It was a year unlike any other unlike any other – and retail was no different. Even the  Golden Quarter – the peak sales period between Black Friday and the New Year, usually relied on for pulling even struggling retailers through another year  – was transformed by the pandemic.

Early data is already beginning to highlight just how hard the sector was hit by last year’s events – including the festival sales period. Yet, we also know that 2020 was a year of digital acceleration, catapulting retail forwards by a decade or more. Surges in online transactions during national lockdowns  revolutionised not just how consumers are buying, but how retailers and other businesses must respond to unpredictable demand and digital-first business.

Matthew Furneaux – Director, location intelligence at GBG

There are plenty of green shoots: digital-first upstarts like Gymshark continued scaling and delivering great experiences in the fact of logistics challenges; the food and drink sector bolstered fulfilment capabilities and bootstrapped new delivery networks almost overnight; key dates in the ‘digital’ spending calendar, like Amazon Prime Day and Singles’ Day,  delivered huge returns. In fact, it’s estimated that online sales in 2020 may have reached a staggering £78.9bn.

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As the sector takes stock on a seismic year, and gears up for another twelve months of digital adoption, let’s take stock on some key lessons learned.

1)        Invest in ‘Generation Zoom’

It’s unsurprising that younger generations favour the online experience over heading to brick and mortar shops, but we’ve also seen an increase in older shoppers preferring online shopping – particularly as those sheltering or isolating have been forced to stay home and have their groceries and other goods delivered. GBG’s Christmas Unwrapped report found that less than one-third of Brits had planned to do any shopping in-store ahead of Christmas, including 70% of those aged 30-44 and 62% of those aged over-60. Our State of Digital Identity 2020 report separately found that nearly half (47%) of consumers opened a new online shopping account in 2020. The takeaway here is clear: invest heavily in digital-first experience, and think about the digital expectations of your specific customer base.

2)       Prioritise delivery 

To stay safe during the pandemic, technologies which enable contactless deliveries to happen safely and securely are growing in importance to customers. Partnering with last mile experts like what3words makes it possible to ensure people anywhere can receive their goods and services – this has been a game changer with contactless deliveries, as drivers can now leave parcels in a designated spot for those sheltering or vulnerable consumers.

In addition to delivery options, timely delivery is equally important. ‘Availability anxiety’ is increasingly driving consumers’ shopping decisions, with 43% of people citing it as a key driver in choosing gifts. Additionally, 8 in 10 UK consumers are concerned about late deliveries around key dates such as Christmas, rising to 88% for those London-based buyers.

3)        Connection, any way you want it

Businesses are facing a huge test now as close to half (43%) of UK consumers have said they won’t buy from a retailer again if their expectations aren’t met over the holiday season. As we move to a digital-first economy, shoppers are exploring their options when it comes to purchase journeys – and retailers will need to align their online and offline experiences to meet consumer expectation. Using voice activated, internet enabled devices at home, shopping in-app, or setting up subscription orders to auto-buy mean that consumers have retail at their fingertips more than ever before and to keep customers happy, retailers need to ensure their technology is set up to make this experience as seamless as possible.

4)       Optimise your stacks

It’s no secret that consumers prefer a smooth UX when shopping online – this is particularly the case when shopping over the holidays and heading into the dreaded ‘Blue January’. Clumsy, cluttered checkouts are no longer tolerated by shoppers as our report found that 44% of consumers said tech like auto-complete address verification, increases their trust and likelihood of use with a retailer. Implementing these types of smart technologies to make shopping easy, such as auto-complete and reverse geolocation, helps ensure that checkout processes are simple and fast, getting goods to every customer, everywhere.

5)       Boost fraud prevention

The past year has been rife with opportunities for fraudsters to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. The combination of surging online sales and new audiences entering the digital-first world has meant that individuals are left vulnerable. Scammers increasingly target retail peaks like Black Friday or Cyber Monday to trick shoppers into sharing their payment information and account details. Responding to these threats hasn’t always been easy as businesses seek to balance eliminating fraud and managing friction for their customers.

Ultimately, customer expectation is clear: make this experience as easy and as safe as possible, and earn my trust throughout. To do that, retailers need to know their user base and build their fraud and compliance solutions with those audiences in mind to introduce ‘friendly friction’ – just enough manual information for consumers to feel a sense of control while allowing for the most secure experience.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that digital-first is here to stay.  As consumers continue to flock to the digital high street, it’s critical that retailers are prepared to meet the incoming demand while providing a smooth and safe customer experience. Implementing any one of these tips will help to improve consumer interaction, loyalty, and ultimately, trust.