Readying for Retail’s Return

Preparing Your Store for Post-Pandemic Success

June 25, 2021

As lockdowns lift and vaccinations become more widespread, we can all feel the balance shift. Retail is preparing for recovery. 

People everywhere are looking forward  to their pre-pandemic behaviors, which includes in-store shopping. However, are retailers prepared to meet this predicted increased consumer demand for in-store shopping? Consumer behaviors have shifted, and it’s not clear yet what will stick. After all, retail has been redefining the role of physical stores for years, and that was before an international pandemic hit. 

Shoppers, while feeling more confident, are still prioritizing safe and convenient experiences. It’s up to retailers, and their front-line store teams, to deliver on that expectation.

That’s why we sat down with voices of retail for a conversation about what retailers should be thinking about as they prepare for the return of retail. 

Here are our top insights from the panel discussion with these retail leaders:

It’s time to be truly omnichannel

Both Big Lots and Rite Aid were deemed “essential” retailers during the pandemic.

And in addition to adapting to pandemic health and safety protocols, both companies managed to roll out significant strategic improvements during this time. 

In the midst of a pandemic, Big Lots accelerated omnichannel capabilities. Big Lots was named #1 in Total Retail’s 2020 Top Omnichannel Retailers Report, which recognized retailers for their omnichannel capabilities and recent customer service innovations. 

In March 2020, Rite Aid announced a comprehensive rebrand strategy – RxEvolution – to reposition as a healthcare company with a retail footprint.  

“When we say ‘rebrand’ we mean a ground-up rebrand,” says Brian. “From the floors in the stores, to investing in the associates’ product knowledge, to what’s on the outside of the stores, the pandemic came, and we kept pushing forward to provide a total healthcare setting for consumers.”

For both Big Lots and Rite Aid, essential retailers who remained open and agile during the height of Covid-19, enhancing omnichannel strategy wasn’t just important, it was necessary. This is the future of retail: brick-and-mortar stores must be reinvented as part of a true omnichannel strategy.

Support workers to support customers

Frontline workers have a million things on their to-do lists, and a fraction of the time needed to complete those tasks. So how do retailers help their teams in stores prepare to service customers with post-pandemic expectations?

“We believe in being transparent, with what’s going on and how we can help,” says Joice. “And we stay nimble, learn, and adjust as we evolve our offerings.”

“Anytime you’re going through organizational change (like a rebrand), multiple departments will try to force different priorities into stores,” says Brian, “Right from the beginning, even before the pandemic, we established a process  to establish those key priorities. First, we want our associates to be safe. After that we look at what the customer is demanding from us. That led us to a digital strategy and all of the elements that come with it. When we aligned on those things as a business, and that made us successful.”

We completely agree with this philosophy of organizational alignment. If everybody in your retail organization,  from HQ to upper field down to stores, can focus on the same goals in retail store recovery, you’ll naturally see excellent results in execution.

A good store communication strategy eliminates the need for a verbal cascade by ensuring everybody gets the right message, in the right way, at the right time.

Customer shopping behaviors have changed

We all feel it: the sense that Covid-19 has fundamentally changed consumer shopping habits for good. People are more comfortable with technology (ordering on mobile, for example), they have higher expectations of cleanliness in stores, they “browse” less and instead shop with purpose.

What are the strategies that retailers are putting into place to tackle emerging consumer trends and meet shoppers where they’re at?

“In terms of trends, digital acceleration is on my mind,” says Joice “Second, the home-centric lifecycle. Last year put a new lens on the fact that your home is your haven. Lastly, cash constrainment. There is a greater awareness on how we spend the dollar which really drives how we increase our values in stores.”

Between emerging innovations, drastic shifts in consumer behaviour, and economic expectations, 2021 calls for retailers to continue to be nimble in the wake of change. But ultimately, it comes down to putting the customer first. Successful retailers are making sure customers feel empowered to shop when and how they want to. 

Joice says it best. “No retailer is going to be successful in the future if they don’t truly become customer-centric.”

RiteAid has done their own research to find that their “customers are looking for human interaction. They still want to talk to the pharmacist or the store associate. I believe a lot of that is due to the positioning of the stores and the communities that they’re in. Our ‘trip missions’ as we call them are for convenience items but they’re also for acute physical needs.” says Brian. “Catered-to-care is what we’re investing in.”

And the best way to serve customers is to automate manual tasks so that you free up time for associates (or pharmacists, in RiteAid’s case) on the floor.

New KPIs for a new era

Both Big Lots and Rite Aid are still heavily invested in physical retail – they’re opening new stores, remodeling stores, redefining and even increasing the brick-and-mortar footprint. Retail success in this new era means making physical locations work harder than ever—in the physical and the virtual worlds.

Another trend we’re hearing in the market a lot is this idea that “comp is dead,” and that retailers are going to have to start looking at new KPIs to gauge success of their brick and mortar fleet. 

“A lot of the time, retailers are so focused on the comp metrics that it reduces their desire to be flexible. It generates fear that if you don’t run the same sale or promotion, that you’ll see that reflected in your sales. That fear prevents change,” says Joice. “It’s about tracking the organization’s overall growth trajectory over the quarter or even the month, or our overall customer growth, rather than the transactions on last year’s Monday.” 

What are some of the “new metrics of success” retailers should be paying attention to as shoppers return to stores this coming year?

“NPS, or Net Promoter Score- every business has it, but do we measure ourselves on it? That’s the big question. That’s a great leading indicator for the future and what you can expect.”

Retail organizations are always looking at NPS, comp, traffic, but perhaps one of the most important metrics that businesses are measuring now, is employee engagement. 

With turnover and hiring difficulties across the industry, it’s critical to find and keep top talent. After all, when employees are more engaged, they are less likely to leave but rather stay and provide better service for customers. 

“The last piece is associate engagement and satisfaction,” says Brian “How are we investing in our teams, what tools are we providing them with, how are we making their life better at work? Answering those questions will ultimately result in better business outcomes.”

Lean into retail communications

As essential retailers, both Big Lots and RiteAid didn’t have furloughs, there was no dark period. These retailers, like many others, were running the entire way through the pandemic. And throughout all of that, they had to communicate to their stores a lot more during the past year, from new technologies to safety protocols. With safety top of mind, it has never been more important to be able to track what’s happening at stores and maintain a constant feedback loop.

“There were a lot of lessons learned early on in the pandemic,” Says Brian. “I would boil it down to two things,” says Brian. “Being aligned and being accurate. We have to be aligned on the content, and we keep it simple, and give stores exactly what they need.”

One important key was effectively leveraging retail communications from HQ all the way down the frontlines of stores in order to help teams continue to be agile and improve the customer experience.

“The number one thing that all associates want is to feel respected, listened to, and feel that the company cares about them,” says Joice. “In order to convey that you have to be transparent and you have to have to be timely with communications.”

Retail’s Recovery: Some things are here to stay

“Having the right tool to facilitate communications was super important,” says Brian.  “We’re fortunate to be partnered with Zipline and be able to reach every single associate.” 

Here at Zipline, we believe that the key to business agility and associate safety lies in great communication. In fact, we know that it’s true because the data supports it. Our Health and Safety Compliance report shows that retailers that don’t use communication software underperform those that do across multiple categories such as friendliness, signage, traffic, and safety. While any solution is better than no solution, Zipline customers outperform the competition. Why? Brands that use Zipline have put the right practices in place to keep the fleet safe.

“As the pandemic was beginning, we had multiple comm channels that weren’t in the hands of every worker. We had to figure out how we could streamline that and get communications down to every associate,” recalls Brian. “We started looking for solutions. We fell in love with ZIpline and they became our communication channel. That was a major investment in our associates. It literally puts the communication in their hands.”

We had an incredible conversation with Brian and Joice! These retailers’ were able to not only survive the pandemic, but expand their omnichannel strategy. Watch the whole webinar to hear it first-hand. 

Want to learn more about how Zipline can help you align your store teams? We’ve made our solution easy to implement, fun to use, and useful for stores and HQ alike. We’d love to give you a deeper look. Reach out today to learn more.

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