How to be ready for anything in 2021

David Orgel
Principal, David Orgel Consulting

It’s that time of year again.

Columnists and other pundits are making forecasts for the year ahead.

Yet, there was a problem with all those forecasts for 2020. No one anticipated the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

At this stage the future is harder to predict, in light of so many uncertainties (and I’m not even talking about politics). That’s why this time around, I’m taking a somewhat different — and arguably more useful — approach.

Rather than making specific forecasts, I will identify strategies and imperatives that are sure to support food and drug retail success no matter how events play out. 

With that explanation, here are five directions that will help retailers be prepared for just about anything.

1. Don’t Skimp On Investments
Adaptability is crucial, but it helps if you make smart investments ahead of time. That’s one of the lessons from 2020 that needs to drive retailer strategies going forward. 

I’ve written about the case of Kroger, whose pre-pandemic investments in e-commerce and related digital strategies led to readiness and success during the pandemic. 

It’s not always easy to justify investments, but retailers need to assess the risk of not taking action — in critical areas like supply chain, technology and in-store experience.

2. Step Up Consumer Insights
How do you keep up with consumer needs in fast-changing times? By really understanding what is driving their decisions. There are more ways than ever to do this, from traditional survey methods to leveraging input from employee affinity groups. 

And in a year like 2020, when change often happens faster than research can keep up, it’s important to experiment by turning insights into action quickly. 

That’s what led, for example, to creative approaches to help consumers develop new home-based cooking and meal preparation ideas for the pandemic period.

3. Keep Employees Engaged
If a retailer failed to understand the full value of front-line associates before the pandemic, that lack of insight was quickly reversed when the crisis erupted. 

Employees became the true heroes of 2020, but it’s not just front-line workers who need to be valued and engaged. Retailers need to focus on engagement and training for associates across their enterprises. 

That approach, along with stepped up internal communications, will keep retailers robust in a crisis and continuously improving no matter what the environment. 

4. Let Data Be Your Guide
Retailers planning for the future don’t need to rely on hunches. The growing availability of all kinds of data brings unique opportunities to make progress. 

“The [COVID-19] crisis is driving home that retail success, even in a pandemic, is dependent on the understanding and use of data,” according to the white paper called It’s Time For A COVID-19 Technology Checkup, from Gary Hawkins, founder and CEO of  the Center for Advancing Retail & Technology and FMI – the Food Industry Association.

Data will bring indispensable information about operations, supply chain and other factors. 

5. Get Innovative About Partnerships
Early in the pandemic, I wrote a column that summed up my thoughts about the importance of solidifying partnerships, and I stand by this perspective just as much today.

Here’s what I wrote: “Success in navigating a crisis relies on being closely in touch with suppliers, government and a wide range of industry partners. This is not a time to be worried about over-communicating.”

Further solidifying these partnerships is an essential goal for the new year. 

I would be pleased if 2021 is a relatively boring year for this industry and society. We don’t need another extended period of unprecedented challenges. The only prediction I can make for certain is that retailers will do well to be prepared for a range of eventualities.

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