This is an exceptionally challenging time for retailers. The industry had showed signs of stabilising and recovering over the summer. But rising Covid-19 cases and the closure of non-essential retail stores in England in November have dealt the sector another heavy blow.

Even with news of a potential vaccine, a quick retail recovery is far from guaranteed. High street footfall remained stagnant even after the first national lockdown was lifted, and PwC estimates the industry could shrink by as much as 20% this year. Our own research found that 54% of retailers do not feel they are well placed to recover.

retail technology
Mike Smith, Managing Director (Direct), Virgin Media Business

While it doesn’t provide all the answers, technology is a critical tool for any retailer trying to meet current challenges. For example, businesses that had a strong online presence before the pandemic were much better placed to weather the storm, according to our insights.

Networks in particular have a key role to play. They’re not going to solve every challenge faced by retailers right now, but they can leave an organisation better positioned to survive, stabilise and rebound next year.

A collaboration revolution

While many retailers have had to shut up shop for now, many retailers are moving forward behind the scenes, allocating stock to stores in Wales and Scotland, where stores are now open, and continuing to run digital channels and wholesale businesses.

This means that remote employee collaboration is critical – something retail leaders are recognising. Since the first lockdown, our research shows that collaboration tools have soared in importance in the sector. There’s been a 26% increase in those ranking these as a priority compared with before the pandemic.

It’s heartening to see that retailers appreciate its importance because the need to work remotely won’t disappear after the second national lockdown lifts. Social distancing will persist well into 2021, with a full-scale return to the office unlikely for many.

And the pressure doesn’t just come from government restrictions. Demand for permanent flexible working is rising among employees themselves. Up to 86% of UK workers want to continue working from home beyond the pandemic, according to a recent report. This provides an opportunity to reduce fixed costs on office space, but also requires businesses to be set up to take advantage of this shift.

Yet our study shows just 39% of retail workers feel well-equipped to do their jobs from their homes. As difficult as it may seem right now, when the priority is keeping the business running day-to-day, it’s important to keep an eye on the long-term trend so retailers are able to take advantage of the new everyday.

This will ensure that employees can communicate with each other seamlessly and respond quickly to unforeseen developments, while also helping reduce fixed costs.

Customer service for the new everyday

With shops shut for much of the year, eCommerce has been booming. Online sales are expected to surge by 19%, according to Edge Retail.

And the rise in online shopping has led to changing customer expectations. Our research found that 79% of online shoppers say that a positive online experience would be critical to them deciding whether to spend on additional items from the same retailer.

While businesses are focused on surviving and stabilising right now, there’s a pressing need to adopt intelligent and digital-first approaches to customer experience. This will boost customer retention and acquisition and ultimately position retailers for a rebound next year.

The right cloud technology can provide retailers with the elasticity and strength they need to cope with soaring omnichannel demand. Investing in flexible, agile networks is crucial to avoiding slow load times leading to cart abandonment or, worse still, site crashes. This is particularly important during peak trading periods, such as Black Friday.

Networks and cloud services are also critical to supporting virtual contact centres, empowering staff to solve customer queries quickly and securely from their homes.

More generally, upgrading connectivity will improve staff responsiveness and productivity, giving employees smooth and speedy access to the data they need to provide an elevated customer experience anytime, anywhere.

And when shops reopen, lightning-fast networks can also unlock new possibilities for connecting the physical presence with the online world. Nearly half (45%) of consumers want a personalised digital experience in store, according to a report by Fujitsu.

So, when the time is right, businesses should consider how they can offer more personalised in-store customer experiences through connected technologies, such as IoT-enabled interactive screens which can display targeted in-store messaging. This could give them an edge in the race to rebound next year.

Powering the retail rebound

The retail sector is the UK’s largest private sector employer. It’s the catalyst for one third of all consumer spending in the country. And it’s the heartbeat of communities across the UK as a fundamental part of every town centre.

There aren’t easy answers to the challenges facing the sector right now. The current national lockdown in England means that simply getting through every day is a challenge. And with many people concerned about catching Covid-19, we’re unlikely to see a surge back to the high street once restrictions are lifted, even with Christmas just around the corner.

Technology, and specifically networks, can’t solve all of these problems. But by empowering employees to collaborate and enabling our changing customer expectations to be met, I firmly believe it has a fundamental role to play in helping retailers stabilise during this difficult period and position themselves for a successful rebound next year.