I wonder what we’re going to say when we look back at this time in five or 10 years?
I recently had dinner with a few people close to me, and I discovered that they’ve maintained a detailed list of each place they visited outside of the home since the beginning of COVID-19. It lists the date, time, location and granular details such as which gas pumps they touched.
Their rationale was simple: They wanted to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. They were trying to be responsible. As many of us look back on our own behaviors, I’m sure we can point to specific actions that were driven by the same desire — even if they were less extreme. I can certainly attest to this. Living with a high-risk spouse, you quickly determine your risk tolerance and adjust your behavior accordingly.
I wonder how this will all change as more Americans become vaccinated. My wife and I were recently able to schedule our appointments, and it’s interesting what a difference that made in my outlook. It was like a gust of fresh air suddenly swept away a fog that I didn’t even realize was there.
But we’ve lived with this for a long time. The sudden upheavals of our day-to-day routines that began last March and April quickly dissolved into the familiar as the situation continued to drag on. For all the talk of “when we get back to normal,” there are many for whom this lifestyle has become normal. Some are even apprehensive about going back.
That aside, I have little doubt that we’re about to see a release of pent-up demand. I think we all feel it. But as we move forward, I also think we’re also going to need some time to process what exactly happened here. This was weird. It’s still weird.
I’m full of questions and short on answers, but here’s a few things that I’ve taken away from the past year.
Perception Isn’t Always Reality
Every company tells a story about itself. The problem is that these stories can quickly become fictitious if their veracity goes unchecked.
When I give presentations to corporate groups, I emphasize the importance of making frequent visits as a customer. Lose the suit, don’t identify yourself, and see what it’s really like. Order breakfast, try to assemble a dinner, stop for snacks late at night — literally sit on a toilet and see if you’re comfortable with the design and upkeep of the restrooms. It’s crude, but it works.
With this past year having normalized remote work arrangements, I suspect that the risk of disconnect is even higher. There are of course exceptions, as some retailers have been diligent about spending time in their stores, but this is important for the entire team — not just a few select leaders.
The risk of not doing this is ending up like Macy’s. Their recent earnings call may claim that customer satisfaction scores are up and the in-store experience is improved, but a visit to their stores will reveal that something is definitely broken.
And it’s not just retailers. If vendors and suppliers want to be effective in their roles, then they need to know what it’s like on the ground. I would also argue that marketing and advertising agencies are unlikely to build effective campaigns if their understanding of their clients — and the industry in general — is limited to what they read on a screen.
Clean and Safe Are Non-Negotiable
Speaking of the in-store experience, I believe this past year has only strengthened the arguments for investing in the basics of cleanliness and safety. Customers are likely to exit this pandemic with heightened expectations.
Perhaps I’m biased because of my involvement with the Safe Shop Assured certification program, but I do believe the bill is coming due for brands that neglect these things. If COVID-19 were a dress rehearsal for a time when challenging headwinds in fuel demand are more pronounced, then retailers are tasked with creating stores capable of standing on their own with or without fuel. A portfolio full of stores with two-star ratings on Google Maps is a sign that corrective action is needed right now.
It’s also prudent from a financial perspective. Neglect of the customer experience can create a negative feedback loop that’s difficult to reverse. By the time a retailer realizes their mistake, they may have chased off so many customers that it’s hard to justify the cost of a refresh. The only option at that point may be to sell at a low valuation or accept that the brand itself is more of a liability than an asset.
Mobile Apps Need Relevant Functionality
I’ve occasionally encountered a narrative that mobile apps were a lifeline to retailers during the onset of the pandemic. While I suppose that’s true in some cases, I suspect that the opposite may also be true.
The past few years witnessed a rollout of mobile apps designed almost exclusively to promote discounts and rewards. When the pandemic created apprehension about visiting physical stores, many of these apps were unable to meet the needs of customers asking for delivery, curbside or customized meals. This is in stark contrast to brands like Domino’s that had a mobile ordering strategy in place for nearly 10 years. Even now, some retailers continue to rely on phone calls to initiate curbside orders.
But it’s encouraging to see that many retailers now take a broader view of how their mobile apps can support their businesses, and a lot of work has been made on this front in the past year. I suppose it remains to be seen how sticky some of these pandemic behaviors will be in the long run. I just wouldn’t bet against consumers continuing to seek new forms of convenience.
Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, industry events are returning soon, and I can’t wait to discuss this with all of you in person. I’ve never been so excited to buy a round of drinks.