Big Lots Shares Best Practices on Handling COVID-19
Like other retailers, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Big Lots to adapt to new and challenging circumstances. Recently, an expert panel with Big Lots executives and Reflexis Vice President of Solutions Consulting Kevin Tapscott held a virtual fireside chat titled: “Store Operations Lessons Learned From an Essential Retailer: How Big Lots Addressed COVID-19 Challenges.” The following edited excerpt is based on the event, with questions posed by Retail TouchPoints Director of Content, Debbie Hauss.
Big Lots is a major United States-based retailer that sells a wide variety of goods, from furniture to essential items to electronics and more. Launched in 1967, currently, its 1,400 stores and 37,000 associates serve customers in 47 states.
What have been the main goals and priorities during this challenge?
The company initially formed a task force, explained National Team Leader and Senior Vice President of Store Operations Nick Padovano. It comprised senior leadership, as well as experts from legal, HR, and asset protection. The team settled on two primary objectives: 1) customer and associate safety; and 2) business continuity in an uncertain time.
The company then took actions to improve safety—creating cleaning regimens, social distancing guidelines, and health screenings. Management also changed their marketing to focus on essential needs and ceased some activities, such as special promotions, which could create crowds. But by offering coupons valid for an entire month, Big Lots also provided a way for customers to shop however they are most comfortable.
How did Big Lots adapt and create new policies?
To ensure safety, they had to make fast, on-the-spot decisions, explained Monica Welt, Vice President of Compliance at Big Lots. With stores in nearly every state, the Big Lots team had to quickly cope with each region’s demands for safety.
She noted: “Typically you have more notice than 24 hours to address things. But that’s the way things were rolling in with this unprecedented situation.” Without the time to test strategies, management decided to stay nimble and take calculated risks. “We were empowered to make the right decisions, and not let perfection be the enemy of the good.”
Among her team’s decisions was to hire a medical expert with a military background as a consultant, who could help anticipate what policies were needed. “In many instances we were able to get out ahead of some of the regulators,” said Welt.
How did Big Lots handle communications?
“People needed to know they were not alone,” said Padavano. He issues a daily message out to every store, often with a video component. These messages “keep [store teams] up to speed and ensure they know we’re there for them.” Big Lots also established an email inbox for employees to send in questions.
There were also regulatory issues arising constantly. Every day, the company was “bombarded with new executive orders” from states, cities and counties. Keeping up with these was a daunting task, so the Big Lots legal team performed quick turnarounds in reviewing these directives and offering guidance to individual stores.
“Obviously we know communication is so critical, especially during times like this,” said Big Lots Vice President of Store Operations, Lynda Kline. The company still maintains a regular internal “cascade of calls” where executives cover everything from COVID topics to supply chain to transportation and staffing issues. Eventually, these discussions cascade to individual calls to stores and throughout the company.
How are Big Lots and other retailers using Reflexis to address health and safety challenges?
The company was able to use Reflexis solutions to support this rapid communication. Kline explains, “We leveraged Reflexis to communicate directives to our stores…anything COVID related.” She discussed how Reflexis allowed gatekeeping—tight controls around the messaging flows.
“We know that there’s a lot going on in stores and communication is coming at them from various places sometimes,” said Kline. “So, Reflexis allowed us to streamline and make sure the communication going out to the field was absolute priority communication. And it eliminated all the noise.”
“All our customers use task management to provide a single place for leaders to see what they need to do from a task or project standpoint,” noted Reflexis Vice President of Solutions Consulting, Kevin Tapscott.
The Reflexis ONE retail store operations and workforce management platform enables Big Lots and other retailers to quickly adapt store operations to COVID-19.
What are the lessons learned?
Some key take aways include:
• Organizational focus is vital: Start with the leadership team and have the right people in the room (virtually via video, if need be) to make decisions
• Identify key priorities upfront for the company to guide field and store actions
• Have the courage to make imperfect but smart decisions to support agility
• Have legal review executive orders, and advise individual stores to avoid confusion
• Train employees to handle the unexpected: including disruptive customer behavior