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Retail in the time of coronavirus

I’m not a scientist. I’m not a financial analyst. I’m a retail consultant. In a disaster movie, I wouldn’t make it past the opening credits. But I do believe that the impact of the coronavirus will be significant for retail.

While we can’t stop it, there are some necessary adjustments we need to make to meet customers short terms needs at this unprecedented time. And hey, you might even save a sale or two in the process.

But first, let’s get something out of the way. The current medical, financial and psychological fallout of the coronavirus will have a real impact on retailers – regardless of how real the threat is or becomes.

This isn’t a Pollyanna post telling retailers to keep their chins up. We will see customers disappear. We will see supply chains fail. We will see retail jobs lost. We will see retailers go out of business.

Hopefully, and most importantly, we will be able to keep our teams, our customers and ourselves safe. The impact will be significant for our retail industry.

So, that all sounds pretty grim, right? Do we just pack it all in?

The short answer is no, and as retailers, I don’t think we know how to give in. We get on the front foot, understand the current mindset of our customers and make tactical adjustments to ride the wave as well as possible.

Let’s look at the impact on customers’ lives. There is anxiety over the availability of household staples. Our work schedules and job security is unclear. Travel plans are disrupted. Financial investments are in free fall. The health of ourselves and our loved ones is at risk. All of this in the space of a couple of months.

In a disrupted and unknown world, what are consumers looking for right now? I believe it is certainty and security. We are back to the most basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

While the coronavirus continues to spread, and news cycles and dinner table conversations revolve around it, frivolous retail spending will not be the centre of our customers’ world. However, we can pivot our offer to give customers some certainty and security in their new world.

What do I mean by that? We need to:

Communicate clearly and effectively

Now is not the time for elaborate promotions or whimsical storytelling. Did you know that the 2011 film, Contagion, is back in the Top 10 movies on iTunes? We are preoccupied. Stay precise but not panicked to get the messages through. Kleenex nailed this amid the toilet paper panic.

Prioritise easy access to products

Physical footfall will drop and visits to public spaces will be more purposeful. With consumers in a task-oriented mindset, think about how you make those tasks easy to achieve.

Home delivery options are essential. Click and collect, reserve in store and accurate views of store inventory give customers certainty. Subscriptions can guarantee access to product.

Who Gives A Crap nailed this – their subscribers are particularly smug right now. Unfortunately, if you didn’t have these omnichannel services established pre-coronavirus, they can take time to set up. Make it easy for customers to get their hands on your product. Now is not the time for “experiential” retail.

Break down new decision barriers

As consumer confidence plummets, there will be myriad excuses why customers won’t spend with you. It could be uncertainty about upcoming work and life schedules. Uncertainty around future pricing or availability. Uncertainty around our ability to deliver what is promised.

Travel is at the epicentre of this. Virgin’s recent flight guarantee is an excellent example of knocking away a purchase barrier and reducing transaction anxiety. How do you remove the newly found barriers to spend with you?

Demonstrate our commitment to safety

We need to take measures to prove that we take the threat seriously, and customers can trust that they are safe with us. Simple steps include clean and tidy stores to demonstrate control. Access to sanitisers. Orderly lines and processes. The pallet roll-out frenzy has to stop.

Sephora stood out early on by cancelling all in-store makeup services to limit the risk of spread. All these public safety displays tell customers that we understand their trepidation. And this is a safe space.

Put the wellbeing of our staff first

If our teams have customers shouting at them, are working through sickness or worried about job security, their anxiety will flow onto our customers.

Some employers have guaranteed their teams, including casuals, will be covered if they need to be quarantined or look after relatives. Woolworths has created signage reiterating their zero-tolerance stand on any staff abuse.

Rather than stress our teams or push them harder to meet slipping sales targets, we need to prioritise looking after them. They are our number one priority.

These are all retail fundamentals. The difference is that these fundamentals are usually buried beneath more exciting and innovative initiatives.

Who knows how long the coronavirus will dominate the headlines and our customers’ headspace? But for now, it is time to focus on the most basic customer needs of certainty and security while we ride this wave out.

Nathan Bush is the founder of e-commerce consultancy, 12HIGH, and is host of the Add To Cart podcast. He was previously group digital manager at Super Retail Group and was placed in the Top 50 People in E-commerce four years in a row.

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