Cisco Investments recently invited three experts in the field of retail operations for a panel discussion to explore how the industry has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and what operational changes must still be made to position themselves for success in a post-pandemic retail environment. The Panel consisted of Chris Todd, President and CEO at Theatro; Joe Skorupa, Editorial Director at RIS News; Amit Chetal, Retail Lead, Americas Industry Organization at Cisco; and hosted by Bill Farnsworth, Global Retail Business Manager at Cisco.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, its effects on the retail industry were swift, seismic and brutal in its disruption to small and large retail operations alike. Retailers now find themselves at a critical junction where high-stakes decisions made today about customer engagement models, communications with frontline workers and evolving business models will set the table for success or struggle when the new normal arrives.
New challenges and realities faced by retailers amid COVID-19
As if the challenges facing retailers weren’t daunting enough prior to the pandemic, new challenges characterized by cautious shoppers and retooled operations only compound them. Panelist Joe Skorupa points out that retailers who were in a position to respond quickly benefitted from their swift action, but those actions weren’t without consequence. Certain retailers were able to double their online sales, in-store pick-up, curbside pick-up and delivery business by turning on a dime. “That’s great,” said Joe Skorupa, “except that most did this by turning on a dime with processes and systems that aren’t built to scale efficiently and profitably.”
Maintaining enthusiasm and calming the job security fears of frontline employees are other key challenges that must be addressed. Amit Chetal sees frequent and direct communication from top management as the critical first step to addressing the need to maintain enthusiasm and calm employee fears. As for the challenge of leading employees through this period of change, Chris Todd points out that this is dependent on what stage of the transition a given business is in. Employee concerns are sure to evolve as employers navigate the various stages of recovery along the path to the new normal.
Emerging best practices for the retail industry
So what are the best practices that retailers should adopt to achieve post-pandemic success? Amit Chetal believes that answer starts with a restructuring of the business model and maintaining relationships with customers to build loyalty. Business models that rely on creating partnerships to sell merchandise through new channels hold great promise. That, coupled with the use of technology, like social media, to keep your faithful customers abreast of your expanding retail footprint will only serve to reinforce your brand in the minds of consumers and grow sales.
Chris Todd sees opportunity in exploiting resources already at hand to create frictionless services similar to those online shoppers already enjoy and expect. Curbside pickup has already exploded onto the scene during this pandemic, but Chris Todd thinks there’s even more curbside gains to be had. “We think that even things like frictionless return in the parking lot will happen.”
Adopting a cross-functional approach among internal teams may be the wisest and most challenging approach a retailer can put into practice. Joe Skorupa contends that only integrated coordination between supply chain and merchandising teams will help solve the seasonal inventory distortion that most retailers now face. “And if there are any internal barriers that prevent that,” he contends, “they should be taken down.”
Key takeaways for post-pandemic retail success
Of the many lessons to be learned from this pandemic’s impact on retail operations, each member of the panel identified key takeaways that retailers can adopt going forward. “The future of retail and the success for retail in the future is all about agility,” said Chris Todd, “to build an agile workforce, an agile store team, that ability for that team to respond, and adapt, and create new services quickly that not only respond to competitors but even respond to situations like this that nobody could foresee.”
On a similar note, Joe Skorupa emphasized the need for retailers to be ready to adapt to change. Management must show flexibility to roll out new initiatives every day if necessary, in response to market changes. “Why was it so slow in the past? Well, there were barriers, and those barriers included this philosophy that, you know, you can’t fail,” he said. “Well, guess what? We now realize that speed is more important than getting it 100% perfectly right.”
With an eye on the consumer, Amit Chetal emphasized a broader set of takeaways including a strong emphasis on communicating the investments you’ve made in technology to meet evolving consumer demands and preferences. For employees, the emphasis needs to be on frequent and wide-ranging communications with the goal of long-term job retention. Lastly, Amit stressed the development of an agile business model capable utilizing a technology-first approach to meeting customer demand.
With an economic contraction as sudden and profound as the one retailers face today, it’s clear that the retail industry will never quite be the same. The time to adjust business practices is already upon us. Business models, customer relations, store operations, supply chains, social media presence and e-commerce capabilities must all adjust now to the new terrain we find ourselves upon. Until that day when the new normal arrives, it appears everyone in the retail industry has plenty of planning and work ahead to make that day a profitable one.
We hope you can benefit from the insights of our panel of experts as you plan for the future of your retail business in a rapidly changing world.
Watch the on-demand recording of Redesigning Retail Store Operations featuring Cisco and Theatro.
About the author: Pradeep Paniyadi joined Cisco Investments in 2019. As a Relationship Manager, he serves as a trusted partner for our portfolio companies, helping them navigate Cisco’s vast ecosystem and making powerful connections with Cisco’s business entities.