As restrictions started to lift on large gatherings in the first months of 2022, Sue-Ellen Randall saw a small but noticeable shift in the kinds of items customers were purchasing from her East Corrimal surf and streetwear store Fangerz.
In 2021, the store was all about hardware; surfboards, skateboards, straps and tailpads.
In 2022, buyers switched to shirts, pants and shoes.
"Clothing for festivals, parties, going out," said Mrs Randall.
It's not just Fangerz that has seen this trend, but the wider economy.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in February household spending on clothing and footwear rose by 20.2 per cent.
The trend was part of a wider return to going out as restrictions eased and community concern about COVID-19 reduced, said head of macroeconomic statistics at the ABS Jacqui Vitas.
"Fewer COVID-19 cases in February, alongside the further easing of restrictions over the month saw increased spending in recreation, hospitality and retail venues," she said.
Adapting to this change has been part of the story of Fangerz since it first opened in 2020.
Kicking off just prior to the arrival to COVID, the store found itself selling fewer board shorts and more tracksuit pants during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.
Seeing what products consumers were tending towards during various stages of restrictions, Mrs Randall said that the store had to work with suppliers and shift what was in store.
"I do check the data, but a lot of it is instinct; this is happening now, so what do we need to do to meet that demand."
Although reading the market has long been the bread and butter of a successful retailer, using data driven by online sales is increasingly what is keeping traditional retail alive.
Research from University of Wollongong academics has found that using customer analytics and reacting to online customer engagement is enabling bricks and mortar retailers to survive as purchases shift online.
"Our research found that customer analytics play a vital role in engaging the customer," PhD candidate and lead author Md Afnan Hossain said.
"If they have the proper technology, our research has proposed that customer analytics capability is essential for traditional retail's survival."
While this could mean that retail will only be successful online, where every mouse click and hover can be tracked, in fact, Mr Hossain said, having in person and online outlets is vital.
"The research shows that if you want to buy a fashion item or even groceries, you want to check the freshness of the product, sometimes customers like to touch the product as well."
Mr Hossain cited the fact of an online giant such as Amazon moving into physical retail as a sign that bricks and mortar stores are far from a thing of the past.
Mrs Randall said that prior to opening Fangerz she would have agreed that bricks and mortar retail was on its way out, but that even with the lockdowns and restrictions of the past two years, there is a space for face-to-face retail.
"I still think there's a really valid purpose for bricks and mortar places, because people do like to come in and look at touch and try," she said.
Keeping the Corrimal store buzzing has also been the takeaway coffee bar that occupies the front of the store. Even when retail had to shut during COVID, the store could still turnover takeaway coffees and pastries with an outdoor seating area in the small plaza in front of the store.
"Everybody gets five minutes to talk to people, even though they're a metre and a half apart," Mrs Randall said. "So that's been the real backbone of the business when retail had to be shut. It's been a real constant ticking over."
The online store has also been what has kept Fangerz alive. Making up about a third of total sales, Mrs Randall said the business built up the store through the Shopify platform and was able to make sales both locally and internationally.
Wollongong software development company Devika has been helping other small to medium businesses build their own online presence and recently launched an out of the box platform named Baseline, that allows businesses to operate in the cloud.
Managing director of Devika Ken Kencevski said that particularly after COVID consumers were demanding a sophisticated online experience.
"In our experience, you have your customer journey and touch point and digital sometimes wasn't the focus," he said.
"I think they really saw during COVID how other people that implemented digital were able to leapfrog them."
Whether a cafe posting their menu online and having an ordering platform linked in, or a retailer adding a sales channel online to a local shopfront, digital was an unavoidable part of doing business.
"It isn't just about replicating what they already do but about also thinking about how digital could complement and really grow their business."
In the future, Mrs Randall said, Fangerz may open up another location, driven by where the online store was making a lot of sales, perhaps New Zealand. While she wasn't quite sure where the East Corrimal of New Zealand might be yet, utilising insights from data but retaining that human interaction would be key.
"If the people have got that agile mindset, and they can change and be adaptable, that's the way business is going to head now."
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