The global COVID-19 pandemic is creating an acceleration of trends underway in the retail sector, with innovators being rewarded and undiversified businesses struggling more than ever. Ultimately, all industry stakeholders will need to work hard to rebuild confidence once regular operations resume, according to retail expert Carl Boutet, the Chief Strategist and Board Advisor for Studio RX for retail strategies.
“I think we’re going to look back on this crisis as ‘the great acceleration’,” Boutet said in an interview with Retail Insider. “It’s hastened the inevitable.”
Retailers that were struggling prior to the onset of the global health crisis, he said, are now having a much harder time, and in some cases are being forced to close their doors permanently. “This makes it difficult for them to have any sort of runway to turn things around.”
In contrast, those companies that had taken the necessary steps to position themselves for resilience have had an easier time navigating the crisis.
“It exacerbates the polarization of the ones that were doing well vs. the ones that weren’t,” Boutet said.
There are certain exceptions, however, in which retailers that had been thriving prior to the crisis are now having a much harder time, and vice versa. For example, Boutet said in the past couple of years, he noticed consumers becoming more engaged with local, independent, high-touch retail stores.
“These last eight weeks have been particularly hard on them because they just didn’t have as many resources to begin with,” he said. “This crisis has taken a lot of wind out of their sails.”
Government support measures are likely helping these retailers stay afloat, however it remains to be seen whether consumers will be enthusiastic about returning to these types of stores once the lockdown measures are lifted. “It’s too early to tell,” Boutet said.
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At the same time, certain niche e-commerce retailers had faced difficulties prior to the onset of the pandemic, but have seen a surge in sales since the social distancing measures came into place. For example, online furniture retailer Wayfair has long been struggling to earn a profit. During the month of March and into early April, however, the company reported that its rate of revenue growth more than doubled to around 40%, as more consumers turned online for their furniture needs.
For some categories of goods, the growth in online shopping that has occurred over the course of the past two months is likely to be a long-term trend, according to Boutet. This includes non-discretionary and essential goods, such as groceries and detergent, which the vast majority of customers have previously purchased in store rather than online. With many consumers now having experienced the convenience of having these items delivered to their door, Boutet said online shopping could become the preferred shopping channel even after the pandemic. “That’s a habit that I suspect will stick past this,” he said.
For some retailers, the pandemic has been the motivating factor needed to ramp up e-commerce capabilities or otherwise innovate much faster than originally planned. For companies that had planned to introduce e-commerce capabilities in the next year or two, for example, the lock-down measures have forced them to implement such capabilities in a matter of weeks.
Other retailers have been successful at adapting to the current environment by shifting their business models. For example, Montreal-based micro coffee roaster Barista, which has traditionally focused on a B2B model of selling to restaurants and cafes, has had success with expanding its direct-to-consumer business in recent weeks. Among its consumer offerings is a subscription service that lets coffee lovers have freshly roasted coffee delivered to their doorstep as frequently as they like. This has helped to cushion the blow from the decline in restaurant sales since the lockdown began, Boutet said.
Agility and resilience, he said, have become more critical than ever. “This stresses the importance of having a diversified business model,” he said.
For the entire retail industry, Boutet said, recovering from the significant impacts of this pandemic will require major efforts in regaining confidence. “The next 12 months are going to have to be about building confidence,” he said. That includes not only retailers creating safe environments for customers and employees, but also ensuring strong relationships with business partners, such as landlords and suppliers.
“In retail we focus a lot on the front end and what we see happening at the store level, but there’s so much more happening behind that and it trickles down,” Boutet said. “A retail industry that suffers goes way further than what you see just in the store—it’s a substantial part of the economy that runs through retail channels.”
Megan Harman is a business reporter based in Toronto. She writes about topics including retail, financial services and technology. Megan covers Toronto’s retail industry through her blog Retail Realm (torontoretail.wordpress.com). Follow her on Twitter at @meganmharman