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Lessons Learned

By Miller Zell

The COVID-19 pandemic presented myriad challenges to retailers and other businesses operating public spaces.

But adversity often teaches valuable lessons. Miller Zell’s collaborations with retailers, banks, quick-serve restaurants and universities during this fraught time provided us perspectives that will be valuable going forward. Many of the lessons taught by the pandemic will endure as actionable wisdom in 2021 and beyond.

So here are three insights that will carry over into the post-COVID-19 era.

  1. It’s critical to re-examine the use of store space — both inside and outside.

The U.S. was over-stored even before the pandemic, which then produced significantly more online shopping and precipitated more closures.

So how do businesses repurpose existing brick & mortar spaces?

Focus on three areas: a. Practical; b. Creative; c. Operational.

Practical: This is about optimizing your environment to meet your customers as they are now -- prioritizing safety and convenience. In some cases, brick & mortar will be repurposed, so it’s less about transactions and more about service and problem resolution.

Creative: How can you engage customers and build loyalty with new initiatives? What about using internal and external space to support local small business with partnerships and promotions? What about modular areas that can be adopted for widely different uses? Or what about installing EV charging stations outside and connecting them to promotions or curbside pickup?

Operational: Inventory optimization will be a priority going forward, as well as supply chain mastery. This will meet the delivery demands of customers who don’t want to wait for products to appear curbside or at their doorstep. More spaces will become strategically located dark-store fulfillment centers to meet customer demands.

  1. Stay aligned with what is important to your customers.

Shoppers typically start with price and convenience, and COVID-19 only amplified that. But the pandemic also amplified other existing trends, including customers’ belief in the critical importance of corporate social responsibility.

Last October in response to the pandemic, Edelman updated its 2020 “Trust Barometer” with a special report that included sentiments surrounding COVID-19. It observed, “71 percent agree that if they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever.”

What does that mean? Customers care about:

  • Sustainability: Businesses that are perceived as not aggressively and honestly pursuing sustainable practices will damage their brand and lose customers.
  • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion: These are not buzzwords. According to research from Pew Research Center, the “post-millennial” generations will be the most diverse in history. DEI is important to your customers — now and into the future.
  • Charitable & Community Support: Compassion and helping others always matters. During tough times, it matters more. And it’s not only the right thing to do. It’s also good business.
  • Transparency & Authenticity: Brands connect and build loyalty with customers with personalized, honest interaction. It’s about a trusting relationship that needs constant nurturing.
  • Taking Care of Associates: Customers pay attention to companies that take care of their employees, both in terms of health & safety and benefits & compensation. And not doing so can be disastrous if social media gets ahold of it.

Doing the right thing is always good and, by the way, also good for the bottom line.

As Edelman’s report noted, “Brands that act in the interest of their employees, stakeholders and society at large will reinforce their expertise, leadership and trust and immeasurably strengthen the bond they have with consumers.”

  1. Develop a plan for crisis management.

While many retailers pivoted admirably even during the early weeks of the pandemic, very few had a plan in place to deal with such a massive crisis.

There’s no excuse now. And based on what many experts believe, COVID-19 won’t be a generational one-off. While everyone is rooting against this becoming a new normal, it’s critical that businesses that manage public environments develop a crisis plan for the future.

This plan needs to anticipate supply chain issues, front-line associate challenges, in-store protocols and difficulties with unhappy and even combative customers.

Brick & mortar retail, bank branches, QSR franchises, grocery, convenience stores, college campuses and other public environments didn’t disappear during the pandemic and they won’t afterwards. But the overall dynamic has changed for the near term and potentially for longer than that.

Still, what that ultimately means is there will be plenty of opportunities to innovate and meet and exceed customer expectations now and into the future.



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