Adapting to the COVID-19 Reality in Retail

Adapting to the COVID-19 Reality in Retail featured image

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced changing consumer shopping habits, and retail organizations are looking for innovative ways to adapt to the current reality. With Stay-at-Home orders and social distancing guidelines, some retailers are having to close while others are looking for more staff to meet the increasing demand for specific items. 

We are seeing volume increases in digital purchasing, which is stressing those systems and processes well beyond expected levels. Consumers are buying online, more and more. They are looking for curbside and parking lot pickup, and even delivery for items they'd typically go into the store to buy. Many companies are providing these services for the very first time, while others that have offered them are seeing massively expanded demand.   

More paramount than logistical challenges is limiting the spread of COVID-19 among workforces and shoppers. Organizations are taking new cleaning steps—you'll see complete wipe downs of self-checkout kiosks after every customer, for example. Retailers also need to protect their employees by managing quarantines and potential exposures. Protecting shoppers comes with store distancing and six-foot line markers at checkout, limiting the total number of customers in a store at once, and providing special shopping hours for the most vulnerable populations.  

Several industries have been able to keep employees on the payroll while requiring them to work from home. That works at the corporate level in retail—but the reality of the supply chain is that people must be in the same facilities—be it a farm, factory, warehouse, or store—to do their work.  

The Great Retail Divide 

Not all retailers have been impacted in the same way. Some have been hit with massive layoffs, while others have seen a shift of labor to support the supply chain to the consumerHere are examples of large retailer organizations that have expanded hiring in specific areas:

  • Instacart says it's looking to hire 300,000 contract workers over the next three months. 
  • Walmart announced that it would hire 150,000 workers for its distribution and fulfillment centers. 
  • Amazon says it's looking to hire 100,000 new workers for its fulfillment centers and delivery network. 
  • CVS Health is hiring 50,000 employees to serve in various capacities across its business. 
  • Dollar General says it's looking to add 50,000 employees by the end of April. 
  • Pizza Hut is hiring 30,000 permanent employees to serve as drivers, shift leaders, cooks, and managers. 
  • Lowe's is hiring 30,000 employees to meet the demand created by the coronavirus. 
  • Dollar Tree, which is also the parent company of Family Dollar, is hiring 25,000 workers for its stores and distribution centers. 
  • Walgreens is hiring 25,000 employees for permanent and temporary roles. 
  • 7-Eleven is hiring up to 20,000 employees due to increased demand. 
  • Kroger is looking to hire an additional 20,000 workers across the U.S. 

Many of these companies have been deemed "essential" by government agencies—providing necessary goods and services. Others not on this list have been deemed non-essential or have chosen to close temporarily or cut hours to protect employees and allow them to seek unemployment insurance.  

The Importance of Leadership During the COVID-19 Crisis 

Retail executives must be a reassuring force for employees, partners, and customers during this challenging environment. The decisions that leaders make and the steps they take will define their brands for years to come.  

Some companies are taking steps to offer assistance or relief during the pandemic. Walgreens and Walmart are providing COVID-19 testing. Target, Costco, and others close on Easter Sunday to give employees a break. Nike has set up a special response fund, while its executives and those at many other organizations are making large donations. 

Small businesses have made an impact, as well. For example, restaurants that are open and offering to-go options have opted to donate meals to first responders and hospitals, while also offering the opportunity for their customers to purchase and donate meals. This serves two-fold—they are providing a service to those on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also giving their employees a chance to continue working.  

Other small businesses have offered to donate portions of their proceeds on certain items, while some have provided employee labor and supplies to put together masks, hand sanitizer, and other helpful items.  

Uncertainty and a Post-COVID-19 World 

These changes to consumer behavior aren't new—delivery, pickup, and online shopping have been growing for a long time. Companies are currently stretching their resources to make this work—so when is the right time to make capital investments to expand their infrastructure? For some, that need may be immediate.  

For others, it will be more prudent to wait until the curve flattens. Making that investment now, if it is feasible, may provide an opportunity to keep employees working during this time.  

Will, many of these changes, remain after the COVID-19 pandemic is over? It seems likely. Companies may find more value in offering remote work for employees, while consumers will find the convenience of digital commerce and continue looking for delivery and pickup options. There will also be steps taken to make sure the economy is more resilient to a future pandemic or crisis. 

This is an uncertain period for the world at large. Retailers of all types are directly impacted by and can have a direct impact on the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge to retailers is to stay agile and creative while ensuring the safety of customers and employeesTaking these steps will only help in transitioning from reacting to the current situation and growing successfully as we all move forward.