How COVID-19 Will Change the Way Retailers Do Business

Currently, the world is wrestling with the outbreak of COVID-19, an issue of enormous human impact. The situation is especially fluid right now as countries, states, organizations, and companies make proactive decisions regularly—a necessity to protect people and communities across the globe.

While some companies and retailers had to shut their doors either by choice or by mandate, every retailer is affected and will continue to be affected by this unprecedented global event. There are a number of steps retailers can take, however, to prepare for the unknown as well as protect themselves, their associates, customers, and communities during an emergency event such as COVID-19.

For those businesses such as groceries and pharmacies that must remain open, staffing is a large concern. Many businesses are facing difficulty finding employees to report to work or drivers to deliver goods. Companies can leverage resource partners such as online counseling services to make sure employees have the necessary guidance, resources, and support they need to cope with the uncertain outcome of this situation. To help reduce anxiety and stress of employees, companies should also rely heavily on communication and transparency in regard to changes or precautionary steps they are taking that may affect staff.

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Retailers are already adapting to this new world order of social distancing and temporary closures. As we gradually evolve from a high-touch, personal environment to new service models that include delivery and curb-side pickup, consumers are already embracing the benefits of omni-channel retailing and will come to expect it even after the health crisis is over.

For those businesses that have closed their doors and will remain locked with no staff or minimal staff for days or weeks, security is a big concern. Some storefronts may be at risk of looting or vandalism. While cameras will do little to mitigate the virus itself, physical security technology such as remote monitoring or virtual guard tours can help companies maintain remote visibility on their locations during times when they can’t travel or a location remains locked down.

Though staffing and physical security are important, perhaps the most important consideration for retailers during the COVID-19 outbreak and future emergency situations is planning and preparedness. Thinking the unthinkable and being prepared for the unexpected is vital. Medium and large-sized companies should involve all portions of the business in emergency preparedness planning from HR to marketing to supply chain and logistics—and of course asset protection. Topics should cover everything from communication with staff, suppliers, and customers; health, safety, and security precautions; and what technologies to leverage in the event of a closing or remote work situation.

Whether open or closed, all retailers regardless of size can focus on ensuring that they have plans in place to communicate internally as well as externally. In most cases, calling employees or sending text messages individually is simply not feasible. Businesses of all sizes need mass communication tools in place to communicate messages about virtual meetings, reporting to work, emergency pay plans, store closures, or other information. Employees can opt in to automated text updates, email updates, or automated phone messages for the most efficient communication possible.

Retailers also need plans to leverage working remotely so operations do not stop because a location or corporate office is closed. Do necessary employees have laptops, internet, and phone connectivity? Does the company have a subscription or ability to web or phone conference with employees to keep operations running?

For those retailers and businesses that don’t know where to start or don’t have internal resources to handle preparedness, there are a number of third-party resources and consultants that can help companies with emergency management, disaster preparedness, and human resources considerations as well as other contingency plans. In addition, associations such as the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association are excellent resources for best practices, as well as advocacy and communication during unpredictable times such as these.

While internal communications preparation is principal, external communication should also be considered. Open or closed, retailers can remain visible to their customers. Companies that are able to think outside the box and be nimble in their offerings may be able to come out of COVID-19 less harmed than those that can’t. Retailers that have the ability to adapt their product offering and make it mobile (if allowed) may help them survive.

Businesses can stay visible on social media or email—though it’s important to remember that communication with the customer should take a customer-centric approach. Finding a message that is meaningful to the customer base can help strengthen the relationship while remaining relevant. Examples are resources that can help customers deal with the outbreak, any assistance programs being made available to customers, or promotional offers that could be beneficial to them at this time. If your business can come up with helpful and timely communications about COVID-19, then companies can keep those customer connections strong.

Although these considerations are crucial for retailers to navigate the current pandemic, the situation is constantly changing. As difficult as it is to make tough decisions that may affect the company’s bottom line, right now it is imperative that businesses put people’s health and wellness above making money as the past dictates that the retail market will eventually recover and stabilize. It’s imperative that businesses stay abreast of local, state, and federal news regarding COVID-19 and any precautionary measures. Staying informed and in touch as well as turning to industry partners and associations as resources will help all of us as we continue to navigate this unchartered territory together.

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