The pandemic playbook, for retailers

If you’re a retailer, chances are the ‘new normal’ has left you in a little bit of a lurch. Frankly, it’s easy to see why. It’s not like there’s a pandemic playbook you can, you know, just find online at the drop of a hat…

Or, is there?

I put this piece together to provide retailers with pointers on surviving and, dare I say it, thriving during these uncertain times. But before we get this thing rolling, one theme we’ve picked up from numerous players in the retail space is the importance of putting talent first. That means continuing to invest in your employees. Seriously. It will not fail you. Putting systems and programs in place to support your team and keep them safe will pay dividends in the long term. I cannot overstate this.

Assuming you’ve done right by your people, who play a central role in what you do, it’s time to focus on your business, so let’s do that.

Pointer 1: Yesterday’s goals don’t apply to today’s world

If you haven’t adapted your business goals to fit in today’s world, you really should. After all, the very definition of success has changed.

Part of that means defining new KPIs that speak to where your business is at, and where you want it to be in the future. For example, with digital channels, the Holy Grail KPI of yore was conversion rates. I’m not disputing whether this is still an extremely important metric (it is), just pointing out that the retailers I’ve spoken to and worked with have all experienced a paradigm shift, and there’s been a greater emphasis on two different metrics.

  1. Net profit: Businesses aren’t converting at all costs anymore. Instead, they’re focusing on getting more for less, and that means allocating resources where they’ll drive the greatest impact.

  2. Customer acquisition cost: Similarly, due to cost containment measures, businesses are looking for low-hanging fruit instead of expensive customer acquisition plays, like blanket offers and mass discounts.

Once you understand what you’re trying to achieve and how to measure against it, you’ll need to spot those troublesome gaps that are preventing you from getting to where you want to go. Now, this can be tricky, since each business has its own very unique set of challenges, not to mention the very real constraints that have recently popped up—like cost containment measures.

Thankfully, humans are creative beings, and with a bit of flex, you can find unorthodox solutions that flip the script. Let’s look at a real-life example to make all of this a little less… nebulous.

We’re currently working with a grocer that isn’t far along in their ecommerce journey. They have an immediate need to curtail high in-store traffic peaks to ensure that their stores provide a safe experience for customers and employees. We are helping them by incentivizing customers through online and mobile offers to shop during certain time frames. This is not an ecommerce solution, but they are able to tackle some of the challenges they are facing with data. Furthermore, they’re establishing brand loyalty by creating a responsive, and safe, in-store shopping experience.

Which brings me to one last thing for this pointer, and that’s demonstrating real empathy. Obviously, talking the talk is important, and we’ve seen no shortage of email outreach campaigns with pithy subject lines like: “We’re in this together” but walking the walk is equally, if not more important, and finding ways that put your customers and business first are critical.



Pointer 2: Digital = adaptable

It’s no secret—businesses are flocking online. The City of Toronto, in partnership with other key stakeholders, has recently launched a new initiative to help local retailers make the shift online in an effort to reduce the stress caused by COVID. We’re seeing this trend across industries and businesses of all sizes.

This is all to say that many retailers are adopting a digital-first mindset. They understand that in this new world, the digital channel may very well become the primary sales and marketing channel for business. And just because you have an ecommerce channel doesn’t mean your work is done. There’s also a real impetus to understand customer needs in real-time, and use that to double-down on digital commerce by expanding existing offerings and products and creating new lines of services. This will pay dividends in the long run.

So, what does this look like?

Many businesses are embedding digital capabilities into their regular operations. For example, we’re seeing retailers allow associates to bring their in-store style of interactions online to consumers. Other stores are allowing consumers to try on merchandise using augmented reality. We’ve also seen a shift to more online video content, enabling consumers to have an immersive experience not unlike what they’d have IRL. Finally, delivery and service methods are changing. Businesses are taking advantage of curbside pickup, touchless payments, accelerated checkouts, and so on. These convenient models aren’t aberrations, either. They’ve become the norm.

The key to this paradigm shift to digital are insights. Vendors need real-time data and those who have it are likely to become the category leaders of tomorrow as they gain a deeper understanding of what consumers need in context and how to profitably fill those needs. That should be every retailers’ North Star.

Recently, we started working with a retailer that’s tapping into our consumer intelligence network to get real-time insights into purchasing behaviors across multiple industries (including the latest COVID data and trends). With machine learning and AI, we enable them to identify which consumers need an incentive to purchase and the most profitable incentive to deploy that’ll nudge them over the line. Examples like this highlight the importance of continuous testing and iteration, ensuring you stay relevant as the landscape continues to shift.

Pointer 3: Carpe momento, AKA seize the moment

These are unique and challenging times, but they also present an opportunity to connect with customers, to be authentic and to fill real needs in real-time. Brands that respond quickly to consumers and do so effectively both in terms of the service they provide and the profit it yields stand to become winners over the long term.

Although it may seem obvious, we believe the key to succeeding in the current environment is to create a win-win scenario for your business and your customers. You need to target the right people with the right products at the right prices to hit your business goals. It will help you manage this period and emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, with new customers who have an unbreakable emotional connection with you because you were there for them when they needed it the most.



About the author

Nick is the director of customer success and implementations at, where he drives measurable value for customers, grows the CS organization, and builds world-class enterprise software. Prior to, Nick was the head of product at Globalive Technology, and a management consultant executive at Accenture. Nick likes to DJ at friends’ parties, though he’ll deny it if you ask him. Also, he’s a huge comic book movie nerd.


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