Tens of thousands of retailers have closed their doors to help stop the spread of the coronavirus across the country, either by choice or through government mandate, and according to industry experts, they may not be rushing to revert back to the old days of retail anytime soon.
On its face, things do not look well for retailers. The widening pandemic could permanently shutter more than 15,000 stores across the US. While some stores begin to re-open in accordance with eased limitations in some states, nonessential retail largely remains closed for the foreseeable future. Moreover, more that two-thirds of America remain on stay-at-home orders.
As such, E-commerce has seen an obvious uptick, however analysts are skeptical that it will make up for sales lost due to store closures. In an interview with Retail Dive, Doug Stephens said that luxury brands who hadn’t yet fully embraced ecommerce would be one of the biggest-hit sectors, and that fear of viral contagion could also have a negative impact on the resale market.
The re-opening of retail couldn’t come sooner, according to Retail Dive, department stores only have about five to eight months of liquidity before a cash crunch becomes a risk factor. Companies such as J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Kohl’s have reported only about 5-8 months of available cash, while analysts have pegged Nordstrom to have about a full year. Therefore, with physical locations likely to remain shuttered for a while longer, the pandemic has many retailers in a tough spot.
But that’s only the half of it. Just because stores are being given the green light to re-open in many places, consumers seem to be less than eager to return to traditional physical shopping. Surveys show that consumers continue to have lingering fears of infection, with two-thirds of respondents telling the Washington Post they wouldn’t feel safe going into a retail clothing store. Moreover, a survey from Fluent found that only 34% of respondents were even comfortable with governors lifting stay-at-home restrictions. Ethan Rose, EVP at Branded Online, was previously interviewed as saying “the longer this pandemic lasts, the more fear and uncertainty will necessitate an evolution in the consumer processes.”
Bob sat down with the executive staff of Branded Online this week to get their insights as to what the future of retail holds when things attempt to “return to normal”
Here are some of their most insightful thoughts on the issue:
We won’t return to any sort of normal without a vaccine
Jan Nugent, CEO at BrandedOnline: As we know sheltering in place was meant to slow the virus, not cure it. And as we move back to somewhat normal life there has to be an understanding that in essence nothing has changed. Without a vaccine, businesses cannot guarantee the safety of its employees, vendors and customers; but some precautions, like facemasks and daily testing, can be made to limit exposure. But as simple as that sounds this is an unprecedented time (unless you were alive in 1918) however we proceed, it must be with caution. Facemasks and wide-spread daily testing will be the norm. Distancing availability, less people per space, and hospitals will have to be equipped to handle the increased caseload.
Understanding your customers’ needs
Rikke Alderson, Chief Growth Officer: Now more than ever, truly understanding your customers’ needs will be paramount to current and ongoing success for businesses.
Brands need to understand that the majority of society is now working in a completely different environment from just a few months ago. In that time, shopping patterns have drastically evolved, necessitating a shift in strategy by virtually everyone. For example, shopping habits seem to have shifted regarding the traditional role of seasons. We are already seeing up-tics in footwear, loungewear, athleisure and negative flows within formal wear or cocktail fancy attire, which are fairly abnormal buying patterns for this time of year.
As such, the opportunity to leverage search engine query volumes correlative to fashion and apparel will be super edifying around what consumers are looking to purchase today versus last year at the same time. Moreover, once stores do begin to reopen, with the initial phase of curbside pick-up versus browsing and the like, we expect stores to see greater clarity from the consumer on what exactly they are looking for, versus opportunistic buying.
Public safety comes first
Kurt Lohse, SVP: Non-essential stores should only reopen after the Coronavirus transmission rates have dropped to federal, state, and local safety regulation levels, and when it is safe for workers and customers to interact. Active measures should be taken to provide 6′ distances during work hours, and protective masks and gloves should be required until an effective vaccine is made available. Retailers and shoppers alike may adopt protective gear for some time. The three biggest changes I see relate to additional space becoming a requirement to maintain 6′ distance guidelines, limited in-store customer volume control, and added extra cleaning measures to be taken regularly to ensure virus-free surface transmissions.
Companies should focus on their operations and digital footprints
Henry Henderson, Logistics & Supply Chain Executive: Due to the struggles keeping up with demand amidst the anxiety of consumers and protecting front-line sales associates, its impossible to pin down a date when things may even resemble returning to normal in the retail world. So until we have a definitive answer as to when people will be back in stores, brands and companies should really be focusing their operations and go to market strategies around digital fulfillment.
In the absence of in-person experiences, consumers are focusing on the essentials, and the transition to digital fulfillment has been swift. This crisis has highlighted the absolute need for last mile connectivity, apart from reimagining traditional models of single carrier dependency and centralized warehousing. In effect, this translates to creating micro-fulfillment centers leveraging the omni-channel capabilities of the store. If nothing else, we are seeing the importance of agility and connectivity being the fundamentals your brand will need in the new normal.
Leave it to the scientists
Geoff VanHaeren, CTO: As we are already seeing, opening is being done on a state-by-state basis, as data presents itself. This is key, all decisions surrounding the opening of states needs to be based upon science and empirical data. Of course people are getting stir-crazy and are able to make their own decisions, but this needs to be handled from a top down approach. Consumer feelings can not be what directs the opening of society. I don’t have experience with infectious diseases, so I am not really qualified to respond to “when” questions. What I do know is that the virus doesn’t care about people’s feelings. I will leave those decisions to scientists.