Are retailers nimble enough to give consumers what they need and want right now?

Discussion
Photo: @activrightbrain via Twenty20
Apr 09, 2020
Emily Eddy

Emily Eddy, Senior Design Strategist, PK

Connection is everything in moments of crisis. The question on everyone’s mind is, how can retailers navigate the new normal, where the ability to connect is more reliant on digital technology than ever? The first task is to look to consumers and ask, how can we address their most pressing needs? In considering how to help retailers respond to the current crisis, four major themes in consumer sentiment emerge:

Consumers are feeling uncertain, stressed, and anxious. Their focus is on meeting immediate needs rather than wants. In a time of scarcity, we must help consumers identify what to buy, when to buy and exactly how much to buy. Post-pandemic, the importance will further increase because, although consumers may buy less or more, they’ll need products that fit their current situations.

No matter the activity, home is where it happens. Working, learning, exercising, all at home, have implications for products and experiences. This paradigm shift means a huge increase in digital engagement. Consider space/time limitations and multi-generational involvement. Think expanded online product offerings, higher-touch digital service and delivery models (e.g., subscription, curbside BOPIS). Pivoting from in-person to digital could mean utilizing new tech like AR/VR for virtual exploration or live streams for real-time engagement in the safety of home.

Staying safer, longer. Consumers are looking to decrease close physical interaction. Staying at home may be a short-term reality, but the need for physical distance will persist. Winning engagements must be digital or “crowd-lessly” physical. Consider frictionless touchpoints to allow customers to opt-out of physical interactions and opt into in-store digital assistance, touchless payment or cashierless checkout. Look to conversational commerce and/or social communication across platforms to sustain engagement during lulls in consumer spending. 

Empathy and community engagement. “Look for the helpers” and “be a part of the solution” are the new mantras. How can your products and services offer solutions to immediate problems? Explore product diversification and empathetic adaptive strategies (apparel brands producing masks; distilleries producing hand sanitizer). This may require operational changes: altered hours (or special hours for the elderly or immuno-compromised) or discounting items off-schedule (allowing broad access to what’s most needed). Be prepared for and open to rapid change.

All companies, especially now, must be nimble. Have you thought about how your business can deconstruct large format, crowd-oriented experiences in order to pop back up in smaller, more relevant ways?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How successful do you think most retailers have been in becoming nimbler in responding to consumers in relevant ways since the outbreak of the coronavirus? What are your favorite examples? Would you add anything to the major themes driving consumer sentiment covered in the article?

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"I’ve actually been impressed with how local grocery and drug stores have implemented new rules for shopping."
"My customers are grateful for the hard work we put in daily to provide them with the fresh foods and staples needed for them to stay home..."
"Looking ahead, more retailers will invest in closer collaboration with supply chain partners, including integrated, digital processes."

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18 Comments on "Are retailers nimble enough to give consumers what they need and want right now?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Most retailers are in survival mode. Being nimble and responding to customers needs means keeping enough toilet paper in stock and being relevant means staying solvent. Retailing and consumerism are now substantially focused on utilitarian needs. The most important thing retailers can do is to do the best they can do for their employees and customers.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

The most obvious shift is the current increase in online shopping which will likely become a long-term habit for many shoppers. While many retailers already have pretty good online experiences, the winners will be those retailers that have added touches that make the online shopping experience personalized to individual customers and that offer relevant product recommendations and style or usage tips. In addition, consumers now expect multiple fulfillment options that will become table stakes: store pick-up, curbside pick-up, 24-hour locker pick-up and same-day delivery. Making these options available and frictionless will be critical for meeting new consumer expectations.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Most customers are understanding – I think retailers and suppliers are doing their best to keep their head above water. They are trying to find products like bath tissue, etc. through vendors that have come forward that are not normally thought of as manufacturers of bath tissue, etc. Bottom line, whether a customers shops brick-and-mortar or online, employees need to be protected as much as possible as they are the ones on the front lines fulfilling and processing orders.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

I think the retailers that were successful online before the pandemic are still doing well with online sales and, no doubt, added traffic. However what I have seen is the difficulty, particularly with Amazon, getting the product delivered because of either the demand or the item not being considered essential. Having to wait for weeks for staples is something we have never experienced in our lifetime. We have all heard the stories of how during World War II, many items weren’t available or there was a limit on what one could buy. The closest any of us my age can remember were the gas lines due to the gas shortages in the 1970s and again in the early 1980s. But this is the new normal, and it’s one that we have to get used to, at least for the short term. Any retailer who did not have an online presence is now seeing the need and going forward, should they survive, I would think it will be their top priority.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I’ve actually been impressed with how local grocery and drug stores have implemented new rules for shopping. The plexi screen between the checker and customer at the grocery store. Prepackaging the fresh bread vs. open sell. Establishing “one-way” shopping — routing the customer through the store with arrows on the floor, which minimizes shoppers passing one another in narrow aisles. Marking the check out lines with six-foot increments. How many of these behaviors will live on as “new normal”? It’s impossible to tell at the moment, but it’s of some comfort that obvious effort to change behavior is in motion. At the same time, it’s hard to see how any of these new rules can be applied to apparel shopping. Checkout lines are easy. But with all the touching and feeling — and trying on — of apparel, how will all that be sorted out?

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

Retailers have been honest about the uncertainty and constant changes happening to their business – especially how that impacts their employees, which is a story that is resonating with consumers. One way I have seen brands adapting to help their cash flow is ramping up efforts to sell merchandise and gift cards as shows of support and future purchase intention when days are brighter. This allows a little cash flow, but consumers are more likely to “do this favor” for local retailers vs. national ones. My favorite example of adaptation is breweries everywhere using their equipment to make hand sanitizer — as long as they are able to keep enough of their core products flowing to keep us all sane while stay-at-home orders last!

David Weinand
BrainTrust

The response varies widely based on the format of retailers. For FMCG (grocery/mass), responses have been solid for the most part. Special hours for the elderly/ill, enhanced pickup/delivery options, social distancing tactics, etc. have all been good responses. Inventory visibility is still an issue for most so that will have to be addressed. If you’re an apparel/specialty retailer and online is your only channel – it has been difficult. Some are fulfilling from “dark stores,” which has enabled cheaper, faster delivery but many are just a step away from (further) disaster should a DC worker be tested positive and the whole place needs to be shut down.

As I’ve said in the past – memories are short and while some behaviors will remain from this crisis, I think a lot of the way things were pre-pandemic will return.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

The most curious aspect to me is how long our new habits and processes will linger once this crisis has passed. Will retailers maintain the service levels for pick up and delivery? The challenges faced with the supply chain will settle down soon, hopefully, so no additional deliveries on a regular basis should be required. We are watching in real time how being nimble is helping those innovative retailers not only survive but thrive in these times.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

As I’ve ranted multiple times, I think the grocery supply chain has revealed itself to be shockingly brittle. I don’t know if it’s fear of the bullwhip effect up the supply chain, or just slow responsiveness, but when you’re asked to stay home, and you order groceries to be delivered, you expect to find far more items in stock. The volume of substitutions stun me.

So no, I don’t see a whole lot of nimbleness beyond apparel retailers quickly canceling spring and fall orders.

Emily Eddy
Guest

Paula, I agree–I was a frequent grocery delivery user prior to the crisis, but find the overwhelming majority of my order is either cancelled or items substituted if I attempt a delivery now. I have seen some cool innovation in the apparel space in China–interesting pivots to WeChat pop-up shops or selling via livestream to make the digital shopping experience more engaging.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Most retailers are burning the 2020 strategies they carefully crafted last year. While Amazon and Walmart are best positioned to thrive now, even they face a learning curve to keep up with surging demand for necessities. Consumers crave security and comfort, yet out-of-stocks have disappointed consumers and humbled even retail giants.

Looking ahead, more retailers will invest in closer collaboration with supply chain partners, including integrated, digital processes. Improving communication and alignment will increase supply chain agility and reliability to mitigate some consumer anxiety by adapting to fluctuating demand.

An outstanding example of agility and collaboration, a U.S. direct-to-consumer accessories brand collaborated with a medical supplier. When consumers placed an online order in March, they received five free face masks from the retailer, which increased engagement and sales by offering the right incentive at the right time.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Just as citizens assumed the government would be on top of this situation, they also assumed (as shoppers) that their regular sources of merchandise would have everything under control. So it’s disconcerting on both fronts — whether you are talking about the testing and equipment crisis, or on a different plane the “toilet paper” shortage — to see trusted institutions stumble. No matter how long it takes to return to some semblance of normality, I think average Americans’ faith in their public and private-sector institutions has been profoundly shaken. The reputational damage won’t be easy to repair, even if there isn’t a “next time” with such dire consequences.

Peter Charness
BrainTrust

For the longest time, retail has been built on the basis of high scale, repeatable processes, supported by highly-structured solutions driving out cost, creating efficiency and being anything but agile. This model is done for now, and even while the “future-state retailer model” is far from clear, getting from yesterday to tomorrow is going to be a daunting task for many. Experimentation has to become core for all. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there’s a lot of necessity out there. I believe many retailers can reinvent themselves in record time, once they open up to try new ideas and practices. Retailers who wait for things to normalize and double down on how they’ve always done business are standing in the middle of the highway and are going to be run over when traffic gets moving again.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

Agility is more relevant than ever. There have already been some commentators suggesting that the organizations which will come out of this strongest will be the ones that are most agile. The link has been made to digital transformation – with organizations furthest down the track being in the best place.

The reality is that agility is all too often constrained by data. Agility is too often constrained by the inability to operationalize data to make it real-time and actionable; being unable to liberate the data from the silos that it sits in but also the inability to align business requirements with technology capabilities fast enough.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Retailers are coping as best they can but it’s an “apples and oranges” comparison between best retail practices in a New York City, Detroit, or New Orleans and a Fargo, Bismarck, or Butte. Consumers are feeling uncertain. Many of them are scared to death. This isn’t about convenience, it’s about mortality. So the best thing retailers can do is follow the ever changing recommendations of federal officials (masks are bad/masks are good/masks are mandatory), show support for their employees, and find ways to help shoppers in the greatest need, whether that is economic, situational, or emotional.

Paul Conley
Guest

I’ve been surprisingly pleased by what I’ve seen grocers/drugstores/etc. do here in NYC during the crisis. They’re not perfect, but they have been nimble.

On the other hand, there are some areas in digital where retailers seem to be stuck. I can’t imagine I’m the only person still getting poorly re-targeted ads from companies I did business with ages ago.

Neil Schwartz
Guest

It does not appear as though retailers are able to scale or implement fast enough to meet consumer demand during the crisis. According to the April data release from Prosper Insight and Analysis, 48 percent of consumers that have used BOPIS are not satisfied because they are not getting the things that want and are not able to get them on a timely basis. In addition, with over 13 percent more Americans indicating they are using BOPIS services, tight retailer margins are being tested.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
OK, I am going to give you my perspective on this, as I live it every day, 6 days a week. Unless you are inside the 4 walls of a supermarket daily, much of what I read is opinion formed from a virtual point of view. My customers are grateful for the hard work we put in daily to provide them with the fresh foods and staples needed for them to stay home, and outside of a few items being hoarded, things are going pretty well. I blog online almost daily about what is happening in the markets, and discuss some of the increases in meat & egg prices, which they need to hear, without the media scaring them every hour, 24/7. They welcome our efforts to sanitize carts, and practice safe distance within reason, and still treat them with a smile, as we are running at 100+% right now. The supply lines are slowly getting better, and staple goods will be the last to regain full inventory for at least a couple more months.… Read more »
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Braintrust
"I’ve actually been impressed with how local grocery and drug stores have implemented new rules for shopping."
"My customers are grateful for the hard work we put in daily to provide them with the fresh foods and staples needed for them to stay home..."
"Looking ahead, more retailers will invest in closer collaboration with supply chain partners, including integrated, digital processes."

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