Retailers share: Lessons learned from a pandemic

By | 4 minute read | January 8, 2021

Have you wondered how other top retailers are managing through the pandemic? Do you wish you knew what was keeping your peers up at night right now? Well, IBM had the opportunity to do just that.

IBM recently joined several large retailers across fashion, beauty, jewelry and more, for a virtual roundtable hosted by Cathy Hotka. During the 60-minute conversation, retail leaders compared notes on how the pandemic has provided opportunities to enhance the retail customer experience and embrace process and technology improvements. Several topics stood out to me that I felt compelled to share.

Celebrate the wins

Going into 2020, businesses were bright-eyed and ready for new opportunities. Retailers never imagined that by late March their doors would be forced closed and, in some cases, never reopen. They quickly rose to address many challenges necessary to adapt and continue to serve their customers. One thing resonated throughout the discussion – resilience. In listening to these retail leaders, there was a major sense that last year was hard, it was unpleasant, but collectively, we have learned, grown and prevailed.

Meet demand

Big projects take time. That’s no secret. But when stores are shut down and consumers are shifting to eCommerce to make vital purchases to provide for their families, it’s on retailers to pivot quickly to meet those new demands. Online sales are no longer a “nice to have,” but a necessity for most brick-and-mortar businesses. Standing up an online presence, under normal circumstances, takes months. The pandemic proved though, that when it’s a matter of survival for your business, that work becomes your priority.

Many retailers noted that red tape was cast away to facilitate new technologies to support new business or fulfillment models. Likewise, technology played a deeper role in strategic discussions critical for survival. They said that timing was weeks, not months, to get things done. Retail teams collaborated for the good of the organization and, quite frankly, because there was nothing else to do, worked tirelessly into the night and on weekends. Implementations were not always pretty, but with the right leadership and a committed team, they achieved their objectives in just weeks. With the heavy lifting done and doors “open” again, that’s when they went back to optimize and enhance.

Drive technology

When disruption happens, there’s not always an easy solution to solve every challenge. Retailers agree that the most effective approach is to start by assessing the technology you currently have to better understand how to make it work for your immediate needs. For example, retailers who are already leveraging a robust order management system for one or two fulfillment capabilities, can quickly enable additional capabilities that can allow for buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and ship-from-store. Of course, this requires real-time inventory insights to be able to efficiently execute on these order fulfillment options. Working with your technology partners to discuss your key and urgent objectives can help facilitate the plan to move forward with speed. And remember, copycat technology strategies don’t work. Stick to a strategy that is right for your organization, and more importantly, your customers.

Get innovative

If the pandemic taught retailers anything, it’s that taking risks and thinking big can have major reward. With many malls closed, contactless buying options like curbside pickup and BOPIS are not always an option for stores that are only accessible inside a mall. Many retailers, who may not have otherwise thought to embrace this order fulfillment option, have adopted lockers that live directly outside a store to allow customers to “shop” on their own time. This is one additional service that is cost efficient for retailers and allows shoppers to pick up their merchandise when it is convenient for them, even after business hours.

Social selling tactics through mobile apps like Snapchat or WhatsApp, or directly through your website, deliver a similar 1:1 connection that shoppers are still seeking in their buying journey. Clienteling gathered steam, especially for high-end retailers, whose customers want a more personalized experience. This also allows store associates to continue what they enjoy doing most: engaging with the consumer.

Another tactic discussed was pop-up stores. In-store foot traffic is consistently declining, and mall traffic is even more anemic. The concept of delivering a small, limited inventory shopping experience accommodates consumers who still seek that in-person buying journey, but lowers overhead for your business. This can be managed by appointment only, or in tandem with social selling to set aside certain items for shoppers for a seamless in-store pickup.

Rally around associates

Change often creates resistance. But retailers we spoke with said their associates really embraced it. Many retail leaders say they increased Town Hall communications, unifying the team and opening access to executive leadership that sales associates usually do not have. The teams quickly came together to manage inventory, execute BOPIS and curbside pickup, shift away from personal interaction, and even enable shipments. Without the means to do business how it has been typically done, new processes, rules of engagement and sales tools had to be adopted.

For the retailers we spoke with, it was clear: 2020 and the pandemic created new challenges and obstacles that we’ll all likely see more of going forward. The way leaders transitioned to solve them have been unique to their own organization. But two elements that were always consistent – concern and care for employees and customers – remained at the forefront of each decision made and step taken.