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Open Mic Forum Provides Retailers with Connections and Community during Crisis

Social distancing has inspired new, inventive ways of networking. In the retail industry, a weekly virtual gathering of executives has been serving as a valuable platform for keeping the retail community strong and connected. Initially envisioned as temporary bridge during a time of isolation, the open forum is finding a permanent place on the weekly calendar of professionals who look forward to an opportunity to check in, sound off, and raise their hand.

Hedgie Bartol
Hedgie Bartol

“It was something we thought we might do for a few weeks, but, after the first one, attendees were adamant that we keep it going. Some said that it was the highlight of their week, giving them a respite from their daily stress and a chance to have a break with their colleagues,” explained Hedgie Bartol, LPQ, Segment Development Manager, Retail, Axis Communications.

As the retail community began to navigate the uncertain terrain of a global pandemic, the team at Axis Communications began to brainstorm ideas for how to help. Then, when one retailer asked an Axis account manager to connect them with another retailer to discuss industry issues, the idea for a noncommercial, no agenda community chat was born.

Retail professionals that previously attended an Axis event received an invitation to the inaugural forum. From the start, it was clear that providing an opportunity for retailer professionals to touch base with their peers filled a substantial void created by COVID. Momentum followed the initial positive reception, and the program spread to the broader retail community and throughout North America. The weekly Axis Retail Open Mic (AROM) was off and running.

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Part strategy summit, part group therapy, part bull session, the video conference calls give participants whatever they’re looking for—whether ideas for tackling a serious work problem or a chance to forget problems altogether and laugh with peers. There are seed topics each week, but the discussion goes where it goes.

“I think it’s nice for people to realize they are not alone in anything they’re going through. It’s important to laugh, share stories, commiserate, and learn from one another,” said Bartol.

After one call, during a week fraught with protests on top of pandemic, participants asked to keep the chat channel open so they could continue to share information. “We were gratified by the fact that they wanted to rely on the forum we had put together,” said Bartol. “It’s a real testament to the fact that LP is not an industry; it’s a community. You know that no matter where you are or what you’re going through, there is a community of people who are ready to help.”

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More and more people join the forum each week, including specialty retailers, quick-serve restaurants, and big-box stores from all geographic areas and subsegments. Both US and Canadian businesses are well-represented. It’s a diverse crowd, but they have plenty in common.

“We’re all confronting the same issues which unites us,” Bartol noted. “It’s interesting to experience—and again, it goes back to the fact that we’re more than an industry, we’re a community. As a community, we share a top priority—keeping people safe. It quickly became clear in our discussions that people, not products, are our focus. These discussions have been inspiring and heartwarming,” Bartol said.

Common concerns have led retailers to openly share their thoughts on a range of topics, from strategies to manage tensions around mask requirements, social distancing, and store occupancy. Executives join the call to get ideas, validate their plans and gain confidence in their approach to these precarious issues.

Business issues are also dissected during the weekly AROMs, including how stores are evolving with respect to servicing customers and providing options like BOPIS, as well as how they are mitigating fraud and errors related to these new services. Gift card fraud and plans for managing the upcoming holiday sales season are on retailers’ minds, AROM discussions show. ORC has also been on retail’s radar since stores reopened.

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“The ORC business was essentially shut down, too. Retail is at the core of their business, so once stores began to open, they’ve had to deal with the crime tsunami that occurred,” said Bartol, noting that the need to have customers wear masks has only emboldened thieves and complicated prevention.

Stores have used AROM as a vehicle to gain a better understanding of emerging frauds, to share intelligence on possible shifts in hot products, and offer ideas for executing plans with stretched-thin resources.

Rick Snook
Rick Snook

“They’ve really taken to this forum we’ve provided, which allows them to exchange information,” said Rick Snook, PSP, LPQ, Business Development Manager, Retail and Banking, Axis Communications, Canada. “They’re sharing ways they’re adjusting and what they’re seeing in terms of patterns. There is a clear sense that we’re stronger together than individually.”

Changing municipal laws, civil unrest, social media monitoring strategies, disaster response, election preparations—they’ve all been subjects in the AROM calls. But small issues also arise, where a retailer might see something new and wonder if anybody else is starting to see the same thing. “We get a lot of, ‘oh my God, so do we,’” said Bartol, adding that the calls often serve to provide advanced intelligence of emerging LP issues.

Business related issues are addressed in the forum, but promoting good mental health and providing support is an equal part of the AROM equation. “The forum can be extremely helpful to people who are being pulled into crisis every day and trying to react to situations 24/7. It gives them a chance to check in with others and talk about how they’re managing it all,” explained Bartol. “It’s just nice to get on a call with others who are also living your life every day.”

Want to participate? AROM Microsoft Teams calls are held weekly and are open to all retail professionals. Email Michael Conley (Michael.Conley@axis.com) to get on the invite list.

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