Five Retail Lessons Learned From The COVID-19 Pandemic Shutdowns
The coronavirus pandemic has fired hit after hit on retailers, forcing them to regroup, rethink, and retool to deal with shutdowns, big changes in consumer behavior, supply chain and inventory challenges, and safety concerns. However, as much as we hope that COVID-19 conditions have stabilized, we’re not out of the woods yet—and one thing this experience has taught us is that we need to be prepared for the next possible “wave” of change.
During a recent webinar, our retail experts discussed five lessons we’ve learned over the past few months, along with what retailers can do to address them—things that can be done to strengthen your business and maintain as much stability as possible, even during the darkest times.
The Challenges Have Been Many and Varied
The journey from March 2020 to now has had many twists and turns, requiring retailers to pivot more than once. Retailers, regardless of size, industry, or location, have been dealing with challenges around:
- Supply chain management
- Having an effective online eCommerce presence
- Preparing for the future and analyzing the rapid trends
- Instituting additional safety measures and staffing resources
- Having an adaptive workplace and services that support working from home (WFH)
- Including new methods for customer fulfillment like BOPIS, curbside pickup, and contactless payments
In a previous webinar, we discussed key objectives that can help identify short-, mid-, and long-term goals and actions to address these concerns and keep retail businesses not only surviving but thriving through times of crisis.
But we would all be remiss if we aren’t thinking and preparing for second and subsequent waves of shutdowns or rollbacks. We hope it won’t happen, but how do we prepare for this or other threats to our business? Following are five lessons retailers have learned that can also help us prepare for the future.
5 Lessons Learned
The foundation of each of the following lessons learned and subsequent advice for future planning is the ability to think about the here and now. This might be a surprise since we are typically urged to think strategically about our businesses, but in crisis situations, where the target is moving and response time is critical, you need to be able to think about immediate concerns and needs so you can determine and act on next steps.
Lesson #1: Safety First
This is a common phrase we’ve all seen on bulletin boards in the employee breakroom for years, but it’s never been more appropriate than it is today. When the pandemic hit, we all had to scramble to implement ways to keep employees and the public safe, and it had to be done quickly. As shutdowns have been lifted and retailers are gaining more freedom, those safety protocols have needed to change. There have been some amazing advancements in technology and processes to accommodate, from contactless delivery and payments to delivery drones. Many consumers prefer a frictionless buying experience with fewer touch points and easier accessibility.
Lesson #2: Create An Adaptive Workplace
Much of the safety protocols implemented during the pandemic have been designed to avoid in-person contact altogether. However, while keeping anyone who can work from home seems to be the solution, it’s not always an option or ideal. Suddenly, customers are relying on home internet connections whose bandwidth is being taxed by the rest of the family dealing remote working or school. There are distractions, concerns about security…the list goes on. This is where the balance of short-term and long-term objectives needs to happen. For example, should you look at new service offerings like curbside pickup? If so, you need to look at staffing, equipment, space within your footprint or other. Consider if this is a short-term service, or somethingyou want to make permanent?
Lesson #3: Do Omnichannel Right
Today more than ever before, it is vital for retailers to offer their products on the consumer’s preferred platform, providing clear communications and seamless experiences. Consumers are more likely than ever to begin their shopping journey online – researching and gathering evidence before making a buying decision. Retailers can easily leave shoppers frustrated with disconnected channels and incorrect information. With 92% of U.S. consumers becoming frustrated while shopping, and 52% become angry while waiting in line to pay, self-managed kiosks for ordering, checkout, and contactless payments are becoming a must for retailers.
These are “big” moves and are possibly more appropriate for the long term, but for the short term, you can start by ensuring your promotions and pricing is consistent across channels. The long-term goal would be to unify your all platforms involved, either by integrating them or by upgrading to a single solution. At ArcherPoint, we use LS Central, which centralizes management of all the data that flows across any of your sales channels.
But don’t forget the engagement component. More than just consistent communications and seamless channel experiences, customers want to feel heard and that they matter. Social media allows us—retailers and customers alike—to share a brand culture and messages. Social media is used by retailers for marketing and promoting but also for actively engaging with customers. Retailers can create polls, use hashtags, host live events, offer giveaways, and share exclusive items to those who interact with them.
Social media is also used by customers to post reviews and share their favorites, so this is also an opportunity for retailers. If you open yourself up to reviews—and your customers leave them—have the courtesy to respond. Let them know you’re listening. If it’s a positive review, thank them and share helpful information. If it’s a negative review, it’s even more important to respond. Apologize for the experience and offer to make it right. Not only do you have an opportunity to win back a frustrated customer, but you can also show other prospective customers that you care about your customers.
As you expand your online presence, you’ll need to look at adding resources. Do you expand your customer service team or create a new role or department? It’s possible to have current staff cover these roles in the short term, but you need to have something more substantial in place in the long term, because those who have been doing double duty can’t do it forever.
Lesson #4: Look at Strategic Partnerships and Relationships
But what if you have had to lay people off and simply don’t have the bandwidth—even for the short term—to keep up with customer engagement and other areas that could help you keep your business going? Look at your relationships. During the pandemic, we’ve seen retailers and brands join forces with others that would traditionally be considered competitors. Strength in numbers is the idea here. Restaurants shared resources, and raw and finished products, collaborated on menus, and even shared staff (breakfast restaurants sharing with dinner-only establishments). They partnered with grocers and focused on delivery platforms like UberEats and GrubHub.
Retailers have also been partnering, reaching out to their vendors and leveraging those relationships to get special offers and arrangements or connecting with other businesses that are complementary to share promotions.
Thinking here and now is the perfect opportunity to be creative and experiment with something new. Even those arrangements that have been put in place for the short term could turn into long-term offerings. Small steps put in place to help you get through disruptive times can turn into a competitive advantage down the road.
Lesson #5: Analyze Current Trends
This is something retailers should always do, but it’s more important now than ever. Behaviors have changed rapidly and are continuing to do so. During the pandemic, buying behaviors ranged from panic buying to emotional buying. The faster you identify a trend, the faster you can adjust to keep revenue flowing. Consider investing in technology to make this task easier by providing you with insight into patterns that will help surface the areas that could become disrupted or might require more attention.
For example, you can work with your vendors to rotate or adjust your products—or even rotate your vendors based on what they’re able to produce and ship. Times of panic also present opportunities to offer new products. We’ve lost count of how many retailers began selling face masks in the past months. Again, some of these moves might be for the short term only, but any move should also be evaluated for becoming long-term.
Forecasting is also a big part of this discussion. Retailers can always benefit from the ability to accurately forecast, and while we can’t get 100% accuracy, we can report on trends and analyze behaviors with powerful and intelligent reporting tools. It is vital to measure KPIs during times of disruption so you can spot opportunities and problems and act upon them before you miss the window or have a real problem on your hands.
The question is, how do you do this in the short term? It’s not very likely you would be in the position of buying a complex reporting tool. However, in the short term, you could use reports you’re familiar with and run them daily or even several times a day. You could even create a new report for a new metric to measure what you normally report on but in a slightly different way. Then, you can consider more sophisticated tools in the long term.
NOTE: In the case of analytics, there is a solution that can help in the short term as well as the long term. Microsoft Power BI is sophisticated, but easy to install and set up and can give you the capabilities you need for those critical analytics. In a matter of a couple of hours, you can be up and running and producing visual reports you can easily filter and dive into.
Pivot For the Short Term—With An Eye To The Future
While it is our hope that we won’t see a second wave of shutdowns or rollbacks, it is prudent to plan for that possibility. In doing so, retailers have an opportunity to pivot for the short-term in ways that can also benefit them and their customers in the long term.
Want to know more? Watch Is Your Retail Business Ready for the Next Wave?, an on-demand webinar hosted by ArcherPoint’s retail experts.
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