What’s Next for the Changing Retail Landscape?
The Choice is Act or React

What’s Next for the Changing Retail Landscape?<br>The Choice is Act or React

For hundreds of years, competition among retailers was driven by activity on the sales floor. Retailers differentiated themselves based on product assortment, merchandising, customer service and store operations. Macy’s versus Gimbels is a classic example of this bygone model.

In the last two decades, however, competition moved from the sales floor to the supply chain, where process optimization became the new mantra. Process optimization — with its philosophy of continuous improvement — was the new approach to drive sales and maximize profit through incremental change.

Target, Walmart and other industry giants have been leaders in process optimization by employing supply chain programs like Collaboration Planning Forecasting and Replenishment (CPFR) and Just-in-Time inventory (JIT), supported by a rigorous program of data collection and analysis.

Supply chain optimization has been followed by the era of online retailing as the industry’s new field of competition. This channel offers vast product assortments, ease of use, convenience and a level of service that was abandoned by store native retailers. But it was met with skepticism by these legacy retailers, who discounted the degree and rapidity with which consumers would embrace this new level of convenience. Their initial dismissal has resulted in playing catch-up ever since.

Safety over convenience in the age of COVID  

The COVID-19 pandemic has infused the need for safety into the concept of convenience. As recently as 12 months ago, the thought of consumers intentionally not venturing out to shop was incomprehensible. Suddenly, customers were forced to change well-established shopping habits with breakneck speed, and a new normal set in.

Responding to COVID’s impact has proven particularly difficult in the grocery sector. Legacy grocery store operations were constructed on the assumption that the final assembly of an order would be done using the free labor provided by the customer as they shopped in store. Additionally, the shipment of the customer’s order to its final destination was done using the same free labor and free transportation provided by the consumer as they returned home. Now, grocery store consumers consider multi-channel options for safety as much as convenience, and parse their purchases based on perishability.

It is reasonable to anticipate that in a post-COVID economy the desire for this convenience will remain, despite reduced concerns over safety. Just a few months ago, consumers perused aisles in the supermarket — making frequent trips often lasting 40 minutes or longer. Consumers continue to think that the best place to shop for their perishables and frozen items is at the grocery store, but even that is not a given. The emergence of rapid home delivery services have proliferated in the past few months, making possible the safe delivery of perishables. In addition, customers have already started to change the way they buy all their non-food items. Everything from pet food to paper towels can be easily delivered to their front door.

Consumers are also venturing out to shop less frequently due to safety concerns. Trips through the store are completed in significantly less time. Now, the farthest that consumers want to travel is the store’s parking lot to pick up the order they created virtually.

Eliminating the need to go out at all is also gaining in popularity. Home grocery delivery has been accepted with great enthusiasm, assuring its continuation as safety issues abate. But how to execute the activities formerly done by the customer — at scale and profitably — is the challenge that began in grocery but has set consumer expectations for every retailer to meet.

A new playing field

Competition will now be played out in the reimagining of both logistics and store operations. This challenge must define how the physical store will be configured, merchandised and operated. The reimagining extends to all aspects of operations, including employee roles and responsibilities throughout the organization — not just to customer-facing activity.

Six COVID-Proof Constants for Responding to Change

Six COVID-Proof Constants for Responding to Change

We have all seen children jumping rope in the school yard or park. We may have even asked if we too could join in. As adults we are appreciative, if not envious, of the dexterity that children display. As we watch, we become aware that participation is actually less about dexterity and more about timing. While dexterity remains critical, the ability to master the timing for jumping rope is the component that determines success or failure.

More amazing still is jumping “Double Dutch,” where two ropes are spun in opposite directions. This new complexity makes the game seem impossible. To even begin to consider getting into the game demands immediate adaptation.

This analogy speaks to where retailers, wholesalers and brands find themselves today. Those who have recognized the new complexities of doing business have at least given themselves the chance to respond to change. Those that have not are found tangled in the ropes and out of the game.

Like jumping rope, there are some fundamentals that are undeniable. Though dexterity and timing are important, retailers, wholesalers and brands must not be distracted from six tenets that are constants.

1. Understanding the customer
The customer may be the same, but the way they want to interact has expanded far beyond the traditional trip to the store. Critical to retailers and brands is responding to the customer with options to make a purchase as convenient as possible, and cultivating a meaningful two-way dialogue. Retailers and brands cannot expect to be effective at finding new customers until they mastered the art of meaningfully engaging with the ones they already have.

2. Understanding the competition
While each retailer and brand are working to provide options to their customers, they must be vigilant in understanding how their competitors are doing the same. In the age of instant information, consumer expectations are changing all the time. The bells and whistles from competing products and services — virtual assistance, for example — become your customer’s new expectations.

3. Managing within constraints
Undertaking any initiative takes resources. The pace of change today is such that it is unrealistic to think that any organization has the luxury to take on projects one at a time. Organizations have no alternative but to execute multiple initiatives simultaneously. The competition for priority and resource availability can be debilitating if not planned and managed deliberately.

4. Culture and communication
Culture must reflect in both word and action an understanding of the customer. Messaging must be crafted in such a way as to drive both operational consistency and inclusivity for employees and customers alike. The degree to which this is achieved will determine the level of engagement of both employees and customers.

5. Adapting to a data-centric world
We live in a data-centric world, but it is imperative that we not get lost in thinking that the data itself is the end game. With all the data we have and the efforts that go into collecting, cleaning and analyzing it, we lose sight that data is just the raw material that we have to work with to understand our business. Data need to serve the business, not the business serving the data.

6. Capitalizing on the power of data
Before we can capitalize on data, we first need to define how it is to be employed. Data in and of itself has no value until it is utilized to craft a response to business challenges. Doing this requires a knowledge of both the raw data and the business objectives to formulate metrics that govern operational performance.

Like jumping rope, there are some fundamentals that are undeniable. These are the touchstones of transformation. You won’t get it done if you don’t get it ALL done.

COVID has brought enormous pressures to an already weakened industry, leaving retailers, wholesalers and brands desperately trying to survive. Surveys and industry articles suggest that a lot of jobs at retailers and brands are going to be lost forever.

The hard truth is this was going to happen anyway, irrespective of the pandemic. The path forward is not one of recovery but adaptation. That said, the challenge then becomes understanding how these touchstones must be adapted to retail’s new reality. Failure to do so will serve only to exacerbate the destruction of those who resist.