Five imperatives for retailers as they battle the Corona crisis, addressing most immediate challenges that simultaneously strengthen their future position.

It has been two weeks since the Corona outbreak has derailed the Netherlands through unprecedented measures to limit the spread. The Dutch government uses a ‘flatten the curve’ approach to fight the virus. Measures like social distancing, working from home and closure of restaurants are starting to have a stabilizing effect on the outbreak according to RIVM. Meanwhile, these measures are shaking up retail like never before.

The virus has major implications for every retailer. Both different immediate actions and preparation to rebound must be undertaken. We listed five immediate imperatives for retailers in their battle against Corona, that simultaneously strengthen their future position.

1) Use data to re-establish critical business performance

The Corona virus creates uncertainty. Uncertainty about the speed at which the virus spreads, about regulations that might be imposed, and about how long the current situation will last. For retailers, a key immediate challenge is how to deal with uncertainty in demand patterns. Customers show different and sometimes irrational behaviour. They are buying online instead of in stores due to contamination fear, they are hoarding in supermarkets out of fear for a total lock down and they are buying products to cook, sport and entertain themselves at home, since restaurants and sport clubs are closed.

In the meantime, retailers have switched to crisis mode and focus mainly on business continuity, trying to re-establish control. Decisions (e.g. around inventory) have to be made fast and are sometimes made based on business intuition or rule of thumb, rather than data driven. However, especially in these times it is of immediate importance to step up fact-based decision making. Step one is to establish access and structure to all available data (from the massive number of sources most retailers have) and turn this into sound business intelligence and relevant insight. With the level of uncertainty higher than ever, new well-structured insights are the only way to re-establish control. For retailers who do not yet have their data management and business intelligence capabilities in place, this is the time to rapidly set it up. A crash team can improve predictability of changing demand patterns step-by-step, even within few weeks. Such a team should include data science & IT and closely collaborate with buying & merchandising, and channels. Rapid roll-out of real time dashboards can facilitate decision making within critical retail processes such as online customer engagement, promotion management, supply chain planning and store merchandising.

2) Deepen customer understanding to rebound to the new reality

ING bank investigated the changes in Dutch card transactions. Their research shows a decrease in the number of transactions with 24% on March 20th this year, compared to a similar day last year. Toy stores, supermarkets and DIY see an uplift in the number of transactions (+10%; +5%; +2%), where all other retail segments show a decline, including restaurants & bars and clothing stores (-81%; -72%). This emphasizes that customer behaviour is radically changing, possibly structurally. Retailers must develop insight in demand changes to understand the new reality. Not having a grip on customer needs hurts everywhere in the business, from customer contact to product availability and prioritization of projects. For some changes, like the increase of online shopping, it is likely they will last not only during the crisis but also long after. However, other changes in demand will stay erratic and are dependent on the developments and measures the virus will bring us. In preparing for the rebound, retailers must not only respond to these customer demand changes but even outpace competitors in adjusting to the new reality. Time to find new growth opportunities.

The key to customer insight is understanding customer behaviour and identifying disruptive shifts in the customer journey. With customer insight comes the possibility to segment and develop tailored solutions. Think for example of a differentiated service for elderly people, where it is possible for them to chat or call with staff to place orders, instead of placing them online. At the same time, it helps control buying behaviour of your customers towards targeted outcomes. For example, a supermarket in Denmark came up with a pricing trick to stop the hoarding of hand sanitizers by pricing the second bottle of sanitizer 25 times as high as the first one.

To adjust the supply chain to the new normal, developing predictive analytics based on customer demand patterns is key. Since demand is erratic, only point of sale data is not a good parameter for future demand. Instead, predictive analytics reflecting new demand patterns are needed to adequately adjust buying plans, intake orders, stock management policies and allocation rules. Intensive cooperation between store planners, replenishment planners, category managers and purchasers, together with these data and analytics, makes it possible to prepare for the rebound.

3) Scale e-commerce by leveraging store network and investment in logistics capacity

Changes in demand as well as governmental measures have major implications on the utilization of retailer infrastructures. Food retailers suffer from an overburden of their distribution centres and reach their logistical as well as their technical maximum capacity for e-commerce. Conversely, various non-food retailers are closing their stores to protect their staff and customers’ health or because of a dramatic decline of traffic. Both situations ask for creativity and flexibility in the deployment of existing infrastructures.

Most non-food retailers face (a period of) further underutilized store infrastructure. To stay relevant to customers, focus shifts from offline to online sales. Not an easy task when stores used to be the main channel. If retailers succeed in having customers find their way to their website and shop online, they face a next challenge in scaling their logistics. A solution in this case might be to use the store network as customer fulfilment centres, so called ‘dark stores’. This relieves the existing logistics network. Alternatively, retailers can be creative and think about helping others. As does fashion giant H&M, who is offering up its supply chain to help hospitals reduce their medical supply shortages, by producing protective medical equipment. Moreover, food retailers reaching their maximum capacities for e-commerce, should try to leverage their store network to provide immediate capacity relief.

In parallel, this is the moment to develop a plan how to scale-up structurally and mature a true omni-channel proposition. Whilst today’s e-commerce hyper growth is driven by Corona regulations, it will likely turn out to be a structural accelerator of shifting demand from offline to online. This provides new growth opportunities for which online pure players are at pole position, just as SARS boosted Alibaba in 2003. Capturing these opportunities requires swift action (a topic we will discuss in our next blogpost). This can involve immediate decisions to prepare investment in mechanisation and capacity, in omni-channel IT integration and where possible leverage suppliers in the network.

4) Turn Corona crisis way of working into structurally more efficiency and responsiveness

Due to the Corona outbreak related governmental measures, people are working from home as much as possible. This requires virtual team collaboration with distributed team members, which was new to many of us. Meanwhile, a lot of retailers are already used to digital collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams to work together from a distance. It starts to demonstrate core retail processes can be operated with greater efficiency, by fewer and less long meetings with only the minimum amount of people involved.

As a result, we see some immediate implications for retailers. Most retailers by now have re-prioritized and shortened the often very long list of projects that hostage the organization. Now it is time to establish a separate digital project innovation workstream, focused on a very small set of active projects. Think of 5 to 10 for the entire business. As there is an immediate need to deliver these projects within days or weeks rather than months or years, a digital factory has to be established. A combination of low-code software and data analytics is very well suited to cut through these project lead-times and deliver business relief quickly.

Moreover, in running the day to day business, we see an opportunity to use the Corona crisis to overcome traditional HQ functional silo’s and make a structural shift to virtual teams. Through digital collaboration, operating with suppliers in a well-integrated way (and directly on board) is finally possible as well. Making this work requires new dashboards to be created instantly whilst establishing a (new) well-working workflow for core processes like assortment changes, promotion processes and supply-chain planning and replenishment.

5) Last but not least, put people first and keep communicating

With Corona still not at its peak, the health situation of staff is a growing concern. Most obvious, it is important to facilitate frontline staff who are constantly in contact with a lot of different customers, and to optimally protect them against the contamination hazard. Next to that, pressure is high on staff working in the supply chain, with absenteeism expected to increase over the near term. Even at headquarters, where employee tasks seem to be more easily executed from home, concerns are high; if not about one’s own safety then about the safety of others. Day-by-day new insights arise, making it an uncertain time for all of us which should not be underestimated.

A lot of retailers are already taking actions to protect, inform and involve their people. Only if necessary, people work from the office where teams are mostly being split up in several work shifts to prevent spreading of the virus between them. Furthermore, CEO’s provide daily communication about the most recent developments and decisions made. Finally, in a growing number of cases, non-food shops are voluntarily closed to protect their staff. At some retailers, we see rigorous and detailed staff contingency planning to ensure continuity of all aspects of the business. All examples of difficult decisions or time investments to make, but ones that will not be forgotten.

Putting people first is the right thing to do, now more than ever. Customers will remember decisions companies make during this crisis and the effort they put in to deliver goods and services to the best of their possibilities. Being seen to put people first and communicate frequently will create a positive relationship between companies and their customers as well their employees, with long-lasting benefits after the crisis.

Interested in the implications of above imperatives in your organization? Please let us know!

 

Robert Spieker
Partner at IG&H
E: robert.spieker@igh.com T: +31622791962

Maarten Vaessen
Partner at IG&H
E: maarten.vaessen@igh.com T: +31653571666

Author:  Myrthe van Hoek (myrthe.vanhoek@igh.com)

 

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Robert Spieker

Author Robert Spieker

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