By Mario Toneguzzi
On Wednesday, they released the “Road to Retail Recovery Playbook – Helping Canadian Retailers Navigate the COVID-19 Crisis” to help retailers of all sizes plan for the broader re-opening of retail stores across the country.
“The Playbook was designed to provide members of the Retail Council of Canada with a perspective on global practices from retailers around the world on operating their business during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the support of the Boston Consulting Group, we compiled materials through a scan of practices observed from companies in countries that had started to emerge from the government-imposed restrictions on the essential, non-essential and restaurant sectors,” said Diane Brisebois, President and CEO at RCC.
“The Playbook’s intent is to provide all retailers, big and small, with a framework for key considerations and relevant global practices as they operate their retail businesses in today’s challenging environment. The message is clear — the retail ecosystem as we know it — has forever changed and retailers must begin to re-invent and re-adjust their business model to serve a post COVID-19 customer — one that will have less disposable income, a deepened focus on health and safety and one that will seek brands that can be trusted.”
The Playbook leverages global best practices for a diverse range of retail formats with the fundamental aim of ensuring a safe environment for employees and customers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Playbook includes key retail operational components such as customer health and safety, employee wellbeing, retail operations, merchandising and marketing, store network and channel, and finances. Some of the protocols included are:
Customer and employee health monitoring
Checkout and payment
Supply chain and inventory management
Store deliveries and vendor visits
Trying or sampling products
Advertising and communications
Trials and returns
Reopening the retail sector and putting our economy back on track will require new strategies, new rules, and new competencies, said Brisebois.
“The recent survey by Abacus Data speaks volumes about retailers getting it right. Over 26 percent of consumers noted that they would not be comfortable visiting a mall until there is a vaccine while 66 percent of respondents noted that they would visit a mall with conditions. And these conditions include a disciplined approach to sanitizing surfaces and common areas, a respect for physical distancing, wearing masks, smaller crowds, and trusting the mall or the retailer to get it right. Health and Safety is the new ‘black’ so to speak. Retailers must make this their number one priority – for both their customers and employees,” she said.
“Based on what we have seen across Canada so far, consumers, while somewhat anxious, are reacting positively to retail re-opening — often noting that, while conscious of the need to be careful, they have a need to reconnect with their neighbourhoods, their main streets and retail. It continues to be part and parcel of the human condition — seeing people, visiting stores, shopping for essentials and discretionary items — albeit slowly — but surely.”
According to the Council, the industry comprises over 145,000 retail establishments employing 2.1 million Canadians. The sector annually generates over $76 billion in wages and employee benefits. Core retail sales (excluding vehicles and gasoline) were $377 billion in 2019. RCC members represent more than two-thirds of retail sales in the country. RCC is a not-for-profit, industry-funded association that represents more than 45,000 storefronts, small, medium, and large retail businesses in every community across the country.
“The retail sector in Canada ranks as the country’s single largest private-sector employer, and now more than ever, the RCC team is tirelessly committed to maintaining and growing the prosperity of this sector in Canada,” said Matthew MacKenzie, Partner and Managing Director, BCG. “BCG shares this commitment, and we feel obliged to bring our local and global expertise in retail and crisis management to bear to support the RCC and its members through this challenging time.”
Retailers and business owners can go to retailcouncil.org/playbook to download the report.
Jeff Doucette, general manager for Field Agent Canada, said there is no room for a false start.
“Retailers need to be 100 per cent ready for that first customer and need to think through the whole path to purchase from the parking spot or bus stop right through to the checkout. Operators should simulate that path to purchase and identify all the steps that customers may take, the high touch areas that will need to be frequently cleaned (door handles, credit card terminals, fixtures) and how many people they can realistically have in the store and still maintain practical social distancing,” he said.
“As an essential service, supermarkets evolved and adapted their approach but I think that shoppers going into stores reopening under Phase 1 will expect that operators have done the due diligence and worked out the bugs. Key watch outs for me would include: 1) Increasing ‘tap limits’ on credit terminals to match average transaction sizes; 2) Clear signage outside the store about policies on topics like reusable bags; 3) configuring the checkout area to avoid blocking traffic flows; and 4) ensuring enough checkout staff to have a maximum of one customer waiting to be served at each checkout.”
“But ‘get it right’? We don’t yet know what that means. This whole process is counter to linear thinking. There is no clear end state and an obvious path to it. By and large, shoppers, managers, and staff, and health authorities will all be testing and learning based on what they think best and supporting each other in what is basically a co-created solution. We have to be patient and rush to a ‘right’ answer,” he said.
He said speculation of consumer behaviour in 12 months is pointless, as one or two events can turn on new actions and reactions.
“Fundamentally, consumers are no longer in control of their shopping experiences, which is a major change from the past decade of ‘Customer as King’. And the majority of us seem okay with that. We are and will continue to be patient and adapt to what we are being presented with. Those who are not, or are dealing poorly with their own stresses, are more likely to cause trouble in store and be aggressive. We are seeing that too,” added Gray.
“I toured stores this weekend. Grocery is starting to pattern to something we are used to. But shopping is a surreal experience in fashion stores and the only partially returned major malls. Speaking to staff and shoppers, there is definitely a curiosity mingled with apprehension. There was some degree of pent up demand in some of the leading stores like Zara. Of course, it manifests as a line outside and an almost high-end boutique experience inside, with very limited numbers allowed in a more spacious layout. Not all stores were as vigilant, none alarmingly bad, but shoppers will notice things that stand out – staff without masks, if other store staff have them.
“The more we focus on those things, avoid the fitting room, etc. the less we engage in an enjoyable, immersive shopping experience – which of course is where stores stand out. Notably the staff, key to a great retail experience, are still finding their way around all the new learning, their own fears, and a general uncertainty as to how to engage shoppers. That stood out. And all I spoke to noted the carelessness of many shoppers, who they are at pains to protect, and who might be creating friction with fellow shoppers. This is going to be a learning journey over the weeks ahead for all of us.”
Gray said retailers are not making money being open. In fact, the added costs of the new requirements, the challenges on stock, the harder to find part-time staff, the still unproven rent relief, and so on are making this a real challenge all the while as society expects them to lead the economic recovery.
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has 37 years of experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, city and breaking news, and business. For 12 years as a business writer, his main beats were commercial and residential real estate, retail, small business and general economic news. He nows works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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