What if… Stores Reopen, but Differently?

May 28, 2020 John McLaughlin

The vast majority of ‘bricks and mortar’ shops pulled down their shutters a couple of months ago. This was in response to government demands for people to stay at home and shop only for essentials.

Retailers with an existing online presence and e-commerce capability shifted operations. Essential retailers, such as supermarkets and pharmacies, remained open with social distancing measures in place. Shoppers strengthened an already well-used online shopping muscle.

But what happens next? What happens to retail stores now that countries start to lift lockdown and people begin to shop again? Will buyers have the confidence to return? And, importantly, will they even want to go back to in-store shopping?

Rethinking What Retailers Do

The reality is that a physical store can still have a role to play, even in a predominantly online retail business. The building is unused and rent is still being collected; however, it may need to be repurposed. The workforce is already in place and ready to return to work – but may need new skills.

It could be time to rethink the balance between physical store and online sales. However, keep in mind that moving online has its own distribution challenges.

The current situation gives retailers the opportunity to rethink supply chains and reimagine how stores could function, how they could look and how products could be delivered to customers.

Operational focus could shift from shop floor to warehouse. Bricks and mortar stores could be partitioned. A smaller customer-facing, brand-supporting, experience-providing shop is coupled with a larger, hidden from sight, back office and distribution area. It means that both in-person shoppers and online customer sales happen in one place.

This isn’t new. Think about high-end boutique retailers. Those who epitomise the brand act as brand ambassadors at the front of the shop. They possess in-depth product knowledge, strong customer service and are good at building relationships and brand loyalty. Such boutiques have already changed the way they operate. Not only do they serve customers, but they also act as a distribution centre for online sales by packing and despatching orders.

Some larger retail chains were already rethinking their city centre presence before 2020. For example, IKEA opened its first city centre location that showcased its home-creating philosophy and helping shoppers imagine their updated home. Shoppers can see and experience the products, purchase smaller items and order online. This scenario moves IKEA away from the out-of-town megastore and towards spontaneous shopping which is associated with being in the city centre.

What of the Current Talent?

Upskilling and reskilling are needed. Redeploying the existing product-savvy and reliable talent pool into the e-commerce business.

Sales associates could become valuable warehouse and stock control team members. Store managers could have wider remits. They no longer focus on maximising shop floor sales, with little need to be involved in other parts of the logistics chain. Now they explore how best to serve their local markets, offer the product and shopping experience and manage purchase fulfilment. In short, a store manager becomes a digital leader.

Digital Leader

Digital leadership is not simply about making use of digital channels. It is about agility and exploiting constant change, being resilient and curious about how best to improve and develop the business – and having the ability to learn what is needed, and quickly. In an environment of constant change, the leader’s role will continuously evolve – and this doesn’t just apply to current store managers. One could argue that, in today’s environment, all leaders are digital leaders.

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About the Author

John McLaughlin

John has worked for Aon’s Assessment Solutions for 10 years in a variety of roles and geographies across Europe, South America, and North America. This in-market experience combined with his current role as the global commercial director for the group leads to an in-depth knowledge of global trends impacting talent strategies across all organizations.

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