Getting retailers ready for business post-lockdown

By Alex MacPherson, Director of Solution Consultancy, Manhattan Associates.

The retail sector is in a state of flux. Whilst eCommerce sales might still be surpassing all expectations, many retail stores are still closed, awaiting Government guidance as to when they might be able to open again.

Despite lockdowns however, retailers still have stock to shift and a customer experience promise to deliver. Over the last month, we’ve seen many retailers make rapid changes to their operations; opening eCommerce stores, fulfilling orders from stores, using ‘dark sites’ or simply reducing product ranges. 

As retail expectantly anticipates a post-COVID-19 future there are still many unanswered questions: how will global supply chains be impacted by fulfilment delays in materials or parts that are sourced from other countries? Will retailers decide to discount current stock to make way for new season items, or adjust their product range to ensure they’re giving consumers what they want? When will stores be able to reopen fully, and when they do, how eager will consumers be to pick up where they left off?

With so many questions and currently very few answers, retailers are taking charge and doing what they can to start making informed decisions to prepare them for various scenarios. 

Preparing for changes in store 

Returning to stores will be a big moral boost for a large part of the UK population, not to mention retailers. Even when the lockdown restrictions have been lifted, many consumers are likely to remain very cautious about leaving their homes and retailers must take this into account. 

Simply creating more space in the store so that consumers can still keep their distance will reassure customers that precautions are being taken. The checkout experience is likely to continue changing dramatically, with fewer tills able to open, longer queues due to the distance between each customer and perhaps even less staff on the shop floor. Retailers may want to consider introducing contactless checkout options to keep customers safe and make the experience worry-free. 

On the other hand, while many consumers will still be wary, others will be ready to hit the shops and get the social interaction they’ve been missing. There will be some people that haven’t had any form of human interaction for months and will be ready to leave their homes when the UK government gives the green light. 

For this scenario, it’s essential that retailers prepare for a Black Friday or Boxing Day-like frenzy that could happen as a result of consumers rushing to the shops to get the items they’ve been waiting to buy. This is especially true for the retailers that made the decision at the end of March to close both their online and offline stores completely. 

Driving customers to stores through Click and Collect delivery options will be a key way for retailers to connect their omnichannel experience once again. However, having the right infrastructure to fulfil these orders without creating a backlog of queues will be vital to making this a seamless and safe experience. 

Plan A, B, C, D

Underpinning all these possible scenarios and options is the ability to have a flexible supply chain with clear visibility of each part of the network. 

Changes to stores will be crucial, but so will be having the right stock in the right place at the right time. For fashion retailers the challenge is magnified by a need to have the right combination of discounted stock, coupled with new season pieces that consumers will be eager to purchase. 

With an agile, flexible supply chain in place, retailers will then be able to seamlessly ship inventory from different parts of the country to reach consumers quickly, or even switch parts of the network on and off as needed to cope with fluctuations in demand. 

No one could have forecasted the dramatic changes that COVID-19 would have caused to both individuals and businesses across the globe – some consumer behaviors were accelerated, while some entirely new trends emerged.

As countries (across the globe) begin to relax lockdown rules there does now seem to be an end in sight to the crisis and retailers must now start proactively laying down plans for whatever the ‘new normal’ might look like.

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