The retail sector has undergone an upheaval during the pandemic, with a dramatic shift in shopping behaviours online and in-store. But it’s not just the changing consumer that has altered the retail landscape. Many retailers are now accustomed to making strategic decisions quickly and adapting to changing operating conditions and customer preferences.

According to the CommBank Consumer Insights report, the experiences during the pandemic have greatly impacted how consumers think, act and shop. Aside from prompting many consumers to exercise caution when it came to discretionary spending, the research reveals that 91% of people increased their digital activities. A sense of connection to family and the community has also come into sharper focus.

Purebaby Founder and Creative Director, Mirabai Winford, agrees, having witnessed first-hand how new trends emerged across her customer base, noting that while some were new, many were pre-existing and have since picked up pace.

Mirabai says it is a fascinating yet uncertain time for retailers, with the business experiencing breakout growth while navigating store closures, ongoing restrictions and shifting customer expectations.

A rush on essential items

Mirabai founded organic toddler and baby clothing retailer, Purebaby, in 2002 after struggling to find natural and organic items for her newborn daughter. The business has grown rapidly since, with a focus on designing high quality, sustainable products for discerning and well-informed customers.

Mirabai explains that part of the growth Purebaby experienced was due to its segment. At the beginning of the pandemic, customers were worried about access to essential clothing items like growsuits, singlets and wraps, particularly those having babies.

“Babies continued to be born through the pandemic, and they also continued to grow. And while you might be able to curb discretionary spending on your own clothing, babies might move up five sizes in a year and still need clothing even in lockdown.”

“We saw an initial big rush just like the supermarkets. Then we saw a focus on value, and essential items and sales of our essentials range grew by more than eight times, while dressier styles saw a decline given customers didn’t have occasions to wear them. Customers were looking for value for money, and while there was price sensitivity, they were also looking for convenience, availability and quality.”

The holistic shift to digital

Of the many major shifts, Mirabai says that increased online shopping is one of the most impactful, noting that a recent Purebaby customer survey revealed that the preference and willingness to shop online had risen by 20% compared to the previous year.

The CommBank Consumer Insights report showed a similar rise in the preference for online channels among clothing and footwear shoppers. However, it also revealed that bricks and mortar stores remain the overwhelming channel of choice across categories. 

Purebaby had just launched a new, highly functional website in September 2019 built to enhance the customer experience. This was a move that Mirabai credits for the business’s ability to adapt to an influx of demand as its customer base doubled.

“COVID-19 really accelerated our growth and embedded the trends towards online shopping among our customers. We had already seen a moderate fall in foot traffic before the pandemic, but we then saw a dramatic shift where most sales moved online.”

“What’s interesting is that over the past 12 to 15 months, and with consumers spending more time on devices, the significant touchpoints of brand discovery, validation and engagement have all become more digital too. Research and first contact with the brand is now online, which has changed our whole business strategy. Previously, we would open stores to act like billboards within shopping centres to attract customers.”

According to Mirabai, as well as focusing on its ecommerce capability, Purebaby responded by quickly increasing the online access to its educational content, shifting sessions online.

“There was a lot of anxiety from parents who were unable to access hospital classes, so we held fantastic online nesting workshops for parents to cover all aspects of what you need to know when you're becoming a parent. In addition, we launched a podcast and brought in external experts on topics from birth to feeding and allergies. We regularly released informative blogs and how-to videos and continue to do that today.”

“We pivoted to a digital-first strategy for all our content and built real brand trust and authority, as well as increasing customer engagement. Our aim now is to provide all that information to parents or caregivers digitally so they can trust that they are buying from an authority on babywear and all things baby related.”

Shoppers with purpose

Mirabai says now that customers are spending more time online researching, they already know what they want when they visit a store, and that is reducing browsing time. This is just one dimension of a renewed sense of purpose that Mirabai is seeing among customers.

“Rather than having customers casually browsing, our in-store conversion rates have gone up. That’s because customers are coming in with a real purpose. They have researched what they need and aren’t staying in the store for longer periods. That means there has to be far more integration between online and offline channels.”

“But when customers do come in-store, they are yearning for a tactile experience, to meet people and touch the products. So for our customers that might be first-time parents or about to give birth or giving a gift to someone they know in that position, purchasing can often be a joyful experience, and that’s really beautiful to watch.”

“We are also seeing that customers are increasingly searching for meaning in what they buy, have a focus on unique products and quality, and are more likely to support locally owned businesses. I don’t believe these are temporary changes.”

According to Mirabai, Purebaby’s focus from here will be applying a digital-first strategy to everything they do and developing a better understanding of what its customers want and need.

The way in which the business has evolved during the pandemic has positioned Purebaby well for the future, with Mirabai emphasising that optimisation of the omnichannel experience, using data-driven strategies, and remaining nimble being at the forefront. “Our focus will remain on trying to operate like a new business every day,” Mirabai adds.

The Consumer Insights series aims to more deeply understand the mindsets, behaviours and intentions among consumers across the economy. We encourage consumer-facing businesses to read the inaugural report to better understand how the expectations of their customers have changed due to their experience of the pandemic.

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Things you should know

This article represents opinions and views of the interviewees personal experiences only.  It does not have regard to the situation or needs of any reader and must not be relied upon as advice. It is not intended to imply any recommendation or opinion about a financial product or service. Before acting on this information, consider its appropriateness to your circumstances. Commonwealth Bank of Australia ABN 48 123 123 124.