Best Practices for Retailers to Succeed in a Post-COVID-19 Reality
"Shelter in place" and "safer-at-home" orders are starting to lift in states across the country. Retailers are getting the green light to reopen their shops, but the reality they're returning to is entirely different than the one that they left.
The impact of COVID-19 on the retail industry has been profound and is constantly evolving. Industry sales numbers are shaky — a 14.7 percent drop in April (the steepest in nearly three decades), followed by a record increase of 17.7 percent in May. If one thing is clear, it’s that the road back to recovery will be long and winding.
And while the reopening phase is a time for retailers to make changes that cater to new consumer preferences, it might also be much more than that. At the core, it’s an opportunity for businesses to re-examine how they’ve approached operations in the past and transform themselves into a brand that will stand the test of time.
Adapt and Thrive: 4 Key Strategies for Retailers
One of the most common and strategic shifts we’ve seen during this period is an acceleration of the use of digital channels to rethink in-store and online customer engagement. If retailers today aren’t thinking "digital first" or at least "digital and physical," it’s unlikely that they will endure through this period of uncertainty.
Here are four specific ways that retailers can leverage digital technology to not only survive the negative impacts of the pandemic, but also solidify their brand to compete in the future.
1. Achieve omnichannel retail.
In a recent survey conducted by Intelligence Node, 55 percent of consumers said they will wait one month or more before shopping in stores again, and 82 percent said that they will continue to shop online even once stores open. This makes it clear that retailers must leverage the strength of both online sales and the store experience to deliver what today’s consumers are looking for.
A big component of this is having a single, unified view of inventory. Retailers like Target and Walmart were able to achieve omnichannel success early on in the pandemic by shifting to same-day delivery. They were able to take digital orders and fulfill them quickly by drawing on inventory sitting in stores.
2. Develop efficient pickup and fulfillment.
Along similar lines, retailers must perfect the art of efficient pickup and fulfillment from store shelves for e-commerce orders. As the pandemic lifts and stores reopen, we will see an increase in sales for curbside pickup; buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS); and a decrease in foot traffic, which will allow some big-box retailers to primarily utilize their stores for inventory. To keep up with this increase in demand and deliveries, retailers should consider partnering with a third-party delivery service to automate and expedite the process.
To bring in the omnichannel element, retailers should give customers who are in-store the opportunity to log on to a tablet, complete a purchase and have it available at the store itself or delivered directly to their home. This is the kind of flexible, multichannel experience that will be required for brands looking for ways to cope with the fallout of COVID-19. Overall, retailers should prepare for customers who want to spend considerably less time in-store to minimize their contact with products and people.
3. Establish new safety standards, then keep them.
Implementing new in-store safety protocols shouldn’t be a temporary measure. Rather, safety standards that consistently evolve based on new information must be the new normal.
Furthermore, retailers should take this as an opportunity to innovate in-store experiences for customers. One way to achieve this is to make shops more of a “showroom experience” where customers can receive hyperpersonalized service and select products to buy from an online inventory. Shopping by appointment, online consultations, and increased use of technology are other ways to ensure an elevated consumer experience while maintaining social distancing. Experiences like these not only make shopping more fun and interesting, but safer as well.
4. Implement virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
The terms virtual reality and artificial intelligence still conjure up thoughts and feelings of a distant future for many. But the truth is that these technologies are here and now.
Retailers should consider implementing experiences delivered by these technologies in-store. Eyewear brands such as Ray-Ban and Warby Parker have capabilities that allow consumers to try frames on digitally at home prior to making a purchase. During the pandemic, many brands adapted to the times and boosted their VR capabilities, including real estate startup Beike, furniture retailer Ikea, and beauty brand YSL Beauty.
This technology should also be used in-store by way of virtual fitting rooms, so that consumers can log in to their accounts on a tablet and seamlessly pick up in-store where they left off online. In addition to leveraging innovative technology to push the consumer down the path to purchase, this approach also ensures that retailers will always have a digital version of each product so that they aren’t limited by a lack of in-store inventory.
Prepare to Pivot
Most importantly, retailers need to come to terms with the fact that the industry landscape is fundamentally different in almost every way. This starts with an understanding that consumer preferences have changed in terms of how they discover and purchase products, and ends with how seamlessly retailers are able to cater to this audience, whether in-store or online.
Retail leaders must be prepared to pivot in this disruptive COVID era and react to what are surely going to be constantly evolving consumer preferences. While this might mean simple, quick fixes, it could also require permanent changes to business models.
Sanjeev Sularia is the Chief Executive Officer of Intelligence Node, a real-time retail price intelligence platform that empowers businesses to drive product-level profitability and grow margins.
Sanjeev Sularia is CEO of Intelligence Node, a retail analytics and AI price optimization company that offers the world’s largest retail product index. Prior to founding Intelligence Node, Sanjeev was the CFO for Exclusively.in, a fast-growing high-end fashion e-commerce site acquired by Snapdeal, and CFO for Shersingh.com, a private label e-commerce company acquired by Myntra. Sanjeev is a graduate of London Business School and a Forbes Technology Council member.