Retail has always risen to the challenges posed by difficult situations and complex issues, as well as the ever-evolving concerns of the day. Retailers currently find themselves in the crossfire of a frightful pandemic, impending economic collapse and widespread social unrest. Due to current events and conditions, the burdens of retail organizations have accelerated exponentially.
At this pivotal moment as we stare into the face of the pandemic, we’re all familiar with the litany of steps and procedures that must be taken to reinforce customer confidence and ensure the survival of the brand. We all understand the new protocols: social distancing, defined circulation paths, reduced points of congregation, touchless transactions, protective barriers, etc. In terms of e-commerce, retailers know that they must simplify the process which has now become the backbone of many businesses.
E-commerce is transformational, and it’s a vital component of any successful business strategy. Accordingly, it makes sense to reevaluate all points of customer contact and upgrade all operating platforms. Serve the customer the way they chose to be served. Clarify the experience for customers and employees alike. Make transactions seamless, whether it’s curbside or traditional. And most importantly, remove all friction points and make the community think of your store as their store.
And while all of the above represent a strategic and studied beginning, retailers must take matters to yet another level. That begins, of course, with understanding the customer; their needs, concerns and preferences. Retailers must raise the bar by understanding and empathizing with the community at large. Next, they must simplify the process. Retail is complicated and complex. Streamline customer engagement by simplifying the transaction process. To borrow a phrase from the late great sculptor Constantin Brancusi, “Simplicity is complexity resolved.” And finally, retailers must be proactive – don’t wait until problems come to you, anticipate; ready and steady your organization for any eventuality. While no one could have anticipated the pandemic, we have to anticipate existential challenges by building a strong infrastructure based on positivity, ethical behavior, community relations and caring. Adaptation has always been the hallmark of retail, and the industry has always responded to changing behaviors and changing conditions. However, everything today has been exponentially accelerated due to the COVID-19 virus and increased social unrest. Retailers today must be part of the solution, rather than a “super spreader” of the problem.
While corporate values and ethics begin at the top, show appreciation for your associates who at the end of the day, are the people keeping your business open. Show appreciation, and make them part of internal processes. Communicate with them early and often. Company leadership should be open and transparent with regular communications to all employees and associates. Listen to their needs and to their perspectives on how to safely service the community. Provide realistic benefits and offer employees meaningful bonuses, and you'll see them proudly stand around the company banner. Empower them, and they will take ownership and pride in “their” company. Stand firmly behind your loyal associates; they're the ones who brought youth the dance.
And remember, you’re not in this alone. You’re part of the bigger community, and as the community goes, so will you. Ask what you can do to help your neighbors and loyal supporters through these challenging times. Reach out to the community by hiring people who have been furloughed or laid off by other companies. Ask what role you can play in supporting the economy, in looking out for the small business owner, and in appreciating and supporting the essential workers and the healthcare providers.
And what about the everyday people living and working in your communities? Are they well represented in your organization? Are they in leadership positions in your company? Are you listening to their voices? Don’t just talk a good game, rather take a leadership role and ensure that the game is played on a level field. Take steps to ensure that your organization is a diverse representation of the communities that you serve and the communities that support you. Look at your branding and advertising materials. Are they respectful of your community, do they speak to the well-being of all?
We are now in unchartered waters, and this is not just a flash in the pan. Rather, this is a long-term period of adjustment, rethinking and reimagining not only as it relates to business, but also to our way of life. Some will look at the glass as being half empty, while others will know that it is half full. There is a definite positive to all of these challenges. The silver lining is that the issues we face today have awakened a new consciousness and awareness in all of us. They are providing us with an opportunity to build it back better from a business perspective, a health and wellness perspective, and a social justice perspective. Let’s all get behind this and move forward to a better place and a brighter future.
Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.