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Today, 23rd March, marks the anniversary of the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown measures. After a long year of restrictions, however, there finally appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Reopening plans are beginning to come into effect, and from as early as 12th April in England, all shops and outdoor eating can resume. Fine food businesses that have taken great pains to boost their e-commerce offerings will face a new question: is it time to pivot back to physical retail?
While experts say that online shopping is here to stay, consumers will also feel more comfortable returning to shops, with recent research for Retail Week showing that nearly half (49%) of all respondents would be happy to shop in physical high street stores as soon as they can.
Mike Turner, co-founder of Bird & Blend Tea Co, which has 11 shops up and down the country, told Speciality Food that physical retail will remain an important part of his online-focused business post-pandemic, even despite online sales more than doubling over lockdown.
“Online is still our main business and our 11 stores are our main marketing outlets for our online tea products,” Mike said. “While our shops are always busy, considering the amount of time our trained staff spend with customers, it’s hard for our shops to compete with the frictionless profitability of an online sales operation.”
However, he continues: “The perfect customer journey for us is someone who comes into our shop for an experience – spends time with a member of our team, buys a couple of teas or accessories and becomes a regular online consumer, tells their friends etc. The high street is still very much an important and relevant element for retail brands, but those that are successful often are also just as strong online.”
The balancing act between in-store and online sales is one that fine food producers have also been perfecting over the past year. Ayesha Grover, founder of tigernut flour brand strp’d, joined the Amazon Small Business Accelerator over lockdown in order to boost her online sales, but now that lockdown restrictions are lifting, she plans to appear in physical pop-ups and get her brand stocked in independents as well as online retailers.
Enterprise Nation is also encouraging brands to consider the importance of physical retail, with an event on 25th March dedicated to preparing your business for the reopening of the economy.
“I think pop-ups are essential for discovery,” Ayesha said. “For a superfood like tigernut flour, because it was launched over the pandemic, it still has quite low awareness, so being in physical retail like a pop-up being stocked with other similar brands is really important.”
While she has spent the past six months establishing her brand through e-commerce, Ayesha is now turning her focus to physical retail. “Once we get back to normal, we will be looking to be stocked in places like Planet Organic and other boutiquey independents. We’ll be keen to get our brand out there as much as possible.”
E-commerce will doubtful return to its pre-pandemic levels, but equally, it’s unlikely to continue at its current rate of growth. Post-pandemic, an equilibrium will return with physical and online retail, and fine food independents will succeed when they cater to both the convenience of online sales and the experience and interaction of physical retail.