With COVID-19 restrictions persisting and cash-strapped consumers tucking their heads in, retailers are tapping technologies and retraining staff to avoid succumbing to the cataclysmic retail free-fall that has hit Australian brands like Jigsaw, PAS Group, Jeanswest, Topshop, and Harris Scarfe.

Even retail bellwethers David Jones and Myer have closed stores and stood down staff as retail traffic evaporated – fuelling warnings about potential ‘dead malls’ even after cautiously reopening many companies continue to struggle.

The personal nature of bra and swimsuit sales meant the pandemic was always going to be hard for firms like Queensland-based lingerie company Big Girls – but after 28 years in the business, founder Karen Edbrooke “wasn’t going to give up”.

“I wasn’t going to close down and let my staff have no jobs,” she told Information Age, “and nothing was going to stop me fighting for them.”

As physical shoppers stayed away earlier this year, Edbrooke doubled down on an early-stage ‘virtual fitting room’ initiative that saw nine fitting rooms equipped with iPads and staff retrained in the mores of online videoconferencing via Skype and FaceTime.

Replicating the in-store assistance they would normally provide in a face-to-face encounter, sales attendants now connect with customers and walk them through a bra fitting, then physically go to the retail floor to find and present a number of options.

Intense marketing on social media – including a discount for ‘essential workers’ that included all kinds of jobs – helped drum up attention and customers nationwide were soon queuing for over two weeks to secure a Big Girls virtual consultation.

As for any company, the March-April period was difficult – but Big Girls quickly recovered as its new business model helped set a revenue record in May that forced Edbrooke to not only keep her staff, but to bring on 15 additional workers.

Reinventing retail

Retail experts have talked up omnichannel customer service for many years, but the immediacy of COVID-19’s global economic impact has forced retailers to fast-track initiatives that might have otherwise developed organically over a long period of time.

Many are now cautiously optimistic about their prospects despite a record-breaking revenue fall that led Deloitte to warn that Australian retailers face “the fight of their life” this year.

Stores like footwear retailer Platypus have seen online sales soar as online-savvy ‘conscious consumers’ take store closings in stride and embrace well-designed online shopping experiences that give them the experiences they want.

Customers are so enthusiastic that retail experts are now asking whether many brands need as many physical outlets, or any retail stores at all.

A recent Mastercard survey found that 38 per cent of Australian consumers believe less in-store shopping is here to stay, with 30 per cent expecting to make more purchases online even if the pandemic eases.

Microsoft, for example, recently closed most stores worldwide and is converting its Sydney store into a digital ‘experience centre’ that does not actually sell products.

Despite headlines the trend is about more than robot shopping companions, however: Microsoft, for one, will not lay off any staff, the company said, instead retraining them to support the new business.

With the ongoing pandemic creating the constant risk that staff members might be forced to self-isolate away from work, Edbrooke has taken a similar strategy – ensuring that each of her 35 employees knows how to do every job, from virtual fittings to servicing physical customers to managing online orders.

The company previously had just one person handling live chats via the company website, but this has increased to five just to support surging online interest.

“Some of our staff weren’t tech savvy and weren’t used to talking to people over the Internet,” she says, “so we had to re-educate half of our staff and teach them about best practices for live chat.”

The process hasn’t been without its teething problems – with supply chains stretched due to staff reductions at overseas warehouses, delays in getting freight into the country, and other challenges created by unprecedented global disruption.

Edbrooke isn’t travelling overseas anymore to buy new designs, with fashion sales all being conducted online now – but the time she saves is giving her more time to think about ways technology can support the brand she has worked so hard to maintain.

Email, SMS, Facebook and Instagram marketing have helped maintain the customer bond and drum up interest in themed and relevant content such as BG TV, for example, while Big Girls is also getting ready for its second online, interactive runway fashion show – in which customers can ask questions live ask models to show them specific angles of the garments on offer.

“It’s not good enough anymore to just have a website,” Edbrooke says. “If you have a small business, you’ve got to try everything. Some people are giving up too easily.”