHOOSKETCH challenge, allow for a feel-good factor (Jimmy Choo will pick five winners from the challenge and will produce each winner’s design to be auctioned for charity).

With customers unable or unwilling to venture out, brands are also ramping up digitisation across their retail channels and as lockdowns begin to ease and restrictions are gradually lifted in many parts of the world, both DTC and multi channel retailers are looking at refining e-commerce as well as avenues of the likes of text messages, video and phone calls and online chats to communicate with customers and stimulate sales. Digitisation will change the face of the industry, not just by way of e-commerce but also in the way customers interact with the brands.

The beginning of the end of the traditional fashion calendar

For a long time now, the fashion industry has been grappling with the impact of the multi-seasonal calendar. The environmental, social and economical ramifications of the breakneck speed at which fashion brands introduce new styles in the market is extremely unsustainable and in dire need of an overhaul.

How will the pandemic spur this change? The global lockdown was initiated just as units from the Spring/Summer 2020 collections began arriving in stores. But who was actually shopping? The generous disparity in demand and supply has led to an inevitable stock surplus that is compelling brands to rethink business strategies and production cycles. With customers stuck indoors, the desire for non-essential purchases has waned with many sticking to just the basics and instead veering towards items that stimulate comfort. As a result, the following months will see a significant change in the cadence at which the industry operates resulting in a pace that will eventually signal the end of the traditional fashion calendar that many had come to associate with the industry in the past decade.

A more season-less collection

Designers and brands will be more eager to offer their customers wardrobe options that are not defined by a particular season, a concept that will eventually usurp the trend based wardrobe that customers had come to reckon with in the current times. The benefits of building a season-less wardrobe are immense and brands are now recognising that, particularly after the surplus of Spring Summer 2020 stock that in the wake of the pandemic, will now be left unsold for a long time to come. A season-less wardrobe is easy to cultivate and in line with the standards of sustainability that brands have rushed to claim in recent times. While there will be those players who will eventually pick up their fast fashion business structure once the dust settles, providing customers with options for a season-less wardrobe will be a smart choice, both for the customer and the brand in question.

A balance of physical and digital retail

The basic rule of social distancing warrants the populace to maintain a distance of minimum six feet when out in public spaces. How, then, will physical storefronts fare in the face of a practice that is soon to become commonplace in the months to come? To ensure that they stay relevant, brick-and-mortar will need to adapt to ensure that it continues to fit into the rapidly evolving demographic. Experiential retail could might as well be the new norm, with customers looking at physical storefronts purely as a chance to connect with the brand up-close and personal while making the actual purchase via e-commerce.

On the other hand, pickup or hyper local home delivery are options that could be facilitated by those players who do not have a strong online presence just yet. For brands like these, sales could be stimulated by means of social media and payments can be initiated through virtual payment getaways. Practices like these will aid in social distancing and also allow local designers and brands to ensure that they are able to carry forward their businesses through the current times, while enabling customers to retain a physical touchpoint through the entire process.

More flexible payment and return options

With a majority of storefronts shuttered or only partially opened, fitting rooms will become redundant. Customers, however, will still want to try on a piece before committing to it, a sentiment that will lead to brands offering flexible return options in the months to come. Many retailers have already began issuing more flexible return policies of more than 30 days from the original date of purchase and while a trend like this has it’s fair share of cons (especially for the brand in question), it is one that is the need of the hour and will instill in customers a sense of security while shopping online.

In the face of a global economic meltdown, customers can also expect brands to offer more flexible payment options. While customers will be quick to support brands they’ve purchased from in the past, they will be less likely to shop from a new brand unless they are offered an array of payment options, especially the likes of those that allow customers to pay after purchase or in installments, a trend that saw an uptick with the launch of the Afterpay company and a slew of other copycats.

For customers, convenience continues to retain top priority. In light of the global lockdowns and a possible resurgence in the number of cases, it is imperative for brands to adapt and continue listening to customers. While COVID-19 will underline the collective new normal, the customer will have to remain at the heart and soul of brands and their activities.

– Written by Soha Joshi

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