The New Normal

Steve Collinge, MD at Insight Retail Group, talks about the New Normal and what the potential impact of COVID-19 could be for the home improvement industry.

The question is probably no longer when will we return to normality, but more importantly, what will ‘normal’ actually look like?

At the time of writing, the Taoiseach has recently announced the introduction of a phased reopening process of businesses and the economy, including the reopening of hardware retailers and builders merchants (with strict social distancing in place) from May 18th. Ireland is now looking ahead to following what will soon be a well-trodden path of other European countries.

With the increasing likelihood that we will not return to life as we remember it, will the ‘New Normal’ be a good or a very difficult place for the Home Improvement industry?

Like so many others, our industry has been put through a stress-test that only four months ago, would have seemed impossible. Who could possibly have envisaged, prepared for or expected to deal with the challenges that have impacted on the Home Improvement and construction industries.

When the list of ‘Essential Retail Outlets’ was published by the Taoiseach on 27th March 2020, unlike European countries such as Italy, The Netherlands, Poland and Portugal, Hardware stores and Builders Merchants were not on the list and were immediately forced to close. The statement clarified that ‘Hardware stores, builder’s merchants and stores that provide hardware products necessary for home and business maintenance’ were only allowed to offer ‘emergency call-out or delivery services’.

Following the announcement, businesses were immediately forced to revisit their business models and dependent on their size, their financial reserves and their online presence, they reacted in different ways.

A Peak in Demand

At a time when merchants and retail outlets were forced to close their physical stores, it was ironic and almost perverse that consumers, now socially isolating at home, suddenly found a new love for the Home Improvement and Gardening tasks that they’d been putting off for years. The combination of the warm and sunny pre-Easter weather (that many retailers could only dream of), plus loads of spare time, led to a peak in
demand for Home Improvement and gardening products that hadn’t been seen for decades.
In the UK, where retailers were also allowed to retain maintain their online services, you could almost hear the supply chains creaking under the unprecedented demand. B&Q and Wickes were forced to add waiting times to their websites and at one point over the Easter weekend, the time just to access was over an hour and shoppers were told that more
than 300,000 people were ahead of them in the queue! B&Q were also quick to introduce a new service – ‘contact-free’ Click+Collect in their store car parks to ensure customers could collect items in a safe and secure way, avoiding any unnecessary contact. However, on one occasion on Easter Monday, the police had to be called to manage over 400 cars who were queueing to get into the B&Q Warehouse in Nottingham.

Consumers so used to next day and even same day delivery flocked to social media to complain how long they had been waiting for DIY stores to deliver their orders. One customer complaining about Homebase wrote on Twitter ‘I received an email this morning saying that my order I placed in March won’t be delivered until the end of May – how do I cancel and get my money back please’.

In Ireland B&Q and Screwfix closed their stores, suspended their click’n’collect and home delivery services, whilst Woodies maintained a ‘very limited’ range of products for home delivery, stating that delivery may take up to 14 days.

The New Normal

In his Easter message, the Taoiseach said “We will re-awaken the sleeping giant that is our economy, our people will go back to work and our businesses will re-open, and taking what we’ve learned, we will build a better society at the end of this – a great society for a great people.”

However, some commentators have not been quite so positive and have said that life post COVID-19 will never be quite the same again. There is still so much that we simply don’t know. But what we can be certain of at this stage, is that the return to normal can’t happen immediately. It certainly won’t happen on a single day, or when life returns to how we remember it, or on the day that we’re allowed once again to leave the safety of our homes and meet others. Unfortunately the ‘new normal’ post pandemic is likely to see us shift seamlessly from a health crisis to an economic and probably a social crisis that will take many, many years to resolve. In reality, until there is an effective vaccine, normal life simply can’t return to how it once was.

For our industry, it’s widely hoped and believed that construction will be one of the fi rst sectors to be re-started. Not only is it critical to the infrastructure of the country, but cranes moving in the Dublin skyline and houses being built once again, will be a welcome sight to a population, forced to remain at home for many weeks.

For retailers and merchants, the events of the last month have proved that investing in your online service is no longer an option, it is absolutely essential. In a very short period, consumers and the Trade have become more accustomed to using online in a way that maybe they hadn’t before.

The new normal for retailing will undoubtedly involve a greater focus and an acceleration of online usage, not only driven by people not wanting to travel to stores in the way they used to, but because the successful businesses will be making online so quick, easy and simple for everyone.

For consumers, it’s difficult to say whether there will be any lasting impact from our new-found love of DIY and Gardening. Whether new Do It Yourself skills have been learnt whilst we’ve all been at home and whether these will now be passed down to the next generation is probably too much to hope for at this stage.

But whatever the New Normal is outside, our homes and gardens have become an increasingly important sanctuary for us all. They now play a different role in our lives, a place where we can feel safe and where, let’s face it, we’re all likely to be spending far more time in the future. If this leads to us investing the money in our homes and gardens that previously we would have spent on holidays that we can no longer take, on restaurants and cinemas that we can no longer visit or a new car or train fares that we no longer need, then the Home Improvement industry has a bright future and will recover faster than almost any other.

Steve Collinge is an international speaker, influencer, retail commentator and is Managing Director of Insight Retail Group Ltd and executive editor of Insight DIY.

You can follow Steve on LinkedIn, and on Twitter at @InsightDIYSteve.