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Wulfric Light-Wilkinson
Wulfric Light-Wilkinson 26 August 2021

Now is the Time to Embrace Digital: Why Strong Leadership Will be the Bedrock of Post-Pandemic Retail Success

An old adage suggests that a change is as good as a rest, but in the world of retail, nothing could be further from the truth. For retailers looking to thrive in a post-pandemic marketplace, the choice is clear: embrace change, or be usurped by those that do.

Change is a business necessity; it showcases a desire to do things better, to address and overcome challenges and hurdles, to welcome the new and renounce the outdated.

Rest, on the other hand, is to be avoided at all costs; to sit idle is to provide competitors an opportunity to get ahead, to reach out and entice your consumers, to adopt approaches, technologies and techniques that will make them not only more attractive, but more effective, capable and profitable.

Conquering a Black Swan

We are, as a species, always seeking ways to carry out tasks more efficiently. Often, such enhancements are incremental and occur relatively organically, but during ‘black swan’ events, when normal service is paused – the outbreak of Covid-19 being a prime example – the need to focus on immediate improvement can become a matter of life or death. 

For retailers, this was certainly the case.

All retailers have, broadly speaking, the same inherent goals; they want to provide products that are valuable, they want to engender customer loyalty, they want to grow, and they want to offer a shopping experience that consumers appreciate. 

Attaining these objectives is not easy, and they cannot be achieved overnight, but the pandemic meant that many retailers were forced to assess their operations and modify them to align with the evolving situation. Decisions had to be made quickly and confidently.

Over the last 18 months savvy retailers have put long-term plans on hold – or simply scrapped them entirely – and have instead focused on adapting and overcoming, overhauling their approaches and methods to reflect an entirely unforeseen shopping landscape. 

Committing to such levels of change, especially when key decisions are liable to be a step into the unknown, requires strong and innovative leadership. Leaders with ambition, determination and tenacity are best placed to drive such change, and such individuals must be willing to take calculated risks to ensure their business can stride confidently into the future.

In retail, such leaders can be the difference between a business thriving, and a business dying.

The Value of Leadership

Senior managers have always been crucial to retail success, but during the pandemic, their leadership was more essential than ever.

Not only were they tasked with stabilising businesses during a time of major uncertainty, but they also had to communicate clearly with employees, make difficult decisions quickly, and keep one eye on the future. For most people this would have been daunting, but enterprising leaders tend to thrive when faced with adversity.

According to a study carried out by the MIT Sloan School of Management, employees were ‘twice as likely to discuss the quality of communication by top leaders in positive terms during the months of the pandemic than they were a year earlier’, which goes some way to showcasing that, when embroiled in chaos and confusion, people appreciate decision-makers with the capacity to take charge.

The pandemic necessitated leaders step up and make a conscious effort to be as transparent as possible. They had to instigate change during an ever-changing set of circumstances, be it through the implementation of new ecommerce-centric technologies or by making redundancies, and they had to do it while simultaneously driving the business forward.

Throughout 2020 ecommerce became a lifeline for businesses and consumers alike, and most retailers realise that the wind is only blowing in one direction. While bricks and mortar stores will likely never die, ecommerce is going to play an increasingly pivotal role in all retailers’ plans going forward, and leaders must now think about how to build on their current digital channels to make them as beneficial as possible. 

Implementing the right strategies and employing appropriate technologies has never been more essential. Platforms and software that were previously deemed nice-to-haves are now business essentials, and retailers must harness such technology if they are to hold their own in a progressively competitive digital marketplace.  

The ‘New Normal’ 

The term ‘new normal’ has been used frequently throughout the Covid crisis, with the inference being that some elements of pre-pandemic are not going to return. For retailers, especially those that have previously rested upon their laurels and relied predominantly on reputation to entice consumers, this is something to be carefully considered. 

Progressive retailers have built sturdy foundations during the pandemic. By bolstering their ecommerce platforms, improving their ability to offer personalised messaging to consumers, and by building a marketing database full of engaged consumers, such retailers implemented changes that allowed them to survive during a period of mass upheaval, and will also play a crucial role in guaranteeing long-term business success.

However, while the pandemic has undoubtedly catalysed a shift to ecommerce, and has showcased its importance to retailers, research suggests that many are struggling to keep up with the pace of change.

According to a Google Cloud survey, only around half (51%) of retail executives believe their company is well prepared to effectively deal with the post-pandemic retail landscape, which most of them believe will be predominantly digital. 

It is the role of leaders to ensure progression. They will be central to crafting strategies that focus on forward-thinking and business-wide improvement, and they must keep seeking opportunities that will not only put them one step ahead of the competition, but will deliver the type of shopping experiences consumers expect.

Consumers, more than ever, want to be treated like an individual. Retailers need to make a conscious shift away from ‘batch and blast’ or generic messaging, and must instead focus on personalised, one-to-one messaging that gets results. 

90% of consumers say that marketing personalisation is either very or somewhat appealing to them, while research by SmarterHQ found that four-fifths of frequent shoppers say they will only shop with brands that personalise the experience. Retailers that fail to recognise the value of one-to-one messaging will, as personalisation becomes more customary, struggle to garner consumer loyalty.

Considerations and Contemplations

The pandemic was – and in many regards continues to be – a huge test for retail leaders, but already the time has come to look ahead. Retailers must now concentrate on enhancing their offering, doing all they can to encourage consumer devotion, increasing the quality and content of messaging, making better use of owned channels, and attaining a reputation for being the best at what they do.

With ecommerce showing no signs of going away – indeed, research suggests online will account for more than half of global retail spend by the end of 2021 – retail leaders must make it a priority to embrace the right technologies and digital-first approaches, and deploy them effectively, if they are to position themselves at the very front of the retail pack. 

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