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Our insights > The Changing Retail Survey: Insight and Analysis

The Changing Retail Survey: Insight and Analysis


Sorcha O'Boyle


May 06, 2021

read time

6 minutes


In the first of our analyses from the 2021 Changing Retail Survey, we’re digging into the detail around retail and luxury brands’ perception of the industry, their priorities for the future and how they can apply the learnings from lockdown to the future. Conducted in partnership with more2 and TheIndustry.Fashion, the Changing Retail Survey collected responses from senior leaders in the retail industry.

About the participants

A large proportion of responses came from senior leaders at fashion brands (71%) while others came from beauty brands (13%), food & drink businesses and home & garden brands. Just over 50% of participants classified their business as a luxury brand.

54% of responses came from brands with high street stores while nearly all (90%) operate a website and 56% also sell via wholesale partners. As a result, the findings of the survey reflect the real-time pulse of the industry and give an insightful snapshot of the priorities and plans of leading and upcoming retail brands.

General outlook

This feels like an industry that is bouncing back: overall, nearly 80% of respondents feel optimistic or very optimistic about the future for their brand. Brands with stores feel just as optimistic as those without, though it is interesting that mid-size brands (those with 50-250 employees) feel more positive than either the largest (1,000+ employees) or smallest (1-10 employees) brands.

Regardless of company size, however, brands are expressing a desire to be brave and embrace opportunities during turbulent times, recognising that businesses need to change and adapt in order to grow. Digital transformation, customer data, and digital marketing emerge as the three focus points for brands (more on that later) but for retail’s decision-makers, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture before diving into the more granular, practitioner-level detail.

The outlook for retail right now is positive. From the survey findings and our own experience with our clients, we can see that brands have largely adapted to the changes brought by Brexit and Covid-19 lockdowns. Brands are prioritising customer data and relationships to grow, harnessing the power of direct-to-consumer to fuel their businesses. This is crucial – if we’ve learned anything from the past year or so, it’s the importance of understanding your customer.

The brands who are relentlessly customer-centric are the ones who thrive

Customer data has never been more readily available but, as with all things, more isn’t always better. More data doesn’t mean better decision-making. If anything, measuring the wrong metrics will cloud your vision and throttle growth. Instead, brands have to understand how to leverage data in the right way and through the right channels to align with wider business goals. Having a clear understanding of the different growth drivers in your business and how they make a difference to your bottom line is the holy grail of B2C businesses. A lack of clarity around data and measurement is one of the most prominent trends to emerge from the Changing Retail survey as brands grapple with ever-more data and struggle to align marketing performance with the bottom line.

It’s a balancing act that becomes more complex when you start adding different channels to the mix but what’s clear from the results of this year’s survey is that business leaders understand that customer data and digital capabilities are the key to effective, efficient growth.

Digital Transformation

One of the standout priorities for brands is digital transformation. It’s been a buzzword for a while and although most brands are confident that they’re on the right track, leaders are aware that they can always be better: the last 20% is the hardest. Faced with competition from the best omni-channel retailers and dynamic, digital-first businesses that flourished during lockdown, brands recognise that customer data is central to their future success.

92% of participants agree that communicating directly with their customers is important. 90% also agree that more customers will purchase both online AND offline more frequently than in 2019. These trends mean that brands need to be able to leverage customer data to communicate effectively with the customers across multiple channels, tailoring their customer experience to drive customer value. However, respondents reported low levels of confidence about their capacity to build a modern, responsive single customer view and, therefore, provide a cohesive customer experience.

Digital expansion is both the key and one of the biggest stumbling blocks to growth.

In general, brands feel that they have digital channels and website performance well covered, which is unsurprising given the high number of responses from fashion and beauty brands. It makes sense that brands feel confident in this area; after all, the product and branding is often the area closest to founders’ hearts and makes up the essence of the brand itself. It is your ‘why’. Where brands feel less confident, however, is in their forecasting capability, online/offline integration, and capacity to build a single real-time omnichannel view of their customers.

Customer Data

Data is no longer just a box to tick, it’s the foundation stone of good marketing. 88% of respondents intend to rely more on customer data to inform their decision-making. As one participant put it, ‘don’t worry about what other retailers are doing and what they offer their customer. Focus and keep focussed on your own customer. Brands that align themselves 100% around the customer will deliver the best customer experience and that’s what your consumers will remember. That’s not to say that there’s no room for brilliant, off-the-wall ideas for social (check out @AldiUK’s Twitter page for a social media masterclass) but, as McKinsey puts it, ‘top-performing retailers align on a north star based on their strategic and customer goals, then set their omnichannel course accordingly.’ In other words, the best brands let their customers dictate the pace.

A number of respondents to the Changing Retail survey reported that a conservative outlook prevented them from succeeding as much as they could have during the pandemic. An accurate understanding of your customer as the economic unit in your business will unlock your business potential so you can spend enough to foster growth but not so much that you damage profit. Of course, this is easier said than done but a robust understanding of your customer data and Board alignment will enable you to unlock growth for your business.

Digital Marketing

For most brands, digital channels are still outperforming 2019 levels, though few are experiencing the hyper growth of the same period in 2020. As we’ve seen, brands are largely confident in their digital channel capability though most recognise that there is still space to improve.

Interestingly, when asked what they would have done differently in 2020, many respondents said their customer acquisition strategies could have been more ambitious as there was more headroom to grow. This feeling is echoed in many responses where participants acknowledge that braver investments in their marketing strategies could have paid dividends.

So what can we learn from that experience?

There is always room to grow.

Brands are right to focus on improving how they harness customer data. They’re also right to keep driving their digital transformation and pivoting to digital channels – though there’s always an argument to be had about traditional channels!

There is little margin for error in the world of retail so, as a leader, you need to be confident that your strategies and investments will deliver real value.

How do you measure that value? Your customers.

Is every campaign and action driving incremental results? Is your forecasting accurate? Are you confident that you’re investing the right amount in the right channels to acquire and retain the right customers?

That’s the core insight from this section of the Changing Retail survey: retailers and brands are aware of the complexity of their marketing mix and conscious that marketing is too important to get wrong. Practitioner-level actions and priorities are more susceptible to change but high-level strategic decisions need to be informed by data and directly aligned with your business aims.

Ultimately though, the most interesting response to the survey was one of the simplest. The scale of digital transformation can seem overwhelming, the sea of data can seem impenetrable. But as one respondent said you are more ready for digital transformation than you think.’

So focus on the basics: prioritise the important items and focus your energy on your customer. You’re more ready than you think.


Sorcha O'Boyle


May 06, 2021

read time

6 minutes