Ponoka chamber members got a glimpse into the future of retail with a presentation from Craig Patterson, retail analyst for the Retail Council of Canada.
Patterson is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Retail-Insider.com and president and CEO of Retail Insider Media Ltd.
He spoke to members over Zoom during the chamber’s general meeting on April 20, giving his insight into market trends during the pandemic and his predictions for retail post-COVID-19.
Patterson says what’s happening in the retail industry, including trends and retail history, gives a perspective of where retail is heading in the future.
“I think it’s going to be an exciting time,” he said, adding the future also may be scary for some, or a shock, because of the rapid growth of technology that is coming.
What he sees with retail during pandemic, is a lot of people heading online for shopping, and a lot of businesses are getting in on that, but probably not fast enough, he says.
Because of varying restrictions across the country, consumers aren’t able to go to storefront locations or inside restaurants, so businesses need to get online, but it isn’t always that simple.
“It’s not as easy as it sounds — you’re not just going to throw a store up and hope to make sales.”
Gaining traction online can be more expensive than opening a storefront or physical location, according to Patterson.
Online stores also may not survive in the long term because there is now too much competition in that area, and pieces of that “consumer pie” are being cut into smaller and smaller pieces, he says.
Online stores aren’t the “be all and end all,” he said.
Amazon has also seen incredible growth as it continues to innovate, and partnering with them to create an Amazon store may be more profitable for small businesses than starting their own.
“The competition now is involving a lot of technology,” he said, adding small businesses either have to offer something similar in order to compete, or something completely different and unique.
“I think one of the best retail experiences is the local retail experience.”
In large centres, there tends to be a lack of customer service.
Big Box stores can be convenient, but don’t give an authentic, shopping experience, and can reduce the vibrancy of downtown cores.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of retail become devalued.”
Things that aren’t there to make profits, but make a more enjoyable customer experience, add value, and have been reduced because of cost saving measures.
Historically, department stores were popular because they included so many products and brands in one place and they were convenient.
Now, sitting at home on the computer or couch and shopping is what has become convenient, and online shopping has become the new department store to a degree, he says.
“Walmart is not going to lay down and let Amazon eat its lunch.”
With a smaller community like Ponoka, he says he’s less worried because it’s a little bit more of a captive market.
In order to bring in new customers, small businesses are going to have to get creative. A couple of his suggestions included crowd sourcing to fund new products and gaining consumer attention on emerging social media platforms such as TikTok.
To revitalize a downtown core, some of his suggestions include having a community ambassador that can guide someone around, creating a unique experience, and having an interesting, comfortable and safe streetscape.
“We react to our environment, even if we don’t realize it on the surface,” he said, giving an example of even how mannequins are posed can cause people to have an avoidance reaction.
Littered and dirty streets can also be a deterrent, as well as empty storefronts.
“That can create a perception that a place isn’t desirable.”
Patterson says more patios are interesting , and have been wonderful for high-density areas where there is a lot of foot traffic.
Having a mix of shopping and amenities such as washrooms and places to eat will reduce worries and attract people downtown, he says.
“I call it a clustering, and clustering works in different ways.”
That can be difficult to do in down towns because there are different landlords, rather than a shopping centre that would control the planning of the different stores, he says.
Post-pandemic, he predicts things will go back to normal to a degree, and there will be storefronts again, but there will continue to be online stores, as people don’t tend to change their habits easily.
“I think we’re going to have a mix of physical and digital … I think they will be blurred together.”
Social shopping is also a new concept in North America, that China and South Korea are already capitalizing on, says Patterson.
“Social shopping” is where influencers make sales by just posting on social media about the things that they like.
“We’re going to see a lot more of that happening because it’s people selling to people.”
Drone delivery is also something that is being innovated right now.
Deliveries through automated vehicles may also be coming, he says.
‘The future is going to be interesting … it’s amazing and a little bit scary, the things I’m seeing.”
He is also working with a company that is developing artificial intelligence, and we may see more AI integrated to many aspects of our lives.
Technology innovations are also being accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has moved technology ahead by five to 10 years, says Patterson.
“Be open minded and ready for things to happen that you may not expect … the world is changing.”