Covid-19 News

Eight years of retail evolution in eight months

Has any good really come from all of this?

The nation is in a race against time to bring the pandemic under control once and for all.

Hospitals face the real possibility of being overwhelmed, as admissions hit record highs. And sadly, the daily number of Covid related deaths has reached new levels too.

As if that wasn’t enough, part of the urgent measures taken by government included putting the country into national lockdown with virtually no notice. This means our already battered economy is taking another kicking. Retailers expecting to open for January sales, and with large amounts seasonal stock to shift, suddenly find themselves preoccupied with furloughing staff and locking down stores. Not opening shops.

The impact has been huge. I can tell you that, to support our customers at this challenging time, we have been working around the clock. Plans being rigorously implemented just hours earlier suddenly became largely irrelevant, as the lockdown announcement brought with it a paradigm shift in strategic and tactical objectives for all non-essential retail.

“The impossible we do at once. Miracles take a little longer.”

I know we are not the only ones who have been working 16 hour days to keep up. The agility of all retail businesses to respond effectively has been tested to the limit. And I am mindful of the famous quote from that shipyard foreman, when told he had three days to make the USS Yorktown ready for battle after she returned to Pearl Harbour badly damaged following the Battle of The Coral Sea, “The impossible we do at once. Miracles take a little longer.”

However, six months later the USS Yorktown played a pivotal role in the Battle of Midway, a naval battle fought almost exclusively in the air. And that was the turning point for the US forces fighting in the Pacific, when the Japanese’s first-line carrier strength was destroyed along with most of its best trained naval pilots.

So, as we continue today to do the impossible, to adapt and regroup in our fight against Covid-19 so that we can reclaim the freedom to live as we choose, what good has come out of the pandemic that will prove to be of pivotal importance in the months and years ahead? Is any attempt to salvage something positive for the future simply delusional, rather like a naked man offering to lend you his shirt?

Actually, I think there ARE positives…

First, it is widely recognised that the pandemic has crammed 8 years of retail evolution into about 8 months. The burgeoning of online retail and the challenges of the high street, with high profile casualties in the news, makes it clear that retail will not go back to being what it was pre-pandemic.

At Amberstone we have supported this “need for speed” for clients massively helping them to expand their estates quickly, whilst there is an opportunity to acquire and open new stores relatively cheaply. In one case our engineering team have been tasked with upgrading legacy systems, whilst simultaneously getting as much value out of what is already installed as possible, for a customer opening new stores at a rate of 2 per week for approximately the next three months.

Similarly, and as a small aside, we have been involved in providing security advice and services for new vaccination centres, including store repurposing where one client is making stores available as vaccination centres. Urgently required and highly visible in the media, clearly there is not time for any delay on these projects!

Whilst the future role of the high street is as yet unclear, what we do know for sure is that it is not the same. Lockdowns have highlighted the need for social interaction between people. It is an innate part of the human condition, and so that is not going to change. How that desire to interact with others will be accommodated by the high street is the question. But one thing I would say is that people can only drink just so much coffee!

Second, I think the pandemic served to emphasise the importance of trusted vendor partnerships. Across many aspects of retail, including third party logistics, guarding, risk management and sourcing it became obvious that those businesses that had good working relationships with their suppliers were more lithe than those who did not feel so confident working together.

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic the speed with which essential retail could get product from manufacturer to store was vital. With shelves bare and panic buying taking hold, shipping direct to store became the norm. This potentially opened up retailers to losses from dishonest suppliers. Nevertheless I have not seen evidence to suppose that such losses were realised.

I referred earlier to a store opening programme for one client. Only because of our close working relationship and mutual trust is it possible to move so quickly. And thanks to that working relationship, I have given you pretty much the entire brief we needed to get on and support the openings, which are taking pace on a nationwide basis!

Third the pandemic showed us the importance of experience and of up-to-date data. From store configurations to local sources of risk and crime, having the necessary data to make fast, accurate decisions across an entire estate came down to experience and data.

Real time data vital as a basis for fast decision making

Here at Amberstone we have so much real time data that customers can make highly informed decisions about potential threats to their business based upon things as they are, not were or might be. That data has been highly relevant in reaching a wide range of decisions, from the viability of stores to open with social distancing in place, through to likely crime hotspots where high levels of stock were being maintained or where local circumstances posed greater risks to some stores than in other parts of the country. Customers were able to deploy resources to the areas that needed them very quickly indeed, to mitigate the greatest risks that came to be associated with the then new social distancing measures for some retailers and lockdown conditions for others.

Plus as a third party provider of security solutions, we were not just seeing the picture in one business but in many across the country. And this experiential data allowed us to alert customers to additional areas of risk before making critical business decisions to protect their stakeholders.

Finally, whilst retail is intensely competitive, retailers worked together to meet the demands placed upon them by government.

For example, early on in the pandemic when some retailers were struggling to find good quality PPE products for immediate delivery, other retailers volunteered their sources. Information was pooled about a wide range of experiences, from potential fire hazards of large amounts of sanitiser being kept in stock and the possible insurance consequences, to the latest information on dealing with in-store assaults on staff and other crimes.

Vital information has been shared throughout the pandemic by competing organisations united in their desire to protect all stakeholders in retail. And that renewed spirit of collaboration between competitors, to fight for a common cause, is something that bodes well for the future.

We have seen this collaboration between competitors first-hand in our business with the launch of our PACKED product. With the increasing importance of online, it is in nobody’s interest to let those attempting refund fraud to get away with it. And as soon as the product was launched, word spread throughout the industry like wildfire that finally there is a system that can deal decisively with these refund fraudsters whilst simultaneously enhancing the customer journey. As a result, PACKED has now been viewed almost 100,000 times on our website.

I do not believe that anyone could have possibly anticipated the scale of difficulties that retail would be able to successfully deal with and in such short time frames. Process amendments literally got squeezed into vastly truncated time frames. Changes that previously would have taken months, were now created and implemented in just days. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that some of these quickly developed lacked the refined thinking of their pre-pandemic antecedents, retail should take heart from the size, speed and frequency with which it met new challenges. Looking back this realised ability to innovate at accelerated pace will be invaluable in meeting the challenges ahead.

President Richard Nixon famously said “only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

I’d say, we are on the ascent…

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