The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

Staying In The Retail Lane


The human species is nothing if not determined to prove its dominion over all it sees. We are in a pitched battle against an invisible enemy, COVID-19. And here we are, with all that “dominion” finding ourselves essentially helpless against a single strand of RNA surrounded by a layer of fat and a corona of protein. The worldwide economy has basically shut down, excepting businesses declared “essential” in any given state or country.

The retail workforce, especially in food and drug, has gone from fungible to critical. From the backwaters to the front lines. And soon, given our eagerness in the US to prove that we can make the economy hum again, states like Georgia are opening whole new sectors of the retail economy despite the best advice of any medical expert. Dominion.

And that brings me to the subject of this piece. Advice and counsel vs. opinion, confusion and action. Everyone has a role to play, and we need to learn how to play it. Our lane is retail. We have a lot to think about.

Here’s an apt analogy. Back when I was working in IT, the sudden explosion of PCs in the late 80’s and early 90’s started a trend that we’re still living with today: in the retail organization, every line of business leader was able to find a few thousand dollars in their own budgets to buy a Compaq, Mac or other clone. They learned to use WordPerfect, FoxPro and Lotus 1-2-3 (yes, MS Office was yet to become ubiquitous). And just like that, within a matter of months, IT had a whole new generation of critics and artisans.

“Well, my guy was able to put together a great database for us using [insert name of long-dead database program here]. We can’t wait for you anymore.” That was all well and good until “the guy” left, leaving the business user without any support, but with new demands for IT. “I can’t run my business without this. You have to support the thing.”

This phenomenon has evolved and morphed into budgets for technology living in the hands of line of business (LOB) execs, and IT often treated as a necessary group of “plumbers” to tie all the things together that these LOB execs buy. We seem to have more technology in our hands than ever before, but often it just doesn’t live up to expectations. The data is not so clean, the results somewhat imperfect. But there must be a magic bullet out there to make the problems go away, right? We see that in our benchmarks a lot. We need our data cleaned. Surely [insert technology here] will solve it for us.

After taking the long way round, here’s the point. We are not amateur epidemiologists. We don’t need to make our own checklists for health and safety. We are the retail ecosystem. And here’s what we have to figure out. For real. What the heck are we going to do with all our mall-based stores? Anchor stores (typically department stores) are in serious trouble. We all know about JC Penney, Neiman-Marcus and (maybe) Macy’s. We know Gap announced it can’t pay its rent. Now what?

Here’s another question: How are we going to protect and preserve our workforce? The presumption that the unemployed will come flocking to work in stores and distribution centers might just be flawed. Seriously…I wouldn’t go to work at a grocery store right now.

This is our lane. We’re in the retail industry. And the core questions are not “When do we get to open the doors and what has to be in place?” The questions are, “What is it going to take to survive?” “What should our stores look like?” “What are consumers going to want?”

And finally, “What the heck are we going to do about our supply chain?” It’s too slow, unwieldy and very difficult to adjust to changes in demand. Whether you’re talking about apparel deliveries from the Far East or toilet paper deliveries from the USA, something is wrong. Sure, blame it on hoarding. I think that’s a red herring. Consumers have been pantry packing every time stores run promotions forever.

Not just retailers, but retailers and their suppliers must do some serious soul-searching. How do we justify our existence in a post-COVID world?

Let the epidemiologists tell us what we must do to make our stores safe. Participate in the conversations; retailers likely know the nuances of running stores and distribution centers more than doctors do. But let the people do their jobs. Then make sure you have the tools in place to monitor compliance. Just like back in the 80’s and 90’s, I really wished the line of business users would have let IT do our jobs once they told us what the requirements were. We would have delivered.

RSR has been studying the store for a long time. Every year, retailers tell us, “if only we had the money, we’d keep our stores and restrooms cleaner.” Well, guess what? It’s time. There is no longer a choice. And more, we need to find out exactly what “clean” looks like in a post-COVID world. And it might well be that outside companies are required to actually do that cleaning.

We have a lane. This lane is going to have some serious bumps and turns in it over the coming year or two. Think about what you want to be, how you can work with your suppliers to keep things smooth and minimize losses. Most importantly, expect that things will not go as you suspected. There is still too much we don’t know.

Well, I guess I know one thing. Dominion was an illusion, and the planet is reminding us of that in every way possible. I wish us all good luck and Godspeed. This is not an “event.” This is going to be a way of life for a while. We have to deal with it.

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Articles & Opinions April 28, 2020
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