What effect is the coronavirus going to have on your business, long term?

People are saying that things will never be the same again.  Society is going to be forever changed.  People’s shopping habits have changed irrevocably, office work can’t go back to what it was, and our society generally will be totally different.

But the world is resilient.  After 9/11, the commentators said that people would never fly again.  What we have seen since then (until Covid 19 intervened) is the most mobile world population ever, with planes filling the skies.  True, security was introduced on a massive scale, but people overcame their fear, and flew in ever greater numbers.

Many businesses have closed for a long period.  Some will struggle to survive, and may never open again.  Some that survive will be weakened by the lack of cash flow for so long.  Others have managed to adapt, and have managed to do as well as, or even better than, before the virus.  Delicatessens have pivoted into selling hampers on-line, coffee shops offered the sale and delivery of coffee machines and grounds, restaurants developed sophisticated home delivery systems.  Personal trainers and pilates studios have developed on-line training sessions, and the game parks in South Africa live streamed their game drives on YouTube to maintain interest in the parks. 

The owners of these businesses have displayed great enterprise and ingenuity, and have managed to not only survive, but to thrive.

And, of course, some businesses were made for such a crisis.  Amazon, for example, has benefitted enormously from the increased on-line activity.  The supermarkets have all done well, especially during the panic-buying phase.  Zoom became everyone’s main tool to communicate with the world in the era of stay-home lockdowns.  The old expression: “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” has applied very well to Covid 19.

How is your business going to come out at the end of the tunnel?  Are things going to be as tough as the commentators say?

Let’s have a look at what changes are being predicted.

As people have been forced to stay at home, and self-isolate, they have been forced to change their shopping habits.  Some older people, who had never considered buying on-line – who, in fact, had been too nervous to buy on-line – were too scared to venture out, and had to learn to become on-line shoppers.  The grocery stores were overwhelmed with on-line shoppers, and battled to keep abreast of demand.  Deliveries could take 4 to 5 days, and the scared population had to accept the new reality.

The stores that remained open found the business was poor.  Foot traffic was greatly diminished, due to the lockdown.  People stopped buying non-essentials.  For the 6 to 8 week period of the first lockdown, our cities, shopping centres and shopping streets were almost totally deserted.

The commentators are now saying that this change is going to be permanent.  They are saying that retail, in particular, is going to have to change the way it does business if it is to survive.  A commentator has suggested that retailers are going to have to offer “unique customer experiences instead of just being transactional venues”.  He said that the future retail store owners needed to be prepared to deliver a “superior product discovery experience offering” to be able to survive.

So, what’s new?  Retail has been under threat from online sellers for a long time, and has had to improve its offering for years.  How long has advice to retail been that it’s no longer a question of the 3 P’s (product, price and promotion), but a question of the total buying experience?  How long has retail been advised to do it’s utmost to ensure that shoppers are not just satisfied, but delighted, by the shopping experience?

There are dire predictions that those people who learnt to shop online during the lockdown will continue to do so, and shopping malls and strips will become deserted.  The crowds flocking to shopping centres as soon as they could seems to make a mockery of that prediction.  It seems that people find shopping more than just buying necessities – it is an experience, an opportunity to get out, mix with people (which may be a bit dicey at the moment), and to browse stores.

This doesn’t mean that things will go back to “the way they were”.  People may be hesitant to go out to restaurants, at least for a while.  There may still be a fear of the virus, which we are being told will be with us for many years, unless and until there is a vaccine.

There is a good chance that the shopping habits of some people will change forever.  They may find that shopping online for groceries and other items was really convenient, and continue doing so.  They may have become more adept at buying online, and be more adventurous.  

Buying trends are forever changing.  Covid 19 is just another driver of change.  And, as with all the past drivers of change, retail will have to adapt.  Just as the digital age drove more and more retailers, of all sizes, to develop websites, so Covid 19 will drive more adaptation.

What form will that adaptation take?  Partly, as mentioned above, more of the same.  It will be more important to create delighted customers, it will be more important to make the shopping experience a pleasure, and it will become more important to entice shoppers into the store.  Service will have to be top-notch (not like some of our department stores, where it is impossible to find a person to serve you!), stores will have to look good and be enticing, and pricing will have to be keen.  

A key point is that team members will have to be empowered to make customers feel special.  There are wonderful stories by companies like Zappos and JetBlue, where team members felt empowered to offer something special to their customers when they felt circumstances demanded it.  All business owners who have team members should train their team well, and then give them the freedom to do what it takes to create delighted customers.

The digital age must be fully embraced.  The fact is that more and more shoppers will be online.  Any business that doesn’t have a website will have to create one.  Existing websites need to be updated, and, if not already available, shopping carts need to be introduced.  Providing for delivery, or click-and-collect, becomes a plus factor.  In fact, anything that will make it a pleasurable shopping experience should be considered.  Return policies need to be liberal, to take the risk out of shopping on the website.

Another change that is being predicted is that the era of people working in offices every day is forever over.  The world, so the prediction goes, has become used to team members working from home, communicating by means of one or other of the myriad of communication applications.  What effect will that have on city centre businesses?  The coffee shops and restaurants in the city that depend on all the office workers who used to fill the buildings?

But, once again, will the office blocks remain empty?  Already, many articles have been written about the need for team members to interact on a personal basis, and how many ideas are generated from this face-to-face interaction.  Team members talk about the loneliness of working from home, and how they miss the camaraderie of an office that is so important to their wellbeing.  So there is a good chance that, in time, there will be, at least, a hybrid system, with a mixture of work in-office and work at home.  But city centres will come alive again.

Covid 19 is a major event – in fact, for most of those who didn’t experience the world wars, it has been the most significant upheaval in their lives.  Such upheavals do lead to change, but never as great as is predicted, and never for as long. On-line shopping will always be a part of the shopping mix, but people will go back to shopping in brick and mortar stores.

However people interact, whether it be online or in-store, all businesses must ensure that they find it delightful, a really great experience. Then they will come back, time and again.