Carol Leaman is the Co-founder and CEO of Axonify, the modern learning and communications solution for the frontline workforce. Carol is a successful tech entrepreneur, thought leader, board member and frequent speaker and contributor to leading publications.
It's early days with return to work, but if our own company is any indication of what's to come, I think most companies will be forced to adopt a very flexible/hybrid model for the foreseeable future. There are employees who crave human connection and work best that way. There are others with no practical space to work from home. There are others who need a break from little kids tugging at their pant legs all day, so they can focus. And there are others who are content and most productive without ever needing to see another person in the flesh again. Office space will be reconfigured to give everyone more space, and to create areas of group collaboration that are different than before. New technologies to facilitate an even better virtual/in-person experience will spring up. VR/AR anyone?
It's been a mixed bag in my experience the last few months; I've had delightful, above and beyond experiences that have won my loyalty forever (yeah, that's you Simon's in Montreal) and I've had some pretty big disappointments too. But one thing is certain -- I'm cutting some slack to the retail associates who are on the other end of this, doing the best they can with the hand they've been dealt. In the poor experiences I've had, my brand loyalty hasn't been tarnished where the associate is clearly apologetic, trying hard to rectify the problem and has been appropriately trained to deal with it. It's been harder to let go of the small number who clearly just don't care. But as I said, I've been giving them the benefit of the doubt. That's quickly coming to an end though. My loyalty is based on the overall experience, not just the product. If you have the right associates who do the right things consistently, you've won me over.
Whether we like it or not, significant empty space in malls isn't good for anyone. If Simon can't achieve a sustainable financial model it puts everyone at risk, including the other retailers who have space in those malls. At the end of the day, the entire mall model needs a revamp that won't happen overnight -- can they be made destinations for other kinds of mixed use purposes like businesses + retail? Can more services become tenants? It's going to take time to get from here to there, and if having Amazon pay the rent to keep the mall open at all, is the interim step, then it at least buys time for reinvention.
The new normal will involve all the things my colleagues mention around physical and digital transformation of the customer experience. Those things will be table stakes.
One thing briefly mentioned, but that bears more emphasis, is how the knowledge and behavior of store associates needs to be taken to the next level. Customers will be precious. It won't be acceptable anymore to simply state "Let me know if you need another size." How associates interact with, and engender loyalty in the customers who return to stores will be critical to long term health, and needs to be given some deep thought. And then how you instill that mindset in your associates becomes the challenge/need.
The pandemic has accelerated what was slowly happening to retailers anyway. The fact that it happened so fast, and in such a dramatic and impactful way to the frontline worker is the difficult thing we/they have to deal with. Will they bring all of them back? I don't think so. Will new retailers pop up in their place to fill the void of those that don't make it or permanently downsize? I absolutely believe so. Will the jobs and their requirements change in the meantime? No question about it.
Human beings are resilient, and we like to shop. Retailers need to step up their game and treat their employees like the valued, long term, contributing people that they are. Enable them, support them, give them career opportunities and think about them as the true pillars of your business. And don't delay. If your top and bottom line need help, it doesn't start with the product you're selling, it starts with the people you employ.
The most successful retailers in the years ahead will lead the way on this and reap the rewards as a result. If ever there was a time to re-think your business and how you can get the best out of your people, it's now.
I give Best Buy a 100% chance of emerging stronger because of their actions and view of the frontline workforce. It's incredible. Great businesses are built on the foundation of their people. I have no doubt that the opportunities for Best Buy to build its business will come from those people. When they feel supported and engaged because the organization truly cares about them, they offer ideas and insight from their direct connections to customer. If the organization listens to those ideas, the seeds of growth will get planted and take them places they couldn't have imagined.