Crisis lessons influence retail's future

David Orgel
Principal, David Orgel Consulting

Everyone’s waiting for a return to some level of “normality.”

But even when that happens, it won’t be the old normal.                            

For food and drug retailers, the future will be influenced not only by new economic realities, but also by lessons we’ve been learning in real-time during the COVID-19 crisis.

These lessons range from imperatives for preparedness to new ways of interacting with consumers and communities.

Insights are still emerging, and it’s uncertain which will have the longest impacts.

But as we move further along the path, here are a few key lessons sure to have a place in retail’s future.

Extreme Creativity Succeeds
Being creative means “changing your perspective” and “solving a problem in a new way,” according to a post on the website Creative Something. Given this, I’d say retail hasn’t only outperformed, but broken all records. Food and drug retailers have shown how urgency breeds innovation. They quickly launched one-way store aisles, plexiglass sneeze guards, senior shopping hours and other initiatives. It’s not clear which, if any, of these will be long-lasting features. What’s more important is keeping the creative spirit alive to address future needs. 

Rivals Can Become Partners
Retailers already were forming unprecedented numbers of partnerships before the coronavirus crisis hit. However, the pandemic sparked a phenomenon that couldn’t have been imagined: Rivals became collaborators in real-time. In particular, foodservice production was redirected to retail, and furloughed foodservice employees were hired by retail organizations. This incredible level of cooperation begs the question of how competitors can work together in the future for the good of all.

These retailers have kept America going, and their front-line employees have become heroes. The halo is likely to remain for quite a while. 

Systems Need to Be Ready
No one could have expected the stress on retail systems this pandemic has produced, from supply chains to delivery and curbside pickup. However, going forward, there’s an opportunity to pressure test systems to a greater degree, with the benefit of hindsight. This will almost certainly lead to the adoption of enhanced supply chain technologies and increased e-commerce capabilities. Speaking of e-commerce, it’s likely online shopping use will accelerate more quickly. However, not all consumers had good e-commerce experiences during this crisis, so it’s up to retailers to make sure omnichannel is ready for anything in the future.

Transparency Gains in Importance
Until recently, transparency tended to focus on product ingredients and origins. In the coronavirus era, it has extended to what’s happening in stores, warehouses, fulfillment centers and other parts of operations. Retailers have proactively relayed news about employee health and store cleanings. These communications boost trust. While this extreme level of transparency is unlikely to continue after the crisis, there will be opportunities for enhanced communications about safety and related topics.

Customers Aren’t Just Consumers
Retail marketing has flourished in recent years, with a focus on personalization and new technology tools. Enter COVID-19, and all of a sudden everything changed. Consumers were putting almost any items in their carts. This naturally disrupted conventional marketing, but some retailers found new ways to engage by recognizing the holistic needs of consumers stuck at home. A case in point is Chicago food retailer Mariano’s, which unveiled Mariano’s Meet Ups, described as “an online platform for cooking classes, wine tastings, mixology sessions, live Chicago style music and more!” Retailers like Mariano’s have understood this moment, and consumers won’t forget them. 

Let’s not forget perhaps the biggest lesson of all: food and drug retail matters. These retailers have kept America going, and their front-line employees have become heroes. The halo is likely to remain for quite a while. 

About the Author

David Orgel

David Orgel is an award-winning business journalist, industry expert and speaker. He is currently the principal of David Orgel Consulting, delivering strategic content and counsel to the food, retail and CPG industries.

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