Did COVID-19 press reset on innovation?
Following the turbulence and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no secret that businesses throughout the UK have been forced to adapt to the evolving demands of the new normal.
Although strategies have differed depending on sector and business size, all businesses have been forced to re-evaluate their plans. While for some this involved pressing pause, adopting remote working or reducing the workforce, for others the focus was on innovation.
Print and design experts Solopress have revealed that a staggering 69% of representatives from creative industries said that the pandemic accelerated innovation within their business. The survey went on to explore how and why innovation has become vital for many businesses seeking to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.
- 69% of respondents in a survey conducted by Solopress in November 2021 said that the pandemic accelerated innovation within their business.
- In May 2020, during the first national lockdown, 18% of UK businesses were forced to temporarily close or pause trading.
- 34% of workers furloughed during the pandemic were in the accommodation and food service sector and 29% of workers furloughed were in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector.
- 772,002 businesses were also formed in the UK in 2020, with many coming from sectors that benefited from the pandemic such as PPE manufacturers and takeaway services.
- The percentage of businesses currently trading remained stable throughout November 2021 at 91%, while the percentage of businesses that had temporarily paused trading remained at five percent.
- 17% of UK businesses reported that they struggled with procurement throughout November, having to change suppliers or find alternative solutions.
- 15% of UK businesses reported a shortage of workers by late November.
- Solopress data reveals that enquiries decreased for 50% of business representatives as a result of the pandemic as opposed to 28% that said enquiries increased. 23% however, said that the level of enquiries did not change.
- Over 80% said that their business adapted to seize opportunities as a result of the pandemic.
- Government data shows that 60% of businesses adopted digital technologies and new management practices, 38% adopted new digital capabilities and 45% delivered a new product or service.
- 52% of companies accelerated their AI adoption plans because of the COVID-19 crisis.
- 67% of businesses expect to scale up their AI strategy further in 2021.
Business as usual
18% of UK businesses were forced to temporarily close or pause trading during the first national lockdown. Of businesses still trading, 62% reported a decline in turnover, indicating the widespread impact of the pandemic on UK businesses and the economy. Unsurprisingly, the sectors that suffered the highest furlough rates were accommodation and food services with 34% of workers furloughed, whilst arts, entertainment and recreation furloughed 29% of staff.
Innovation through new partnerships
Not all UK businesses suffered at the hands of the pandemic, however; for some, the crisis acted as a catalyst for success. Amazon and Royal Mail capitalised on customers having to stay at home whilst Deliveroo joined forces with retail giants Waitrose, Sainsbury's, Aldi, Co-Op and Morrisons to deliver groceries directly to customers’ doors, offering speed of delivery and convenience. Uber Eats’ customer base also increased significantly after partnering with Sainsbury's as part of an initiative launched in October.
Innovation through entrepreneurship
772,002 businesses were formed in the UK in 2020, with many from sectors able to capitalise on opportunities from the pandemic, including PPE manufacturers, disinfectant manufacturers, campsites and takeaway companies.
For instance, rapid delivery service Weezy began operations in August 2021 delivering goods from wholesalers, local bakers and butchers to Fulham and Chelsea residents within 15 minutes for a fee of £2.95 and no minimum spend. With high customer retention and four more fulfilment centres recently opened in London, Weezy has successfully fulfilled the demand for rapid grocery delivery brought about by the pandemic.
Interestingly, a recent Gusto report found that 49% of people who started businesses during 2020 were women, up from 27% pre-pandemic levels. Female entrepreneurs entering the business world during the pandemic have found success in start-ups like that of Mya Leonie Wander, who created MJ Eats, a part-time Caribbean food takeaway service that delivered fresh food cooked in her very own kitchen. The business broke even after just two months and averaged around 20 orders per week in 2020.
Innovation through new product launches
A staggering one in three SME's launched new products in an attempt to remain profitable during the pandemic.
Eyewear brand Zenni Optical were quick to adapt to the demands of the pandemic, fast-tracking innovations including their anti-fog lenses for mask-wearing customers. The product innovation accelerated eyewear sales projections by 45%. Capitalising on the opportunity to expand their offering, underwear brand Thinx responded to increased demand for activewear, launching their own line of leggings, running shorts and more, which resulted in sales increasing by 10% in 2020.
The road to recovery
Following two further lockdowns and news of the Delta and Omicron variants, businesses have naturally been in a state of flux, having to adapt and move with every new announcement. Encouragingly, the most recent ONS reports show that the percentage of businesses currently trading remained stable throughout November 2021 at 91%, while the percentage of businesses temporarily paused trading remained at 5%.
Adding Brexit factors into the mix has added to the challenges faced by UK businesses. 17% reported that they struggled with procurement throughout November, having to change suppliers or find alternative solutions and 15% reported a shortage of workers by late November.
According to McKinsey, the ongoing recovery from COVID-19 will not be a linear process and that businesses with the most comprehensive scenario planning, including plans to ramp up innovation and engagement, are likely to recover fastest and enhance long-term competitiveness. World Bank findings also highlight that factors common to businesses still able to thrive in the current landscape include innovation and the use of digital technology, which can act as an efficient way to offset the physical remoteness enforced by COVID-19 measures.
A push towards business innovation
As consumer behaviour has drastically shifted towards online shopping, depleted brand loyalty and a focus on health, hygiene and sustainability, brands are having to invest heavily in R&D in order to compete.
Almost 50% of business representatives in a survey conducted by Solopress in November 2021 said that business enquiries decreased as a result of the pandemic, highlighting a strong need for organisations to innovate to best meet changing consumer behaviour. 80% also said that their business adapted to seize opportunities as a result of the pandemic which is indicative of the ambition of businesses not only to survive but to thrive.
Government data reveals that UK businesses indicated greater innovation rates that might have been expected in the absence of COVID-19, with over 60% of respondents adopting digital technologies and new management practices, 38% adopting new digital capabilities and 45% delivering a new product or service.
The trend toward digitalisation is further demonstrated with the pandemic reportedly accelerating digitalisation by five years and a fifth of large enterprises increasing investment in digital transformation initiatives.
Bringing innovation to the forefront
This greater investment in R&D and business innovation during COVID-19 is evidenced in the wider adoption of AI, with AI becoming critical in the struggle to adapt to the changing landscape. It’s no secret that the implementation of AI can be instrumental in facilitating new products, skills shortages, boosted productivity, targeted marketing and even supply chain issues due to its capacity to unload new data quickly, analyse patterns, provide insights and offer predictive capabilities.
According to PwC, 52% of companies accelerated their AI adoption plans because of the COVID-19 crisis whilst an Appen study found that 67% expect to scale up their AI strategy further in 2021. 74% of executives also believe that AI will deliver more efficient business processes.
As part of their Covid-19 recovery plans, EasyJet partnered with AI firm Black Swan Data to better manage its food supply. Combining AI and machine learning, the airline is evaluating food consumption to predict what customers will choose to eat, how much they’ll consume and when, thus minimising waste and costs.
Starbucks also adapted well during the pandemic, implementing a mobile order pick-up system that enabled customers to collect coffee from a barista outdoors. The new system eliminated the risks of approaching a busier space and helped to enhance customer loyalty.
Antavo’s Global Customer Loyalty Report emphasises the importance of innovating in terms of marketing during the pandemic. 62% of businesses saw an increase in customer engagement after implementing a tiered, omnichannel loyalty programme, according to the report. The findings also highlighted the importance of delivering an optimised on and offline experience and how this is causing businesses to adapt their existing loyalty programmes.
As technology develops to meet the demands of a post-pandemic world, organisations must accept the need to innovate and harness these developments to compete in the new, increasingly challenging landscape. Technology such as AI provides businesses with unique opportunities to diversify and better serve their customer base, ensuring success and stability beyond the pandemic.