It's no secret that COVID-19 has both been highly disruptive for both commerce companies and consumers that identify with them. Starting with the identification of a new type of virus by Chinese Authorities on January 7, 2020, to a rapid spread (within a matter of weeks) to Thailand, South Korea, Iran, Italy, and the United States, it was clear that the Novel Coronavirus was moving quickly and impacting the health of many across the globe. On February 11, the World Health Organization had labeled the disease 'COVID-19'. By March 11, 2020, as the world grappled to learn about not only about the source of the virus and rapidly began efforts toward finding a vaccine, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a global pandemic.
This introduced an unprecedented time of uncertainty and concern for the businesses across the United States as those considered 'non-essential' were asked to close their doors for an unforeseen amount of time, with promises of regular communications, reviews and adjustments to re-opening timelines from state and local authorities, and government-backed loans to help with cash flow in the short term.
For nearly two months, the majority of non-essential businesses in the United States have been faced with perhaps the most difficult economic battle of the last century. Needless to say, April was a difficult month as companies tried to stay solvent by allowing their employees to work from home. However, due to limited cash flow and extreme limitations on the ability to sustain business, companies began to furlough employees and many found themselves filing for bankruptcy. According to Marketwatch, the unemployment rate outlook as a result of COVID-19 could end up 'surpassing 25% and breaking the all time record set during the great depression'.
Yet for a number of companies, and in particular those interacting with the consumer directly, this can be a time of growth and change as we battle back with safe, prudent, and strategic approaches. There will be new learnings, new processes to be implemented, and even growth in revenue as states start to open back up. And while it will likely be some time before we return to normality, the rate at which the world bounces back will be based on how committed companies are to moving forward to open, execute, and meet customer and employee expectations with the right technologies and processes in place. In other words, the success of retailers over the next 3-6 months will be directly tied to how frictionless they can make the consumer experience. In consideration of this, we'd like to offer a few strategies that every retailer should consider.
1. Communication is King. This goes well beyong the 'We're all in this together message'. While this is certainly true from a health perspective, not every organization is faced with the same challenges based on product and the needs of their customers. According to Adobe's Digital Economy Index, we saw massive increases in revenue for online grocery, home goods, an even electronics. However, apparel, luxury, and other 'non-essential' categories saw sharp declines in revenue (particularly those without a strong digital presence). And while digital sales are on the rise, a recent study by McKinsey shows that consumer optimism for in store shopping activities will take some time to come back. Now, more than ever, is the critical time to leverage your consumer data to proactively reach out to your customer-base proactively and consistently with key messaging about not just product, but culture and how your organization is positioned to welcome them back to your stores. Leverage that in-home marketing team to send personalized messaging and outline some of the changes that you've been working on to help them feel safe and comfortable coming back in during the months of May and June. As customers return to the stores, greet them and help them understand the current guidelines for traffic in the store, offer them a facemask if they don't have one, explain policies on handling inventory (and fitting rooms, if applicable), and keep hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies stocked and available for their use.
For many, the natural inclination when meeting a loyal customer was to shake their hand, or even to give them a hug as a welcome. In the short term, there will be a new consciousness required for how things that were once 'normal' must be altered to respect new regulations. Retailers should also consider open communication channels to leadership for their employees when there are questions about new COVID-19 related situations that they haven't encountered before. Establish an 'easy to access' help site with frequently asked questions and easy to follow directions for addressing emloyees concerns around health and safety and the appropriate escalation paths to give them the opportunity to communicate quickly and efficiently when concerns arise.
2. Evaluate your Internal Processes (and be prepared to revamp a number of them through the phases of retail re-opening). There will be new ways of engaging the customer that have not been necessary in the past.
Not only is this important to expedite product across the supply chain, but it also is particularly of consequence to those retailers who have seasonal, aging inventory that will lose value by the time consumers are comfortable visiting the stores again. (See Robert Algeni from Ascent's article titled 'Inventory Management in the Age of COVID-19' for additional insights on this topic). As customers shop at your stores, ensure your checkout processes support contactless payment using methods such as Apple Pay, Google Wallet, and other NFC-enabled credit and debit cards.
Appoint a transition team to assist with change management requirements that can be in tune with changing requirements state-by-state in order to maintain an agile process model that can be rapidly implemented as recommendations continue to develop. NRF's Retail Restrictions State Tracker can be a good tool to monitor to stay current on the unique requirements that each state has for reopening and conducting business.
3. Understand the limitations of your existing technology infrastructure and build a coherent strategy for both short term AND long term to address these. Nearly every company (small and large) are at different levels of maturity when it comes to commerce systems. There are those that, entering the era of COVID-19, were already firing on all cylinders with integrated technologies that supported 'unified commerce' (see Medium's definition of this term here). But leaders in this space have been the exception, and many companies have struggled to keep up. If anything, COVID-19 has escalated the importance of moving towards a unified commerce strategy that enables a common view of customer and inventory across all channels of business, with the technical capabilities to support cross-channel orders and fulfillment in order to reduce friction in the consumer experience. Implementing these solutions take the right strategies, approach, team, and methodology to be successful. But there are things that retailers can do in the short term to get a jump start. Here's one example that I experienced yesterday.
Living in Utah, flavored soda shops are our equivalent to Starbucks (yes, it's a real thing). Yesterday, my kids and I ran out to grab a cold beverage from one of these local retailers that has an online presence, but found no integrated fulfillment technology to track curbside pickups.
On the other end of the spectrum we see companies like Target, who have had these end to end processes integrated for some time, going as far as enabling integrated same day delivery for products purchased online through a third party delivery service.
At Ascent, we eat, drink, and live commerce, both digital and physical, and would like to help. Please reach out to us at email@example.com or by contacting us at 801.660.2901 for more information. We look forward to seeing you and your business emerge from COVID-19 both safely and successfully.