Festive season shopping: A renewed opportunity for retailers | Sunday Observer

Festive season shopping: A renewed opportunity for retailers

28 March, 2021
File picture of a retail clothing store.
File picture of a retail clothing store.

The  Sri Lankan retail selling fraternity, except perhaps the essential retail sectors such as food and medicine, have lost practically two of the best festive seasons -  April and December, 2020. For small retailers, particularly those who sell garments, cosmetics, gifts, and the likes, the blow due to Covid-19 was tremendous. During the whole of last year, almost all of them were deprived of their personal revenues, leading them to heavy problems such as shop rentals, staff salaries, debts and so forth. 

Excitement is in the air with the oncoming Sinhala and Tamil New Year festival in the coming month. The noticeable decline of daily cases and the commencement of the vaccination programme is a sigh of relief not only to retail trade and shoppers but also to the country as a whole. Despite malicious and mean criticisms, the government seems to have arrested the grueling health issue quite successfully. 

The festive season in April holds much promise and hope for the retail sector. This is the first such season after the emergence of the pandemic in February last year. Therefore, the trade can define how successfully they will confront the challenge with the ongoing new normal situation.

This period will be a good litmus test to determine the effectiveness of the behaviour of retailers and shoppers equally. While we can see a buildup in the momentum of customers, the retailers too seem to be creating a host of solutions to draw customers to their respective businesses. Retailers have acquired an opportunity to reinforce their respective businesses and brands during the oncoming season.

Even if you offer the best deals you can offer the clientele, they will undoubtedly expect a safe buying experience in the store because of the pandemic threat that remains still. The reality is that even with the availability of many online stores for retail products, most Sri Lankan customers still prefer brick-and-mortar shopping. 

Additional stress

The seasons are stressful for retailers as they make the majority of the year-round sales in the short window during the two seasons in April and December. However, with the approaching holiday season, the retailers have additional stress to seriously look at; they must accommodate strict Covid-19 health guidelines gazetted by the authorities.

They must conform to rules such as one and a half metre minimum distancing, which can produce stern limitation, minimise surface touching, the continuous wearing of face masks and sanitisation facilities. Besides, physical space demarcations must be available inside retail stores for the majority of customers who favour patronising retail shops.

The salient fact is that this is a situation that cannot be controlled and there is no single answer for the issue. Retailers simply have to find individual answers.  Hence, let us explore a few top of the mind solutions to make the best out of the difficult time. 

Substantial increase

At this point, rethinking the floor space is vitally important irrespective of the products. Similar to the retailer who has lost two seasons, customers have also missed their shopping for two consecutive festivals. Therefore, naturally, the urge for retail shopping will be heightened this season. Although the numbers cannot be predicted accurately, the retailers can safely anticipate a substantial increase. 

Hence, getting the customers inside the store and sending them out as quickly as possible is the key to control. Architecting the store floor with the social distancing rules to plan how and how many shoppers can be accommodated is important. Well-planned and thoughtful display and storage highlighting fast-moving goods are useful. When the customers quickly spot the goods they need to purchase will limit their in-store time. Customers also will wish to complete and leave fast due to the prevailing health risks. The retailers can replicate the in-store-experience in another adjacent space. Social distancing may restrict space for merchandise displays. If any nearby location or space is available such as garages, parking lots, and underutilized storage areas, foot traffic can be diverted easily. Well decorated creatively-arranged temporary sheds or tents can attract customers. Depending on the size of the business, as an additional promotional incentive, these customers who visit the store can be given incentives such as gifts or gift vouchers.   

Focusing on in-store efficiency is one of the most important factors in retail selling, more so when a national health problem exists in the country. With the ongoing pandemic-related mandates, retailers have limited options to manage walk-in customers. It is an unparalleled loss if visiting customers have to be turned back due to the lack of space inside the store even on a perfect day. Therefore, consciously focusing on improving in-store efficiency is imperative. 

Saving time

Offering assistance to customers waiting to enter the store by assigning staff to help customers can be done. By looking into their needs and directing those to the specific areas or counters can reduce customer’s time inside the store. Alternatively, the assistants can help them by bringing such merchandise to the customer to save time. However, in festive seasons, most customers who shop for items such as apparel, gifts, and cosmetics prefer to select those items personally. 

An environment minimising human contact can produce an impersonal experience for the customer inside a store, particularly, when everyone is wearing face masks that hides facial expressions. The staff cannot remove their face masks to greet a customer or properly smile at them. Customers are unable to identify a friendly face or perhaps known person. 

This phenomenon undoubtedly reduces the personal touch with each other. Therefore, retailers must find a way to communicate with customers whilst adhering to the health instructions. For example, sending a recorded voice message through the public address system constantly can create a pleasant ambiance, indicating that they are talking to customers live.   

The entertaining events and other social activities that prevailed in the past seasons will not be available this season due to tight control of gatherings. These have been traditions practiced for decades and they are important to the customers. On the contrary, retailers, big and small, used these performances to attract customers to their retail stores. The only alternative seems to be online live performances. Online performance to target clients with images of displays inside the store can have an impact on foot traffic. 

Online advertising is  inexpensive but extremely effective. Research has revealed that during the pandemic lockdowns, Sri Lankans got accustomed to spending additional time on online platforms. The increase of internet use has tremendously increased in the country during the past year. Therefore, even for a small retailer, reaching prospective clientele is effective and productive. 

Online communication with the potential customers with the best available product offers must be carried out to make awareness more effective. At present, Facebook is the most used social media platform in Sri Lanka with over six million subscribers. Advertising on Facebook is more effective where the geographical segmentation can be done easily. Also, Facebook advertising is comparatively the most cost-effective currently. Hence, even small-scale retailers can promote their businesses to customers in their own geographical area without much cost.   

For retailers in Sri Lanka, the arriving festive season brings excitement and anxiety. After foregoing two previous seasons, this instance has the highest potential to boost their revenues once again.  Most importantly, an important factor the retailers must understand is that they may create health issues unknowingly and unintentionally with crowd gatherings. Therefore, strictly and mindfully adhering to each and every health guideline laid down by experts in the retail store is the essential task.