• Ron Thurston

How to Navigate the impact of COVID-19 on the Retail Industry

The following is adapted from Retail Pride, The Guide to Celebrating Your Accidental Career by Ron Thurston

COVID-19 caused the most significant economic shift that we have ever experienced. Countless businesses closed their physical storefronts for weeks, and even after reopening, they've faced new challenges and restrictions due to health considerations.

In a post-COVID-19 world, many aspects of the retail business will change, some immediately, others in the long term. The principles of good retail are still the same they were a hundred years ago, but that doesn't mean we should not be acutely aware of what is happening around us or how we need to evolve as an industry.

The key to navigating this new paradigm shift is to balance the past with new innovative ideas. We need to evolve along with our customers while still remembering the fundamentals of our business. Finding that balance between remembering the past and investing in new ideas is essential to our future.

Looking to the Past

For nearly as long as people have existed, we have been sharing, bartering, selling, and consuming resources. As far back as 9000 BC, farmers exchanged cows and sheep. By 800 BC, in ancient Greece, the first retail stores came into existence. People developed markets to sell their wares in the city center, and Greek citizens visited these markets to shop, socialize, and to participate in government.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in the late 1800s, family-run stores were plentiful throughout the United States. Many were general stores selling everything from groceries and fabrics to toys and tools.

As a little boy from Northern California, I learned firsthand about the California Gold Rush in 1848. The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from all over the world, reinvigorating the state's economy. “Old Sacramento” as it's referred to, was built during that era and is still there today with wooden sidewalks, horse-drawn carriages, old-fashioned candy shops, and Mississippi-style riverboats. An authentic retail experience of a different age that is still alive today.

The pioneering spirit of people moving west supported the evolution of shopping into the twentieth century. Industries like oil, steel, textiles, and food production grew, and factories brought new jobs and higher living standards. Department stores like Macy's (1858), Bloomingdales (1861), and Sears (1886) began popping up in cities like New York City and Chicago.

These stores didn't just sell the necessities. They also hosted demonstrations, lectures, and entertainment events that appealed to newly wealthy customers looking to spend their disposable income.

Looking to the Future

One hundred fifty years later, people are still looking for exciting content and personal experiences in their shopping activities, and brands are finding success in all kinds of fascinating formats. New concepts like "showrooming," direct-to-consumer pop-ups, and Instagram have all changed the game.

Spring of 2020 in particular marked a new chapter in retail history. The spread of COVID-19 has heralded a profound shift in consumer behavior, requiring all retailers to look through a wider lens and develop more innovative e-commerce and in-store experiences.

There are numerous ways to provide a personal touch for e-commerce customers; options to customize products are very popular. Personalized digital fit guides can be crowd pleasers, as they allow customers to see the product on body types like theirs in a virtual fitting room experience. You can also visit a website and receive style tips from algorithms based on your in-store purchase history, online behavior, and social media interactions.

But with the growth of the e-commerce business and the necessity of online shopping, it's increasingly evident that this segment of the industry is about to go through a major identity crisis. Customers are overwhelmed by the number of choices available online and crave the personal attention and curated selection that only a brick-and-mortar store can provide. This is our opportunity to shine. Now is the time to be our best, and to highlight the vital role our industry plays in the global economy.

Embracing Change

We live in a time of enormous change. Even before COVID-19 hit, the industry was going through a tremendous shift. Now that dynamic has been amplified. Retail will continue to evolve and change, and no one can know what new innovations will emerge over the coming decade.

But some things will never change. Digital experiences will never replace your relationship with the person at your local store who knows you best. Nothing is more personalized than your communication with an exceptional, curious, empathetic, and focused sales associate, who educates, comforts, and encourages you.

Looking to the past and the future, we need to embrace e-commerce while continuing to prioritize the in-person customer experience.

For more advice on setting retail goals, you can find Retail Pride on Amazon.

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