Opinion: Coronavirus accelerates us to a retail tipping point

Tuesday, 24 March 2020


In a crisis as big as this one, acting on the immediate challenges is critical. Thinking about the longer term may seem impossible, or at least deferrable. But in many ways, it is even more important.

At this point, we can only imagine the longer-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the retail sector. A protracted recession may follow, consumer behaviour may be permanently altered, or there may be enduring changes in industry structure. The ending is not yet clear.

But it seems likely that the fallout will go well beyond the short-term demand and supply shocks we are currently fighting, however seismic. By the time you read this, you will be much better informed than I am at the time of writing.

It will accelerate consumers into stay-at-home spend – Netflix, delivered meals, home exercise, home working – and therefore into online retail; behaviours which will probably stick. 

It will likely raise questions about vulnerability to long, single-source supply chains, and about over-dependence on a China battling with the US for economic and technological supremacy. Some manufacturing will re-shore, which for retail will imply more integration with local high-tech sourcing. We won’t be self-sufficient, but resilience and flexibility will be to the fore.

But two additional, simultaneous factors may contribute to a tipping point, and suggest that we will come out the other side in a new phase.

The old cycle has ended
Even before this crisis, the government has been planning for the UK economy to change, a lot. Anyone who still thinks Brexit is an argument over EU tariffs and quotas is not seeing the bigger change underway.

The vision – and it is a bet on an economic transformation as big as the 1980s – is for the UK to become a digital technology hub, free of the regulation of the EU, less reliant on imported low-waged labour and with renewed productivity and income growth.

Whether you believe this will succeed or fail, the old cycle has ended. For retail to remain a competitive sector means that business models must incorporate much more automation, technology and intelligence, with far fewer but more value-adding jobs. Every role which is routinisable will be automated, but the jobs that are left will be the ones that really make the difference.

Alongside this, the push to a net-zero carbon economy is another factor that will lead to less shipping and reconfigured distribution. Covid-19 may be the nudge that finally gets things moving fast in this direction. But it will also reinforce changes in consumer habits towards less consumption, more reuse and a more circular economy.

Triple transformation
Together, these three transformations of the pandemic, the Brexit economic reboot and the zero-carbon revolution mean retail business models in the next cycle will be different. They will be more local, high-tech, vertically integrated, closer to the customer, sustainable and much less labour-intensive.

For those retailers strong enough to turn a crisis into an opportunity, this may present acquisitions of strategic value that are temporarily under-priced – for example, digital solutions or components of tech infrastructure. It might mean supporting or acquiring critical suppliers that could form part of an onshore vertically integrated model. It might mean making a step-change towards a leaner labour model or a permanently lower fixed cost base.

Finally, I hope we will find the retail industry becomes more recognised for its importance to underpinning our way of life, protecting our households and supporting the vulnerable. The nation should not forget the many low-paid workers whose heroic commitment will see us through this and whose status deserves to be lifted.

We don’t know when recovery will come – later this year or next. But it does seem possible that changed models and attitudes will be forged during this crisis that will prepare retailers for the demands of a new cycle.

This article first appeared in Retail Week, 23rd March 2020

Find out more about Michael Jary, Senior Advisor

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