Will the pandemic save the High Street? Ben Lukawski, Global Chief Strategy Officer at Zenith believes that retail – buoyed by beauty and luxury brands – will come back stronger and reinvent itself.
Lukawski says that the sharp shock of COVID-19 restrictions has had a devastating short term effect but has forced businesses to rethink their responsibilities to all stakeholders and reconsider what the future consumer wants.
He was talking to New Digital Age after the publication of the media agency’s ‘Business Intelligence – Beauty and Personal Luxury’ report, which shows how consumer behaviour has been affected over the past year. It notes that continued social distancing will restrain the recovery in beauty and personal luxury advertising in 2021, particularly for cosmetics and fragrances, though health-enhancing products such as in skin and haircare will buck the trend.
Lukawski believes that post-pandemic, the desire for feel-good products such as little luxuries and cosmetics, combined with a craving for “experiences”, will help lead a high street bounce-back.
He is not alone in his optimism. Last week L’Oreal CEO and Chairman Jean-Paul Agon said sales would accelerate sharply as COVID-19 vaccines are distributed and levels of infection subside.
“People will be happy to go out again, to socialise,” he said at a presentation of the company’s results. “This will be like the Roaring 20s, there will be a fiesta in makeup and in fragrances,” he said, referring to the 1920s post-war economic boom when people wore daring fashions and partied.
Those casualties of 2020 were, says Lukawski, faltering anyway and he predicts those at the low and high-end of the scale will continue to gain ground on a homogenous middle ground that had lost sight of the end consumer.
Says Lukawski: “The million-dollar question is ‘When will things come back’? It’s not black and white, with everyone having their own risk factors. Young people, with less risk of this disease, will be out quicker and embracing a lot of past behaviours. But there are also reports of chunks of those older people who have been vaccinated suddenly booking holidays.
“Human beings are social creatures and they want and need to have social experiences. They want to find or see their loved ones and beauty is incredibly important for us as a species so when we start seeing each other again we’ll start to put back on the mascara, the perfume – to look and feel good. And the buying of these products is visceral – that won’t go away.”
However, the enforced closure of retail outlets has forced the industry online. It has traditionally lagged in the digital space, from ecommerce to advertising, but certain factors are changing things now.
First, without ‘in real life’ experiences, brands are putting much more weight behind personalising the shopping experience online, which has been helped by technology that, say, helps people match shades virtually or have access to experts to advise.
At the same time, digital ad formats are getting more brand focused and able to somewhat recreate the luxe environment of a glossy magazine.
These digital experiences will continue to evolve and actually be a factor in the reinvention of the high street, he predicts. “Take a look at Apple. It was very good at creating that really fun shoppable experience that you couldn’t get online but enhanced by technology.
“Imagine that applied to this sector – perhaps I could speak to someone about my skin treatment or some DNA-type testing, or the chance to have colour-blends personalised to me. We are going to see the merging of online and offline experiences.”
He points to companies such as L’Oreal who are investing in digital transformation in order to give the best virtual and ecommerce experiences that will sit seamlessly with the physical interactions.
“We’re going to be moving to will be combining the best of the two worlds. A lot of people are very down on the high street [at the moment] but I think this will be the best thing. I think it’s actually going to be much better.”
Strategies could include augmented reality tools, the chance to choose in-store and order online or added value services such as social spaces and extra content.
Another huge – and accelerating – trend is around wellness, both of person and planet. He says consumers today want to know that businesses are doing their part and this has made beauty brands, who again have lagged in environmental terms, reconsider both product and messaging.
“It’s about being kinder to the environment and kinder to yourself, thinking about the ingredients that are in those products, thinking how they are made and sourced and thinking whether this would do me or the environment good.”
Those trends could change, he admits, “when people start to have a good time and forget about the issues” but he suspects the long term pattern is clear.
“There’s obviously huge strides made initially; the idea of reducing water consumption, microplastics in the oceans. This is across the board and COVID has accelerated that. It is essentially accelerating trends that were there – it’s almost like a reset for a number of things where people say ‘Okay, actually I should change my behaviour and do things differently’. Brands that can adapt to that quickly and build on that are going to be in a good place.”
Technology will help. “Technology provides transparency,” he says, adding that COVID has proved a John Travolta/Pulp Fiction career reboot for the humble QR code.
“Very soon we’ll see this being used as a way of proving a brand’s credentials,” he says. Suddenly you can scan and see everything you need to know about its practices.
Social commerce, too, will take off in future years, with brands looking towards China for inspiration and innovation. However, his biggest hope remains the future of physical retail.
“My ultimate optimism is that the High Street will be more interesting, more exciting and more innovative than ever – because it will have to be to attract people back.”