Written by Alex Baldock, CEO, Currys plc

First published on May 4, 2021 in Retail Week

Everyone knows that one effect of the pandemic will be a dramatic and enduring shift away from stores to online, right? Not quite.

Sure, more people are buying stuff online. At Dixons Carphone, we’ve seen our online business thrive through the various lockdowns with online sales more than doubling to over £4.5bn in the past year. Twice as many of our customers, two in five, now prefer to shop online and we’re expecting that to stick.

Nor is this changed behaviour restricted to shopping. The pandemic has opened many people’s eyes to the benefits that digital can bring to their lives and they won’t now let go of digital’s reach, immediacy and convenience.

“Three in five of our customers still prefer to shop through a mix of stores and online. Everything I see reinforces my conviction that stores still have a central role to play in the future of retail”

My GP intends to keep doing half her consultations on Zoom; my 86-year-old dad will keep FaceTiming his grandchildren; my 16-year-old son will keep half his social life on gaming platforms and half his learning has been remote. (At least, he tells me he’s learning.)

But people are also yearning for human contact. We’re social beings, after all. You see it in the joy on people’s faces as they’ve piled back into pub gardens. And, yes, back into shops.

Three in five of our customers still prefer to shop through a mix of stores and online. Everything I see reinforces my conviction that stores still have a central role to play in the future of retail – alongside online, not supplanted by it.

Stores and online together, joined up by digital innovation, have not only sustained our performance but will continue to drive it.

Stronger together

How best to join up online and stores to be stronger together will depend on the category and the customer. Currys sells technology, which customers find exciting, but often confusing and expensive. They value advice in making the right choice of laptop, TV, washing machine or mobile phone, especially face-to-face advice from someone they trust and who knows what they’re talking about.

That’s best provided by an expert in-store colleague. If you put that in-store expert in front of a customer online, through the likes of ShopLive (Currys’ 24/7 live video shopping service), you’re giving the best of stores to a customer online – omnichannel in action.

It’s worth dwelling on ShopLive for a moment – not just to plug it, happy though it makes me to do so. Live video shopping is a striking example of how online and stores can be stronger together, for everyone’s benefit.

The customer gets expert advice they cannot get from unassisted online competitors without leaving their sofa.

The colleague can keep selling, even when the store is quieter, which is good for their earning power and sustains the viability of their store. The colleague can also build skills in a way that would be out of reach if they only served customers walking in off the street.

Benjamin, a gaming specialist in Currys Stevenage, spent half his time last year helping customers shopping in other categories. But now that Benjamin’s spending half his time on ShopLive, where his reach is expanded to customers anywhere in the country, he can spend all his time on gaming. He can give his customers bang-on specialist advice and he is following his passion, which adds more spring to his step coming into work.

Bigger and better

The finance director can crack a smile. Customers using ShopLive are four times more likely to buy something, spend 50% more, express double-digit higher satisfaction and are more likely to stick with us than an unassisted online customer.

Plus, we’ve already paid for most of the costs of the ShopLive colleagues producing these extra benefits and all of the costs of the stores that serve as stage sets for ShopLive calls.

“Everyone’s a winner with omnichannel retail – this hybrid of the physical and the digital that goes with the grain of broader trends”

The bigger ShopLive gets, the better it gets. The more customers and colleagues on it, the more often customers are connected with the right expert, the better the service, the higher the extra sales, the less spare capacity among store colleagues and the more profitable it is.

No wonder the finance director is smiling. Everyone’s a winner with omnichannel retail – this hybrid of the physical and the digital that goes with the grain of broader trends.

Just as the future of shopping is hybrid, so is the future of work: we’re all preparing for a mix of remote working and face-to-face collaboration. My GP will still do half her appointments in person, my dad still wants to have lunch with his grandchildren and my son has gone back to school. We like digital. But we’re still human.