OPN 200827 Shoppers
Shoppers will return... but retailers need to change a lot from within and in their mindsets to win them over. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

A few days after the pandemic-led lockdown, I came across a quote that changed my entire perspective: “We cannot control what is happening, but we can control the way we respond to what is happening.“

With this in mind, we put all our energy to ensure our team at Giordano and their families were all well. We kept our employees informed on how the company was handling the situation and what we were doing for them. We wanted them to know we were available at any time during this challenging time. And we encouraged them to be part of the company decision-making process.

Companies that have the flexibility to respond to market changes are less affected than those who take their time - or do nothing at all. COVID-19 has taught us the importance of shredding complexity in anything and everything to allow for faster decision-making.

In times like these, we have to be able to bend with the situation, and not snap against it. We noticed a dramatic shift in how people work, dress up, shop, and socialize after staying at home for a period of time and having to comply with the health and safety protocols.

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Bare minimum

And so, as a retailer we had to adapt to our consumers’ lifestyle changes. For example, the rising demand in comfort wear for ‘at-home’ time and a preference for contactless or cashless transactions. Some industries, especially fashion, have to now focus more on "season-less stock" – embracing the classic ‘Less Is More' approach.

Consumers today expect more transparency from brands and businesses. Health and hygiene are taking precedence, and consumers are keen to know how brands are managing that end to end.

We have also had to rethink our supply chain to bring in more flexibility. After careful review, we reduced our options and number of SKUs (stock keeping units), as many items that were good sellers before may no longer be moving as in the past.

Speed of change

Investment in digital innovation and our online business will be a priority across all levels. We learned so much from this pandemic that we were able to accomplish many changes, technology-wise, in a few weeks that might otherwise have taken us years.

A key area to look at would be how to improve the ways our team members can work remotely and how we can enhance contactless methods in our stores. We are seeking more innovative ways to reach out to customers, remotely and virtually, to enable them to continue shopping with us.

The Gulf has all the ingredients to support the growing retail market. We are fortunate to be located in a very resilient and dynamic market. The GCC’s geographical location, especially the UAE as an international hub, will always be an asset and the continuous influx of regional and international tourism will keep feeding the growth.

Look to the past as well

When situations change, you have to rethink current strategies and build on the strengths that served you well in the past. With this in mind, retailers need to decide what they are good at and what they stand for, and then make sure that every aspect of their operation reflects that proposition.

Yes - profit from contraction

In the past, it was all about becoming a bigger retailer and most major brands wanted to have bigger stores and more square feet than others. With the rise of the e-commerce giants, the mindset has changed. Today, profit growth can come from contraction – closing unprofitable stores and pulling out of poorly performing business areas.

Retailers will have to continuously look for more innovative approaches to training and staff development to adapt to the retail landscape. To be a salesperson is not enough – retail employees are ambassadors to the brand and integral to the human experience.

And shopping is all about relationships. Today’s customers rarely buy from a company - they buy from a person, a person they trust, a person that is knowledgeable, and a person that delivers what's promised.

As retailers, we need to go back to basics to make shopping enjoyable and make sure factors such as customer service, health and safety, price point, and technology integration are taken care of so that a customer’s in-store experience is as seamless as possible. Customers expect no less.

Culture as a selling point

A company’s culture is that ultimate competitive advantage. Competitors can steal your products or services or even key employees. However, they cannot steal a great company culture.

In my over 40 years in retail, I have learned that the key to survival is not assets, not funds, not systems, not processes, but people and their attitudes. To exceed customer expectations, brands must ensure customer interactions are rooted in empathy, engagement, and emotional intelligence - areas that have not been talked about enough,

The retailers who will survive and thrive are those that understand their customers – and know what services they will value in-store. There is no single magic formula that works for all.

The way forward for retailers is to understand the critical importance of connecting with the consumers. The future of retail will be built around the experience economy, where what you sell is less important than how you sell it. Forget about product differentiation – the future of retail will be all about distinct experiences – create one, and you will establish a long-term relationship with your customers.

Here's a quote from Steve Jobs: “Get closer to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves...".

- Ishwar Chugani is Managing Director and CEO of Giordano M.E..