COVID Recovery Opportunities: Refresh Your Management Response

COVID Recovery Opportunities: Refresh Your Management Response
 

Thankfully, it now appears COVID-19 will begin to abate in the foreseeable future. Retailing will continue to recover, but in a landscape that’s been permanently altered.

Retailers and brands already buffeted by competitive pressures were initially too slow to act and the cost has been catastrophic. It is critical that the leaders of these companies recognize that recovery and transition will carry new challenges and risks. Recovery can NOT be a restoration to the retail industry as we knew it, as fundamentally consumers’ habits have evolved in response to the pandemic.

A rapid and significant shift in shopping patterns was driven by consumers as they became preoccupied with safety. Retailers’ fire drill response to the pandemic forced a retrenchment in every aspect of their business. Every day became an exercise in survival, made more challenging by the seemingly daily lifeboat exercises that retailers were forced to adopt.

With safety comes convenience

What consumers discovered is that the tactics that made shopping safer gave rise to a level of convenience that had not been offered previously. The widespread adoption of tactics like BOPIS, curbside pickup and contactless transactions quickly gained favor. As the pandemic abates, concerns for safety may recede, but the desire for the convenience that comes with these programs will persist. Recovery demands transition.

The transition from operating in “crisis mode” to some semblance of “normal” must be more than a return to business as it used to be because consumers’ habits have now changed. This carries a degree of peril as consumers now have expectations for a level of convenience that did not exist prior to the pandemic. This presents a challenge to the entire organization, but is particularly acute at the executive level as it is incumbent upon them to develop a new strategic vision to respond to changing consumer expectations. Failure to do this creates the impetus for customers to transfer their loyalties to competitors who do respond.

In “Pandemic Crisis Mode,” strategy is subordinate to survival. During this time, focus on making payroll and conserving cash to keep the doors open took precedence over discussions about sustained growth and profitability. One of the hallmarks of operating in crisis mode is the compression of decision making. When the store manager is called upon to load cars as a part of curbside pick-up and senior executives are negotiating extensions in payables terms, it is clear that people are not paying attention to the jobs they were hired to do while they are called to react to a succession of fire drills.

As illustrated in the grid below, the impact of crisis mode compression decision making has negative consequences.

The Crisis-Compressed Organization

The Crisis-Compressed Organization

As negative as these impacts are, there are times when operating in crisis mode is unavoidable. The trap into which many organizations fall is failing to take the deliberate steps necessary to pull out of crisis mode. Thus, they become habituated to crisis management, which becomes an impediment in transitioning back to an operating model that will sustain long-term success.

Organizations that do transition back to normal operating mode must resist the temptation to return to the comfort of the familiar pre-pandemic past. It is incumbent upon retailers to remain mindful that the post-pandemic world will differ significantly in the needs and expectations of consumers.

The grid below can serve as a useful template for refocusing on the new expectations of the customer and the new competitive environment.

The Post-Pandemic Organization

The Post-Pandemic Organization

There have been chronic challenges retailers have dealt with over the past few years. One of the pernicious effects was a gradual succumbing to shortened planning horizons that has driven short-term thinking. The abrupt changes caused by the pandemic has made these challenges more acute for all retailers — and overwhelming for many.

For all the pain and dislocation that the pandemic has created, there is a benefit that we should not lose sight of. The capabilities of innovation and agile responsiveness have developed for those retailers who have survived, and as such have created change able organizations.

Almost overnight, the pandemic created the need to deploy measures to keep both employees and customers safe, encompassing everything relating to the end-to-end shopping experience. This is, in recovery, management’s opportunity to restore the strategic thinking of the long-term growth horizon instead of a quarterly survival horizon.

The Failed Promise of CRM

The Failed Promise of CRM
 

All too frequently, leaders in the retail industry cloak themselves with the false comfort of being able to quantify the number of customers they claim as their own, while knowing little more than at one point they crossed the store’s threshold.

However, what was purchased, when it was purchased, where the purchase was made, and how many purchases followed remain mostly as disparate data pieces: unconnected, unexplored and thus not understood. Retailers have repeatedly displayed a misplaced confidence that a single transaction with a customer is a true understanding of their identity. As result, the expectation of increased sales and profit from these coveted shoppers is never realized.

The booming growth we saw in the final decades of the last century was driven by the increase in disposable income and the migration to the suburbs. The idea that the landscape could become saturated with stores was never a consideration. It was never seriously considered by retailers that the future would be any different from the recent past.

The contraction of the economy that came with the turn of the new century brought the end of excessive optimism as characterized as “irrational exuberance” by then-Federal Reserve Board Chair Alan Greenspan. After several years of consistent comp store sales increases, market saturation flattened — creating obstacles in achieving growth.

Data is a solution, with challenges

As options for shopping increased significantly, the challenge for retailers became how to drive growth with a flat or declining customer share. The new challenge was not only how to get more customers, but how to get more from existing customers.

While this sounds painfully obvious by today’s standards, twenty years ago it was considered groundbreaking. Retailers like Nordstrom’s and LL Bean had enjoyed near-mythic status with their laser focus on customer satisfaction, and as such became iconic and worth emulating. While this strategy rolled easily from the lips of retail leaders, its execution originally was fraught with operational and cultural challenges unique to the new environment.

Many retailers stayed true to form and habit, assuming the problem could be solved with the purchase of technology; unfortunately, they never developed a strategy or articulated what the data processing needs would be. There were few commercially available Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software applications on the market prior to 2000 and they had been essentially developed in a vacuum.

Knowing what you need and why

The reliance was on software engineers rather than merchants to puzzle out what data would be important to better serve their customers. Thus, the few applications that were available supported the collection of only rudimentary facts about the customer, and no more. This situation did not improve as more CRM solutions became available. They all still suffered the same limitations, providing only the functionality to manage the scantest demographic information.

Exacerbating the problem for the marketing team was that the store operations had not prepared either store associates or customers to understand why data was being requested. We remember being told only that now it was necessary to comply with request for this data to complete the sale. Without understanding why, the request for zip code was considered intrusive. The result was that customers pushed back on hapless store associates, who learned quickly not to ask rather than deal with the resistance. The problem then came full circle as the technology investment and the efforts of implementation were ineffectual and never delivered on the promise.

The data-enhanced future is working, with a caveat

The path forward was carved out (yet again) by digitally native retailers cognizant that, as with the products themselves, data was the only tool available to build an understanding of consumers and what was important to them. The metrics employed by digitally native retailers were not necessarily so different from their store-based competitors, but their commitment to making data collection an integral part of every sale was. As more store-based retailers developed a web presence the gap closed, and CRM offerings reflected the new understandings.

Today, omni-channel and mobile commerce continue to press retailers to develop a better understanding of their customers. This cannot be achieved without rigorous data management and operations able to both acquire and access data uniformly across a variety of customer interactions and retail platforms. Retailers who remain blind to this will never commit the resources necessary to develop a true nuanced understanding of who their customer is and what they seek. Without this, realizing the full value of every customer is flatly unachievable.

A Very COVID Christmas

A Very COVID Christmas
 

There is little in our lives that COVID has not touched. But COVID can’t cancel Christmas. With that in mind, what will Christmas look like this year and what trends will continue into the 2021 holidays?

While the window has already closed for the deployment of any substantive technology initiative this year, the focus on making the 2020 holiday season the best it can be must be directed to front line operations and customer convenience.

Whether a small retailer or a big box store, driving sales volume will have to be subordinated to the concern for safety. There is no doubt that foot traffic will be down, but that does not mean that there must be a commensurate drop in sales volume.

Big box retailers have largely adapted with safety programs like BOPIS and curbside pickup, while mall-based retailers have struggled because they lost valuable time as they were forced to close by the mall operators.

COVID: Effects on 2020 holiday shopping

Look for these disruptions to traditional holiday shopping patterns as much of the country braces for a third wave of rising infection rates:

  • Obsolescence of Black Friday
    • Concern for safety of traditional Black Friday Crowds
    • Social pressure on retailers to provide safety to customers and employees.
  • Cyber Monday will supplant Black Friday and extend buying on-line for the entire holiday shopping season
    • Another hurdle for store-centric retailers
  • BOPIS/curbside process must be flawless from both a technical and operational aspect
  • Bring the excitement of the Black Friday “hunt/deals” and the novelty of doorbusters to the online experience
    • Virtual pop-up sales create “doorbuster” events online
  • Recognition that consumers will undoubtedly be buying items online that they have historically bought in-store
  • BOPIS and curbside pickup require perfect inventory accuracy and flawless back office operations
  • Retailers must recognize that foot traffic will be down and resist the habit of cutting sales associate hours, as those hours will be required to execute new convenience programs
    • This will be more acute for mall-based stores that are quick to cut staff

Emerging trends affecting the 2021 holiday season

Expect the following as the “new normal” continues into 2021 and beyond:

  • COVID accelerates the changes in consumer shopping habits
  • There will not be a return to the past as we knew it; it will just be a new future
  • There is no reason to assume that there will ever be the same level of foot traffic as we have known it
    • Without recognizing and reacting to this new reality, more retailers will become extinct
  • The rate of acceptance of virtual shopping accelerates as consumers make safety and convenience their top priority
  • It must be recognized that everything familiar to us about shopping is moving from the physical to the virtual world. This has created the imperative to rethink our understanding of data and reinforces the importance of robust data management.
  • The reverse engineering of purchase history will create new opportunities
    • Store-generated shopping lists create new avenues for customer convenience
    • Personalized communications create a stronger connection with the customer
  • Retailers finally figure out subscription services
    • Retailers figure out how to add flexibility to subscriptions
    • Consumers set the cadence of delivery rather than accept the rigidity of the retailer’s calendar
    • Subscriptions can now be personalized based on consumption patterns
  • Need to develop creative ways to engage consumers virtually
    • One- on-one virtual shopping events
    • The concept of the “Personal Shopper” gone virtual
  • Emergence of mall-based fulfillment services enabling branch stores to ship direct to consumers without a heavy instore operations footprint
  • Traditional malls to offer non-shopping experiences (reading spaces, product demonstrations, education offerings)
  • Rethink “experience” (safety first, convenience, entertainment, then service)

You Are What You Eat

You Are What You Eat
 

We were told as children to eat our vegetables because they were good for us. More times than not, our parents said that to be healthy we had to eat the right foods. The truism of “you are what you eat,” however, has applicability far beyond the dinner table. For children it was about carrots; for business it is about data.

It is cliché to say that data is a company’s lifeblood. We may pay only lip service to data, but often that is all we pay. Data management in all its forms is too often underfunded, understaffed and misunderstood. It is important to be talking about this as we enter the season of strategic planning and budgeting.

Too many retailers, wholesalers and brands are predisposed to cut programs like data management for short-term budgeting imperatives, but fail to appreciate the long-term impact of their actions. Programs like Master Data Management can be viewed as expenses to be cut, rather than contributors to sales and profitability. Invariably over time, these choices have revealed to be a false economy.

Avoid the empty calories of poor data
Very often we fail to distinguish between data volume and data quality. Data quality requires ownership of the responsibility for data completeness that many companies overlook. CIOs routinely assure their organizations that they can deliver every piece of data that the company would ever need, but this is an assertion often made without context.

For example, take the assertion that the company has an email address for every customer in its transaction data. This may be true from the CIO’s perspective, as a data field exists within the transaction set. Though the data field for customer email may exist, it fails to account for the very low occurrence of customers providing their personal information at the point of sale; thus making the data at best incomplete and at worst deceptive.

A healthy business depends upon using fresh information
Data must be defined by how it is used. This is the responsibility of the entire organization, not just the technical team. Unfortunately, if the enterprise defaults on this, the IT organization is left with no alternative but to treat the data as though it were fixed, missing the critical aspect that data is dynamic, constantly evolving, and being shaped by competitive influences and customer expectations.

For many years, the retail business has struggled to adapt to the day’s complex and competitive landscape because its data model has been starved by a store-centric mentality. The rapid adoption of e-commerce by consumers has brought into stark relief the difference between retailers, separating those who could adapt their data model from those that could not. The fates of these short-sighted retailers that fail to improve their data practices should serve as a cautionary tale for all.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Who’s in Charge Here?
 

In earlier writings, we’ve talked about the need to frame transformation strategy around the customer — understanding who they are, how your offering distinguishes you from your competitors and how you will create lasting relationships. You’re confident you have answered the pertinent marketing questions, thus completing your exercise of strategy development and market identification and you’re good to go, right?

Maybe not.

The first path too many brands and retailers go down is an ill-fated effort to fit their digital transformation exercise into the existing infrastructure, with process and culture left largely unaltered. This in effect says “Yes, we’re going to be different, but not change.” The contradiction inherent in this messaging diminishes the chance for success right out of the gate.

Two roads to meet the customer
Brands and retailers first need to develop an approach that recognizes that transformation begins internally before you ever engage a customer. Digital transformation is about changing how you interact with a customer, moving from pushing information to having a conversation. The Chief Digital Officer must play a pivotal role here — evangelizing, educating and guiding the organization. The Chief Marketing Officer’s primary responsibility is to articulate how the brand or retailer will have that customer conversation. Too many brands and retailers fail to understand and foster this role delineation.

The CDO ensures the organization infrastructure, tools and training are all aligned and mutually reinforcing a culture where collaboration is central to both strategic and tactical planning. This requires deliberate change management efforts to shift away from established patterns and adopt new behaviors and technologies.

Data is not a relationship
An inflection point that illustrates this is the CRM solution, how it is employed and the associated marketing programs that draw on this as a primary information source. Customer Relationship Management software was developed to be — and is still viewed as — the primary repository of information about the customer.

It does nothing to promote a customer conversation. But instead is often the source of customer irritation. Inboxes are flooded with promotional offers, based upon past purchases, that are simply deleted, unread. Communication remains largely one-way, impersonal and as such not a promising start to any conversation. Internally, updating the database becomes a dispiriting end in and of itself, with resources dedicated to monitoring completeness and chasing data rather than being used to engage in true customer exchanges.

Here is where the CDO and CMO collaboratively drive transformational changes, starting with the customer and working back through the organization.

Focus on digging better, not digging deeper
Relationship management cannot be synonymous with database management. As more sales move from a purely transactional model to a more consultative approach, every element of the customer relationship needs to respond in new ways. Retailers and brands need to reimagine how they interact with their customers and how they can partner with them to preserve long-term relationships that are sufficiently dynamic to sustain their strength and value through time. This is the first step. It also begins the internal conversation between leaders of organizations. A well-crafted comprehensive digital strategy requires consideration of and input from all corners of the organization, not simply IT.

From here, the CDO is pivotal in ensuring that the operational and technical infrastructures throughout the organization are aligned to support marketing’s vision. The technology strategy, operational processes and organization then enjoy a common point of reference from which to build.

In our next post, we will talk about some options and pitfalls of infrastructure transformation. So, we’ll finish this post as we did the first, with some questions.

You’ve defined your customer. Now what do you want to know about them? What do you want to say to them? What do you want them to tell you? What do you need to understand about your competitors? New markets? Trends? How will you want to break down the data? What information do you want the data to yield? How will the data be collected? By whom? How often?

Answers to these questions begin the transformation of your digital infrastructure.

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.