Updated: Jun 17
As more and more states across the US look to reopening and expanding their operations during the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a tremendous amount to learn about keeping operations streamlined and effective—both from the challenges encountered so far, as well as to prepare for the inevitable ones ahead.
With that in mind, we turned to Gary Hawkins, Founder and CEO of CART (Center for Advancing Retail & Technology), to get his valuable perspective on the key gaps retailers didn’t see coming, the hurdles we still stand to face, and some emerging opportunities for making operations even stronger.
Crew: In your work with retailers, what are the top challenges that most seem to be facing?
Gary: The COVID-19 crisis has really stress-tested the retail industry, and as businesses have had to react and adapt to such a fast-changing environment, many vulnerabilities, weaknesses and gaps have been exposed.
Tactically, one of the biggest challenges so far has been the need to rapidly shift to contactless shopping and transacting. We've seen everything from retailers putting up plexiglass barriers between the cashier and the customer at checkout to try to reduce airflow, to one-way aisle traffic throughout the store, to new touch-free payment solutions - all with varying degrees of success or failure.
Retailers are also dealing with the operational changes associated with opening and closing at different hours, setting aside special times for older or at-risk shoppers, and controlling how many people are in the store at a given time. And of course, implementing new procedures and practices around cleaning and sanitation - these are all real-time problems and a truly staggering amount of task management that needs to be done on the fly.
Crew: Are there any changes to customer behavior or expectations that retailers seem to be overlooking?
Gary: Obviously, there’s been a huge explosion in e-commerce. Relative to that, every grocery store and retailer needs to be equipped with real-time product availability and inventory data. It can be incredibly frustrating for consumers to shop online, place an order and then only receive a third of the items because things were out of stock, but not marked as such online. Again, this falls under real-time information to me, the ability to make the ordering and store pickup experience both more efficient for the retailer, and more satisfactory for the customer.
Just as I think retailers need a real-time digital platform to communicate with their associates, so too do they need a real-time digital platform to communicate with their shoppers - for many of the same issues. Changing rules, regulations, store hours, product availability, all of these different elements need to be communicated to consumers as well.
Retailer operations leaders are doing the best they can right now, trying to use whatever reach they have across email, text messaging, social media and so on. The trouble is that these are all disparate channels. They need the ability to create mission-critical information and messaging and automatically distribute it across different digital channels.
Crew: These are all significant changes to the retail experience. How can businesses better manage such transformation to new operating models?
Gary: Operationally, trying to inform everybody of changing rules and regulations has become an incredible hurdle. I spoke with one retailer that has stores in seven different states, and he was telling me that simply trying to keep track of and notify his different locations and associates of the fast-changing rules and regulations in every state has been a full-time job. One thing that retailers really need - and most do not yet have it - is a real-time communications platform for all of their employees.
In this crisis, everything is now happening in real-time. Retailers need systems to help keep everybody up-to-date on fast-changing rules and regulations, and to keep task management organized and clear.
Crew: Thinking beyond communications, what other tasks are becoming more prominent and painful for business operators?
Gary: Another big challenge - which already existed before the outbreak of COVID-19 - lies in fast-changing scheduling requirements. There’s an even greater need than before to keep track, ideally at the store or even department-level, of who’s sick, who’s not, who’s available to work, who is looking for more shifts, who needs time to deal with sick family members, etc. Being able to adapt to these changes and stay flexible is critical.
Training is a huge issue as well. For example, how is the clerk at the service deli supposed to safely interact with shoppers now? What can they do? What can't they do? There are a zillion and one training issues that were created literally overnight from this whole thing. When Walmart rolled out their contactless payment capability within their app for safer shopping, it offered a great solution - but they also needed to communicate that out to hundreds of thousands of employees at once, so that they would understand how it works and be prepared for customers at the checkout.
Crew: What do you think retailers can be doing to better engage and retain talent during COVID-19?
Gary: Right now, retailers have focused considerable messaging around helping to inform and educate shoppers about everything they’re doing to make sure the store shopping experience is safe, to give the shopper confidence that they can safely go into the store, buy what they need and walk out without risking infection.
I think that same mindset should apply to all company associates too: it’s continuously informing, updating and educating workers about safety, and how leaders are managing operations across the company to prioritize and ensure employee and shopper safety. Right now, it's as much about conveying information and education as it is as important as the more business-oriented strategies around task management, training, etc.
If you have furloughed employees, remember that communication is far, far better than no communication. The more the company can be in contact to keep them aware of what’s going on - even when there may not be updates - the better. Answering questions, staying engaged - I see that as highly important.
Crew: How can frontline workers (who have the most direct contact with customers) drive innovation for their retail employers?
Gary: Supermarkets and drugstores, among others, have done a really good job of managing and innovating in real-time throughout this whole thing. But can it be better? Absolutely. A big part of what they've done is open up lines of communication across the stores, across the company.
At the store level, management has become much more attuned to what their workers are saying in different departments, and listening to them. This crisis has jolted everybody out of their usual practices, out of their comfort zones. Just by the very nature of that kind of change, lines of communication have been opened up.
We’re in a different world here. A lot of the old practices that everybody was either comfortable with, or had just accepted, all of a sudden are out the window. And I think everybody, from the cashier to the person stocking the shelf, up to the CEO, recognizes the importance of communication up, down, and across your organization.
Crew: As we look to the next phase of the pandemic, with more and more areas are opening up, what do you think are the biggest opportunities that retailers need to focus on?
Gary: Based on a lot of conversations I've had with retailers across the country, the past few months have helped crystallize a number of things for many different retailers. And that’s not only the key gaps they’re facing, but also the capabilities they now know they need, not only to continue to operate and manage effectively through the rest of this crisis, but to also make sure they're ready for the next crisis. Whether it's another virus, whether it's a hurricane or a blizzard, there's going to be something else that happens that is also going to also bring with it a need for real-time communications, improved training, task management, etc.
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Empowering your team with real-time communication and the training they need to do their best work has never been more important. To learn more about how Crew is supporting organizations through the COVID-19 crisis, click here.