Coronavirus | Independent Retailers | Marketing & Merchandising

The return of retail street fighting

May 21, 2020
The return of retail street fighting

By George Minakakis, CEO of Inception Retail Group and former retail CEO

Let’s cut to the chase: COVID-19 has created a visible flood of challenges for retailers, leaving many in an awkward position to fight and regain what share of the market was theirs before the shutdown. There is no playbook for this, and small businesses are rightfully worried. There will be retailers who will survive and grow and it won’t necessarily be only the larger retailers. If you intend to stay in for the fight, then you need to begin developing a short and mid-term game plan and that means the first 90-120 days of recovery will be the most critical time.  

This recovery will be about a grassroots retail fight, good old-fashioned local store marketing, with a twist of technology and digital strategies. 

Retailers have shared their concerns and challenges about reopening. I heard a few of them the other day and what they are facing is humbling – my heart goes out to them. Even though I spent a career leading retail chains globally, my parents were entrepreneurs, and I know what it means when your business income is your household income. Not being in control of your destiny is disheartening to all business owners.  

This first phase of reopening is about consumers testing their own comfort with shopping in person again, of course, with a mask, gloves, and social distancing. All businesses are just as nervous about restarting from ground zero, and with little-to-no sales. From my perspective that makes it a level playing field. Nevertheless, nothing in business is ever without risks.            

You have to be a fighter to start a business in this environment. I have taken what I learned from my family and applied it to my corporate life. I have turned around struggling retail chains on the brink of being shut down, launched a 200 store premium chain in China, and been involved in acquiring and rebranding tired retail brands into new ones. The risk of failure has always been around me. I’ve learned that managing through difficult times is about your leadership skills, and one’s willingness or appetite to take risks. That’s the difference between winning in the marketplace and just surviving or failing in one.  

The current situation requires entrepreneurial thinking and behaviours. What this does is forces us to work and plan at a different level and pace. In my opinion, retailers big and small have forgotten their entrepreneurial roots. Success and time does that to all of us. We all need to bring something back into the game; I prefer to call it ‘retail street fighting’, whether that is in the physical space, virtual, or both. This recovery will be about a grassroots retail fight, good old-fashioned local store marketing, with a twist of technology and digital strategies. 

Many don’t realize that turning a business around or launching a start-up is, in principle, the same thing except one is new, and the other is being transformed.

It will likely become an ultra-competitive marketplace with fewer competitors. They too have resolved to reopen and rebuild their businesses. If you are up for the fight, don’t wait for government intervention; that is only a temporary measure and this will be a long journey. It is understandable if you are overwhelmed with how to protect what you’ve built and your income. If you plan on reopening you will need to adopt a different mindset; you should be thinking and planning how to get back to your baseline in this market. What’s the baseline? Breakeven! What will it take to get to that first important milestone? How long can you wait? What resources do you need? Who can you count on to help you get there?  

Many don’t realize that turning a business around or launching a start-up is, in principle, the same thing except one is new, and the other is being transformed. This period of re-opening for me is the same challenge; few, if any, have the best advantage. If there are weaknesses in your operations that need to be resolved – get it done now!

As a street fighter, you should continuously ask one question. “What else can we do?” It forces you to look at every problem with a perspective that it can be resolved and changed through innovative thinking. Whether that is driven by technology or operational enhancements. But you never stop peeling away at that problem until you find a deliverable that creates a higher level of service, quality, and performance. It may be something that consumers will attach to your brand. I’ve applied this lesson to every brand I led, and country I was in; it works, and it requires a lot of planning, discipline, and robust decision making.

Why do the first 90-120 days of re-opening matter the most?

Because, your competitive resilience needs to be at a high level and understanding your financial and operational strengths and opportunities is also part of your baseline. This is an important starting point to decide whether or not you can re-open. So, what’s your plan? What resources do you need? How will you execute it? How fast can you act on your plan?   

A single store operator can improve their customer experience faster than most retail chains.

Customer experience is still the strategy of choice; by staying connected with your past customers, delivering exceptional service, you can retain loyalty. Every non-essential business will be starting with little-to-no sales or traffic. Sure, some have more resources than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the winner. I have always believed that a single store operator can improve their customer experience faster than most retail chains. If you are in for the fight, the customer journey you deliver needs to be consistent to be meaningful. 

This is a grassroots transformation of all businesses. Whether you are in a shopping centre or street location, you should consider the following: 

  • Work on your local store marketing. Yes, that means knocking on real doors and virtual ones, most of your customers are local.  
  • There is no better source in relaunching your business than past customers. The trick is to keep them engaged throughout this period and regularly with concern about them, not about your business. 
  • Create alliances with complementary retailers and other businesses. Helping one another to rebuild is an essential strategy. I have seen it work elsewhere around the world. Local restaurants will be a good alliance, as they will also need referrals.  
  • Your marketing plan needs to be fluid. Dial-up your social media campaign, get your messaging right, and plan it out in advance, be very visible. Keep it fresh and light. Remember, whatever message hits the heart stays on ones’ mind. 
  • Tell the public how you are dealing with the pandemic and the level of services you provide such as curbside, delivery, appointments, and how personalized you can make them.
  • As the business develops closer to pre-pandemic levels, and it will; don’t stop innovating and investing in technology

Be prepared that this is going to take time. Some retailers may initially experience pent up demand, but don’t rest for a moment and think that things are back to normal. Visits may be short and sporadic with specific purchases. You need to be grateful for every transaction and let your customers know. 

I will leave you with this: While these are unprecedented times, they are not new to humanity. I have researched businesses that have been around for as long as a millennium. Yes, they do exist. There are thousands of small businesses around the world that are more than 100 years old. Their business activities have been interrupted many times; surviving wars, famine, pandemics, economic turmoil, technological change, environmental catastrophes, and even a few political tyrants. Many are independent businesses, made up of retailers, restaurants, hotels, confectionaries, and winemakers, just to list a few. How did they survive? They adapted to change, adopted new learning, and retained their culture by passing their knowledge down from one generation to another. As a result, they stayed relevant and were able to conduct business when they reopened.  

George Minakakis is the CEO of Inception Retail Group Inc., Author of The Great Transition, The Emergence of Unconventional Leadership and a former retail CEO with experience in Canada, USA, Australia, China and Europe.

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