“Attention, Kmart shoppers,”
was ubiquitous from my childhood. The loud-speaker announcement is familiar to any American grown-up of a certain vintage – simultaneously heralding another opportunity for customers and the impressive dominance of the chain which was the nation’s 2nd largest retailer during the 1980s.
From more than 2,500 stores across 50 states in its heyday, to just 34 stores operating today – which remained open despite pandemic shutdown as “essential businesses” due to pharmacies and grocery offerings inside – the once powerful department store is on its knees. Covid19 didn’t cripple it. Kmart has been struggling for years to adapt to shoppers’ changing expectations, industry developments and technological advancements.
And in just one week from now, here in Ireland, many retailers will be allowed to re-open their long-closed doors. David Fitzsimons, the Group Chief Executive of industry group Retail Excellence, is looking forward to the impact with mixed emotions.
“It’s heartwarming that on the 8th of June, we’ll see the largest jolt in the economy as 18,000 small stores will re-open across the country. But obviously, the largest stories and the shopping centres will look on with envy,” David points out explaining that Ireland’s Phase 2 reopening only provides for: “small retail outlets to reopen with a small number of staff on the basis that the retailer can control the number of individuals that staff and customers interact with at any one time.”
This distinction is frustrating to Retail Excellence. “The phasing is contrary to public health service advice,” David maintains. “If, for instance, Zara can open its smaller high street store in Dublin, but not its larger store in Cork and you see it open in Dublin, you might jump in your car and drive all the way from Cork to Dublin. The smaller stores will have massive queues. If they’re bigger, they can social distance easier. Let all the big stores open all their stores at the same time.”
Regardless of which shops open or when, as with the adaptations we are already experiencing with chemists and grocery stores, retailers must make a range of adjustments and find effective ways to communicate them.
1) Communicate gratitude
“We need to have clear messages welcoming people back,” David says as he outlines the number one message on behalf of retailers. The Harvard Medical School publication, Heartbeat, reminds us that gratitude helps us to connect to something beyond ourselves, improves our health and strengthens relationships, so clearly expressing gratitude tops today’s list for any employer or employee, regardless of whether you’re in retail or not.
As a shopper, being grateful for the reopening of some shops to provide some in-person retail therapy also means being respectful and kind toward fellow-shoppers. This past week, a startling video went viral of shoppers berating a woman in a New York store for not wearing a face mask. We can continue to wear masks, of course, and David also reminds us to browse quickly once inside the newly opened shops to reduce the time people spend waiting outside.
2) Educate and encourage your teams
Next up for retailers, according to David, is the need to make sure employees understand and contribute to the modified experiences. “We need to reassure colleagues the same way we reassure customers. From parking lots to canteens to the spaces behind the counter, there will be new ways of working,” David describes.
While we may already be reluctantly but understandably adjusted to social distancing and queuing, get ready for formerly tactile experiences like trying on jewellery, sunglasses, clothing and makeup to all be different in the new abnormal.
“If Gina comes out of a dressing room and doesn’t buy three of the four outfits she tried on, we’ll set them on a rail and steam clean them and put them back on the floor for tomorrow,” outlines David. Jewellery and sunglasses can be placed on trays, sprayed and sterilized. Makeup demonstrations will be over for the moment. Thank you for your patronage. And your patience.
3) Lean into your people and culture
Ronn Cort, President and COO of Sekisui Kydex, says, “For every crisis, there’s an opportunity.” Before Covid, the performance plastics company made products like interlayer films for glass and double-face tape. Now they make parts for ventilators.
“We reached out to our own network, our people. They might disappoint you, but they also might surprise and delight you,” Ronn recommends. “Sometimes people have a hard time changing quickly, but especially during times of crisis and reinvention, don’t go it alone. Explore how you can become more collaborative using technology.”
Great ideas can come from any place in an organisation. As Ronn reminds us, “Managers are not the only leaders. Leaders come from anywhere. What is knitting you together during this time? Help your employees grow and become problem solvers and remember that good questions are often better than good answers.”
Undoubtedly, this a challenging time with fundamental changes in store. The challenge and lesson for stores and the rest of us is to learn from Sekisui’s success and Kmart’s cautionary tale – to embrace the new and find ways to put the fun in fundamental change.
Write to Gina in care of SundayBusiness@independent.ie
With corporate clients in five continents, Gina London is a premier communications strategy, structure and delivery expert. She is also a media analyst, author, speaker and former CNN anchor. @TheGinaLondon