As Australia plays out step one of its COVIDSafe roadmap, brick-and-mortar retailers have begun reopening their doors to the public and many Australians have flocked to the shops. The scenes in shopping centres of crowds and even long queues are vastly different to just weeks ago, when consumers had swapped brick-and-mortar retail for ecommerce.

According to data from ccinsight, a joint project between Emarsys and our partner, GoodData, online retail activity and pureplay ecommerce both peaked around May 10, with retailers more than doubling their revenue compared to the same period last year. However, there have been early signs of a high street recovery, with the same data showing many consumers have exchanged online for in-store purchases in the past fortnight as shops have reopened. This begs the question: was this all just a phase? I would argue no.

It’s going to be a long journey to get Australian consumers back to shopping in physical stores at pre-COVID-19 levels. There are some obvious reasons for this: concerns about safety remain; some stores have elected not yet to reopen; and physical distancing requirements.

And some not so obvious.

Our data shows nearly half of online sales for brands in March were driven by “new customers”. The remainder was made up of second-time buyers (5%), active repeat customers (23%), defecting customers (14%) and inactive customers (8%). In other words, the online population has grown exponentially through a forced event on a global scale and, undoubtedly, has permanently expanded the online market.

For online retailers and pureplay ecommerce businesses, these figures represent an opportunity for brand marketers to target a larger addressable market than pre-COVID—an opportunity many are shifting their strategies to focus on as in-store sales remain slow. Brands must adapt and respond to new generations of online shoppers to be successful in the next normal, bearing in mind new considerations, like making sure it’s simple for older, generally less tech-savvy generations who now have a thirst for ecommerce to continue to be active online. Now more than ever, brands will find new opportunities in their data sets and consumers trends, and business results will come from being more customer-centric.

The pandemic has given businesses a real reason to rethink their digital strategies and how they engage their audiences online, and has led some to wonder if it might be time to permanently say goodbye to a considerable number of their physical stores.

A lot has been reported in the media in recent years about the tensions between shopping centre and high street landlords and retail tenants, with the latter wanting reduced rents to reflect the reality that store sales are in a long-term decline. COVID has been the nail in the coffin for many retailers, with some brands, such as Accent Group (operator of Platypus, Athlete’s Foot and Hype DC), choosing to shift to digital-first or, in the case of Bardot,  pureplay ecommerce models. It’s yet to be seen whether the reduction in physical store fronts will speed up the move to online shopping; yet this seems a reasonable hypothesis to make.

It’s difficult to forecast how retail will rebound from COVID, however many retail brands I’ve been speaking with are still strategising around driving offline sales. Perhaps the greatest lesson they’ve learned is there’s no reason to consider online and offline sales as separate revenue streams anymore. Profitability, in-store average order value, purchase frequency and loyalty will be driven by all channels. Indeed, COVID has accelerated the implementation of omnichannel strategies for many retailers.

While the initial threat of COVID slowly (but not completely) begins to wane, some of the more radical and drastic changes happening in consumer behaviour will begin to balance out. However, one thing is for sure: retail and ecommerce will never be the same.

Adam Ioakim is managing director for APAC at Emarsys