Focusing on the Future: Retail Life after COVID-19

Written by Lee McDonald

November 18, 2020

On July 4, 1872, in a small hamlet in upstate Vermont, a boy named John was born into a middle-class family of independent retailers. His mother and father were farmers who also owned the local general store and post office in Vermont’s rolling Green Mountain range.

Tracing their ancestry back generations, his family had been a part of the local fabric of Plymouth Notch from before the town had a name.

As a boy, John had little ambition outside of being an honest and hardworking small-town business owner like his father before him. Although a quiet child, John was exposed to the principles of hard work and humility, earning himself a reputation as a dutiful overseer of his family’s businesses.

John would eventually leave the family business to practice law, but the lessons of his youth had a lasting impression and formed the foundation of his character for the rest of his life.

On August 2, 1923, John was woken urgently in the early hours of the morning – then-President Warren Harding had died of cardiac arrest while in San Francisco the night before. John’s father, a justice of the peace and public notary, brought the family Bible and presented it to his son. A man of few words and fanfare, President John Calvin Coolidge was sworn in at 2:47 a.m. by candlelight and promptly returned to bed.

Coolidge would go on to guide America into a period of economic boom, ushering in the roaring ‘20s while passing extensive tax reform and helping rebuild a wounded American economy following the disaster of the Great War.

What This Means for Today

Fresh off several scandals and facing an administration rife with corruption, Coolidge saw the path forward through investing in the preservation and strength of the American economy. Coolidge was focused on the future of the American economy, just as we need to focus on the future of retail business in 2021 and beyond.

If you are anything like me, you are exhausted from reading every dissection and lookback of the past several months. Undoubtedly COVID-19 has changed our retail landscape, but I do not believe COVID-19 introduced new problems; it just served to shine a spotlight on pre-existing challenges.

Independent retailers didn’t suddenly start having issues with finding and retaining employees; it’s always been a challenge.

Independent retailers didn’t suddenly struggle to get their fair share of inventory compared to national retail; it’s always been difficult.

Independent retailers weren’t suddenly leagues behind their national competition with regards to digital marketing and e-commerce; it’s been a growing problem for years.

Just as Coolidge was focused on making investments in the economy of the ‘20s to prepare for the needs of the future, today’s retailers must strive to make investments in their business now, so they are prepared for whatever fresh challenges 2021 brings.

For some of you, investing in your business means ensuring your digital marketing plan is sound, delivering the results you deserve. For others, it will be to hire and build a bench of talented employees, deploy digital price tags, or perhaps even open new locations or add new categories to your existing business.

Whichever path presents itself as the best long-term opportunity for your business, I implore you to act now, if for no other reason than to be able to look back next year, the year after, or sometime in the distant future and say your actions helped you weather new storms and face new challenges, and allowed you to afford the improvements of tomorrow.

In closing, I’ll share another quote from President Coolidge. When pressed on how he planned to accomplish so much of his agenda despite facing the headwinds from the Great War, corruption, the Spanish Flu and other countless challenges, he said this:

“I have found it advisable not to give too much heed to what people say when I am trying to accomplish something of consequence. Invariably they proclaim it can’t be done – I deem that the very best time to make the effort.” 

This article was first published in the November 2020 issue of Retail Observer.

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