6 Lessons Retailers Learned During an Unprecedented Year

Written by Mike Whitaker

April 12, 2021

forest woods

Imagine, for a moment, being alone in the woods. The sky is pitch black and visibility is zero. However, you must find your way out of those woods. No trusty cell phone with a flashlight. You must simply put one foot in front of the other and begin walking. Uneven terrain, trees and other obstacles, and the sounds of the unknown are all around. Feeling a bit uneasy? Or perhaps you’re a retail leader, and this sounds like 2020 in a nutshell.

I won’t spend time here recounting the challenges of the past year. They were too many to number. However, as JFK said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” To lead was to learn, and independent retailers have adapted with a speed and grace that belies the levels of stress they carried, the long hours they worked and the sheer magnitude of what they were up against. However, the best lessons are those we leverage going forward, and as the pandemic begins to subside, the most successful leaders will lean on their learnings of these past 12 months to take their teams and their businesses to new levels.

What, as a collective, did we learn? The lessons were many and varied across regions, categories and individual businesses — but many were universal. Here’s a look at the six most frequently mentioned lessons learned from independent retail business owners over the past few months.

1. Shopper behavior can change in a heartbeat. One year ago, independents would have laughed at the notion of video consultations, appointment shopping and an exponential rise in ecommerce for durable goods. Chat wasn’t prevalent in the industry, and websites, for many, were still a second or third tier priority. In the blink of an eye that changed. The pace of change isn’t subsiding, and great retail leaders will be ready.

2. Technology is your best friend. Independent dealers have historically been slower than the industry in embracing the digital movement. The shift to digital was picking up steam but leapt ahead at breakneck speed in 2020. Leaders realized that success – even survival – hinged on the right tools and tech to continue engaging shoppers, even when the doors were closed. These integrations will continue, and the connectivity they bring will propel the best leaders and their companies to the front of the line for the evolving shopper.

3. Sell what’s in stock. The practice of just-in-time inventory is dead. Instead, leaders realize the vulnerability of supply chains and the importance of maintaining the highest level of on-hand inventory possible. Nothing hurts more than an inability to serve a customer who is ready to purchase products you don’t have in your store. In stock, on hand and ready to deliver wins the day.

4. Diversify your supplier base. The old adage about not putting all of your eggs in one basket comes to mind here. It’s not just about having multiple suppliers, though. It’s about reliability, location and strong partnerships. A merchandising plan that allows quick shifts, easy logic and high probability of availability can’t be missed.

5. Put your people first. 2020 was the longest period of uncertainty your team has ever faced. As most retailers explored risk management and agile work arrangements at record levels, increasing the morale of teams has never been more important. Savvy leaders have engaged their teams at record levels. As a result, they’re keeping their best people, attracting top talent and building their team of the future today.

6. Overprepare. Most retail leaders felt prepared for 2020. As the pandemic took hold, it became quite evident that most simply were not. However, those who had built their digital infrastructure, invested in their teams, diversified their supplier base and, as a result, were able to quickly adapt, won. Those who were playing catch-up and tending to all the things they’d previously procrastinated suffered. Now we ponder what comes next. And those who will win in 2021 and beyond are preparing right now, not knowing the full answer. Join them.

This article was first published in the March 2021 issue of Retail Observer.


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