July 2, 2020

What will the “new normal” look like for retail ?

Adjusting in-store and online shopping experiences to address new realities

After what have surely been some of the strangest few months for the retail industry in recent memory, brick-and-mortar stores are starting to re-open in many areas that have been worst-hit by Coronavirus outbreaks. Consumers and retailers alike seem enthusiastic about this return to some semblance of normality: some keen shoppers were seen piling into London’s flagship Nike store when it reopened earlier in June, and in the absence of most out-of-home entertainment options, shopping trips are becoming established as a highlight of many people’s weekly routines.

The prospect of reopening is not without its challenges. Brick-and-mortar retailers all over the world are figuring out how to conform to a variety of new regulatory requirements, and nearly everywhere there will be a need to reassure nervous consumers who have become used to shopping conveniently and safely from home that it is safe and desirable to return to physical stores. That won’t be a straightforward task: in the U.K., for example, YouGov has found that 46% of consumers are uncomfortable with the idea of shopping in newly-reopened stores.

As they reopen,  retailers will need to balance measures aimed at getting high volumes of customers through their doors with those designed to ensure customer safety, and to do all of this while providing a better customer experience than ever before. The “CX Factor” could in fact become the crucial differentiator between the post-Covid retail winners and losers, if customers continue to avoid stores that don’t offer a compelling reason for visiting them in real life. Customer experience has long been an important differentiator for brick and mortar stores: according to Kantar, more than two thirds of customers are more likely to choose a brand if it exposes them to new experiences or sensations. But a certain degree of customer inertia was likely helping to keep some underperforming retail brands profitable, even as e-commerce competitors and those with distinctive in-store offerings were eating into their profit margins. This status quo has been well and truly shaken up, and customers who have been forced to form new habits can’t now be relied upon to automatically retain their old loyalties.

Some of the restrictions retailers will face during this “new normal” phase will undoubtedly pose challenges: reduced stock offerings and limited ability to try on items in fitting rooms are unlikely to be popular with consumers. Creative retailers will find ways to differentiate themselves and come up with innovative new approaches to customer service, for example by offering more personalised experiences and more options for customers to engage online. Some luxury brands are already shipping direct from stores using a premium delivery service like Addison Lee, while others are setting up luxury drive thrus for a click-and-collect-style service, complete with extra styling. Elsewhere, staff at some clothing retailers are arranging video calls with customers to personally show them the latest merchandise before they make a store visit, booking fitting rooms for them with specialised apps and viewing their wish lists online. Others are using Instagram live streams to publicise new product launches. Augmented Reality looks set to truly get its moment in the sun in 2020. Virtual changing room apps that allow a garment to be “tried on remotely” in store could quickly go from being a fun novelty to a truly practical solution, allowing customers to steer clear of the hassle of returning items and retailers to avoid the subsequent quarantining of returned products.

The challenges facing brick-and-mortar retailers are significant. GDP growth has dropped hugely in the U.S. and much of Europe in the first half of 2020, and the public are understandably tightening their belts by cutting down on discretionary spending. In the continuing absence of many forms of out-of-home entertainment, though, in-person shopping experiences may prove popular as countries reopen this summer. Retailers that can provide a good enough reason to visit them in person will have a distinct competitive advantage. So will those who can provide a great and distinct online experience, as consumers adapt to new ways of shopping. Those who can do both will likely find they have a winning combination.

March 26, 2020

FinTech health check: Covid-19

What the current Covid-19 pandemic means for the global FinTech industry

The current pandemic sweeping through most of the world has wreaked havoc in most areas of the economy as well as our personal lives. As schools and businesses gradually shut down, governments plead for people to stay home to contain the spread of Covid-19. With the virus showing no sign of going away, countries could remain on lockdown for many months to come.

However, as is the case with every change, among the many challenges, the pandemic might provide some industries with an opportunity. As we minimise personal contact, services offered in digital form are becoming more popular. While Netflix and Amazon Prime replace cinemas, DHL and FedEx does the shopping for us, and Uber Eats and Grubhub connect us to our favourite restaurants, people have an option to manage their finances remotely too.

Within financial services, FinTech companies have been the main drivers of digitalisation. With some more mature FinTech services appearing to have plateaued recently, could the current crisis provide the next push for the industry? Let us have a look at some obvious suspects that could gain traction during the pandemic.

  • Peer-to-peer payments: As people across the world are advised, or even forced to stay home, digital wallets (e.g. Venmo) and mobile money (e.g. M-Pesa) might be the easiest and quickest channels to send money to peers, whether within the country or internationally. With many of the world’s borders closing, sending money to family members / friends stuck in a foreign country is likely to become more relevant. Cross-border payment solutions (e.g. TransferWise, Revolut) can help people send much needed funds to others faster (even real-time) and cheaper (even fee-free and at mid-FX rate) than banks and traditional FX companies.
  • Online merchant payments: As part of the lockdown enforced by many governments, ‘non-essential’ shops are being forced to close, while more wary consumers will likely try to also avoid stores that continue to be open such as supermarkets and pharmacies. Thankfully, ordering groceries, ready-made food and medicine, as well as non-essentials such as books and clothes should not be a problem across most of the world. With a variety of digital payment methods such as mobile money in Africa, QR payments in Asia and digital wallet payments in Europe and North America available to online buyers, we expect the likes of PayPal in the U.S., M-Pesa in Kenya, AliPay in China and Swish in Sweden to accelerate their war on cash even further.
  • Consumer lending: As people might lose some of their income or even their jobs over the next months, loans of all types are likely to rise in demand. While banks are still kings in the lending arena, their digital loan propositions are often cumbersome and require personal visits to the branch. On the other hand, some FinTechs are mastering digital credit scoring by utilising advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence to better understand their customers through alternative sources of data. In areas including consumer loans (e.g. Affirm, Klarna, Tala), mortgages (e.g. LendingHome, Blend) and student loans (e.g. SoFi, CommonBond), these solutions can help provide, facilitate or refinance loans more efficiently.
  • Business lending: Similarly to individuals, some businesses might find themselves in need of cash to cover their costs as they face a slump in demand or even being forced to close down for some time. With their advanced credit scoring algorithms, small business lenders of the likes of Kabbage and Funding Circle as well as payment service providers such as Stripe and iZettle might see an uptick in demand for their short-term loan and cash advance services.
  • Health and life insurance: Amidst a life-threatening pandemic, health and life insurance will always be amongst the most in demand financial services. While some countries offer universal health insurance for all their citizens, in some others such as the U.S. many people rely on private health insurance. With incumbent insurance companies generally slow to innovate, InsurTechs such as Oscar in the U.S. have come to the fore with their digital solutions, offering personalised plans to individuals, families as well as businesses, the latter who are looking for coverage for their employees. InsurTechs such as Ethos in the U.S. are tackling the life insurance space and are increasingly gaining traction, using predictive analytics and sophisticated data technologies to provide cover that is easy to access and available for all.

Other than the immediate traction some of the above solutions might experience, the pandemic is likely to trigger FinTech activity in other areas and have a long-term impact in previously underpenetrated industries, none more likely than the healthcare sector. With current FinTech solutions only scratching the surface of the industry, the pandemic is likely to reveal the shortcomings of healthcare systems globally that need streamlining. HealthTech and other forms of digital health innovation will become more critical as Covid-19 spreads. Looking towards the future, the FinTech solutions that emerge from this crisis will help people, businesses and the government better manage our finances and lives in such unprecedented times.

For this to happen, there is a call to action for the investment community and governments around the world. They need to remain committed to and protect FinTechs as in these difficult times many may find themselves short of funding and / or working capital. Covid-19 is set to reset many parts of the global financial services industry, with FinTech (including start-up valuations) amongst the most affected. On the other hand, the current situation may also spur M&A activity as some FinTechs look to scale their operations in response to new opportunities or to just survive.

Written by:

Matyas Fekete