Lessons from Essential Retailers for Non-Essential Retailers As They Plan for Store Re-Openings
Reflexis CRO, Brett Friedman, shares his perspective on lessons from the field for retailers coming out of the current crisis.
Reflexis has been focused on partnering with retailers since 2001 and we are blessed to have approximately 300 of the world’s leading retail banners as our customers. For almost 20 years these customers have shared their experience and their wisdom with us which has allowed Reflexis to continually deliver the most innovative solutions for retail communication, execution, and workforce management.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented our customers with very different sets of challenges. Retailers classified by government entities as Essential have kept their stores open and in many cases dealt with unprecedented demand. They have also had to react, in many cases on a daily basis, to changing guidance from all levels of government. This environment of heretofore unforeseen challenges and constant change has necessitated adapting business practices, safety protocols, and employee guidance at unprecedented volumes, speed, and urgency.
Retailers classified by government entities as Non-Essential have had to close some or all of their stores. While this has created hardship for these retailers and their associates, they will soon be faced with an entirely new set of challenges as stores re-open. What lessons can these retailers learn from our Essential Retail customers who have remained open?
Be Ready to Be Wrong
Retail operations executives have long relied on the tried and true methodology of Plan, Execute, Measure, and Adapt. As our many grocery, pharmacy, and DIY retailers have learned while open during this pandemic period, it is difficult to plan in the absence of data and precedent. As other retailers prepare to open, there is no data or precedent to help predict:
- Initial level of customer demand and how it will evolve
- Optimal store hours and staffing levels to serve this unknown demand
- How returning demand patterns will differ for different store types such as mall vs non-mall and across different geographies
- Which stores to open and when
- Whether customers new social distancing preferences require a new engagement model
- How staff availability may be impacted by new factors such as anti-body (immunity) testing
The key learning is to plan to be wrong, and to have communication protocols in place to manage rapid course correction.
You Will Be Shooting at A Moving Target
As our Essential Retail customers have tried to navigate this period, they have been overwhelmed with rapidly changing and at times conflicting guidance and mandates from government entities at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels. The topics may have been related to masks or no masks, the safe size of groups, the safe social distance between individuals, or even what is classified as Essential Retail versus Non-Essential Retail. Regardless, the direction constantly changed and was often mis-aligned. Yet retailers have had to adapt policies as best they could, communicate changes to their stores and their field, and ensure compliance.
Going forward as the direction of “the curve” changes, similar challenges will confront both the Essential Retailers and the retailers re-opening their stores. Whatever the new normal will be, there are going to be countless iterative stages between now and then. At each stage, there will be new guidance from multiple entities regarding masks, gathering size, social distancing, dealing with customers and employees with symptoms, anti-body testing, and so on. To date, our customers have dealt with this for weeks. These stages with associated iterative guidance and mandates will go on for months. Again, the ability to rapidly course correct, and to ensure compliance with the new course, will be essential.
Staffing and Training Challenges Await
Many of our customers whose stores have remained open have been overwhelmed by demand. In many cases this has led to mass hiring to address that demand, as well as to offer new services that were suddenly needed. Who would have thought six months ago that CVS would be offering home delivery of prescriptions and other items?
As retailers re-open closed stores, staffing and training challenges await. There is no guarantee that experienced staff will return. And for those that do, processes, service offerings, and tasks that need to be executed may look markedly different from before. Clear communication of tasks, supported by visuals and in-the-moment training, will be essential.
It Is Not Too Early to Think About 2021
Savvy retailers are not only executing on the challenges of 2020, but are already considering the impact on planning for 2021. Traditional planning has always relied heavily on prior year actuals adjusted for comps from prior weeks. Retailers that have not invested in the latest workforce management capabilities, such as AI-enabled forecasting, will be disadvantaged when building out 2021 forecasts and all of the plans that rely on those forecasts.
How Has Reflexis Helped?
Reflexis Essential Retail customers have shared the many ways that their Reflexis solutions have helped them navigate the unchartered waters of the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to do so on the other side of the curve. They all agree that communication within their organization has never been more critical. The volume, frequency, and urgency of communication to stores has increased dramatically. Use of Reflexis Task Manager as the single channel for two-way communication of critical, actionable communication has helped dramatically. Being able to monitor execution of rapidly evolving and changing processes designed to protect the health and safety of customers and employees has been invaluable. And for those customers who are hiring new associates, the embedded in-the-moment training within tasks will help insure execution stays at a high level.
Many of our customers have taken advantage of Reflexis’ peer-to-peer messaging tool, Q-Comm, to foster messaging within stores, within districts, and between stores. This has allowed store associates and field leaders to instantly share best practice responses to rapid changes in customer behavior and governmental guidance without having to resort to ungoverned tools like WhatsApp or SMS. Our customers have also been utilizing their Reflexis compliance tools, Q-Walk (formerly StoreWalk) and Q-Check to ensure, and when necessary demonstrate, compliance. And for those customers who were not utilizing all of the available capabilities, Reflexis has been providing best practice guidance via webcasts and blogs, as well as accelerated implementation of new modules.
Our WFM customers are already utilizing the advanced capabilities within their Reflexis workforce management solutions, including the latest AI-enabled forecasting, to address the unprecedented peaks and valleys of their business. These capabilities will also be a great asset when longer term planning is impacted by current period data. And moving forward, many plan to utilize Reflexis AI Performance Manager and AI Decisions to guide the countless decisions that will need to made when more stores are open.
Reflexis believes that we have an obligation at times like this to support the entire retail community. We will continue to share the experiences, the best practices, and the wisdom we learn from our customers with the broader retail community.