Life After the Pandemic – Start Paddling!

As a younger man I was a surfer…

Not an avid one, but when my family would head down to our home in Florida, I would gleefully hop on a board to try to catch a wave or two. I loved the feeling of getting up on the board and riding it all the way to the shore. One of the things you quickly learn is that you need to see the swell that will become your wave long before it gets to you, and then you start paddling to make sure you are in a position to catch that wave when it starts to break.

You start paddling before the wave gets to you…

Recently, I have been doing a lot of work in Australia; and on my last trip down under (before the world shut down) I was walking with a colleague along the beach on Manly Island. Watching the surfers there reminded me of the metaphor.

A lot of the work we are doing in Australia happens to be in the grocery space; and I’m privileged enough to be working with some visionary companies. Prior to the break, we were discussing options around delivery, pick-up, online picking strategies, etc. Companies like Woolworths were already paddling for the swell that was starting to break into a wave.

Unnatural Stimulus

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 swell has become a killer wave[1]. Prior to the outbreak, companies were paddling along, preparing for a nice 6-foot wave to ride to their next destination, and if they missed, they’d just paddle back out and try again. This is no longer an option.

Three phases of transition

To take the analogy a step further, grocers now have three levels of preparation that they need to consider:

Short-term/Until the restrictions are lifted

The waves keep hitting, and grocers need to figure out how to stay upright long enough to get their bearings. This means that there are immediate problems that need to be resolved in order to stay functional. Grocers are “paddling furiously” to keep up with the surge in demand, the shift in shopping patterns, and the safety precautions necessary to mitigate COVID-19. As a result, “normal” operations can take a back seat to “urgent” operations.

This includes such tactics as:

  • Limiting the number of items available in some categories as the supply chain catches up
  • Dedicated shopping times for certain groups (seniors, first responders, etc.)
  • Taking associate temperatures as they enter the building

These are short-term tactics that grocers have had to employ to avoid getting shoved under by the first killer wave.

Mid-term/ Until the threat is gone

As we get control of the board and can look around, we are finding that the wave we are on is not the only killer wave behind us. Some of the things that are happening now will not go away after we ride out the first round of threats.

Some of the more prevalent adaptations we are seeing are:

  • Elimination of self-service fresh and prepared food bars
  • Plexiglass shield between the customer and cashier
  • Limits on the number of customers in the building at one time
  • Floor markings showing safe “social distancing”

These changes may not be “permanent”, but until the disease is neutralized through testing and vaccination, they will be with us for a while.

Long-Term/Permanent Changes

After riding out the killer waves, some of the techniques that are learned become part of the new way of surfing. You learn that there are ways to control your board that you would never have had to figure out riding gentle 6-footers. Business is no different. Some of the things that grocers are doing now to deal with a crisis will become part of the “new normal” (pardon the repetition of an over-used phrase.) Some things, once out of the bottle, can never be put back in:

  • Emergence of omni-channel as an option of choice (pickup in store, Pick up at curb, parking lot delivery, home delivery, etc.)
  • Contactless payment (Voice commerce, Google and Apple pay, etc.)
  • Real-time communication with employees (WorkJam, Shyft, etc.)

For a more comprehensive look at the changes grocers are experiencing as a result of the pandemic, please see our infographic here

Successful retailers, for we should all learn from the first impacted sectors (like grocery, pharmacy and convenience), will be looking for ways to master these techniques before they are riding the wave.

Unnatural Response

Many of these “new” techniques are not new at all. Grocers have been “dabbling” at them for some time now. The difference is that, with the unnatural stimulus of COVID-19, companies need to adopt an unnatural response. They cannot afford to take a normal “test and evaluate” approach. Without a framework for thinking about this response, a lot of chaos and wasted effort is likely to ensue.

At Connors Group, we advocate a prioritized look at operations, and have found this to be especially applicable in times of rapid change.


Service Model

At its essence, the Connors Group model starts with defining the value proposition from the Customer’s perspective. In times like the present, this value is shifting. Retailers that were focused on price and convenience now need to place emphasis on things like sanitation and safety. It is all too easy to jump into the details of how to do different things before considering how all the changing elements will work together. Companies will be well-served to take the time to define what this looks like before jumping into the “how”. It is important to ensure that all stakeholders are aligned to this new dynamic. This should not be done in a silo.

Staffing Model

Once the objective is secured, the question shifts to “who” and “how” (“when” and “where” are natural offshoots of these). Companies need to consider what processes will need to be changed, who will perform the new process, and, most importantly, how these changes will be communicated and trained. In a perfect world, this would be done systemically and simultaneously to limit the impact of “change fatigue,” however this is a luxury that the first line of retailers has not been able to afford. One benefit of working in a crisis, however, is forgiveness for not being perfect on the first attempt. The key here is transparent, honest and frequent communication to the front-line employees who are impacted the most.

Leadership Model

Once processes have been changed, communicated and trained, it is vital for companies to put the right supporting mechanisms in place to sustain them. This step is easy to overlook in times of crisis. Systems as simple as checklists, daily walks and operational audits can help to make sure that change does not succumb to “muscle memory”. Many of our clients are looking to task management software (like Reflexis or Kronos) to help instill this discipline.

Operating Model

Finally, once operations have stabilized, companies need to look to ways to optimize their operations. Setting up picking and delivery operations to be functional may be the priority (stay on that board!), but ultimately, they need to be profitable. This means that the improvement process must be continual. Successful retailers will take this opportunity to develop a prioritized roadmap based on criticality to adapt to the changes for the long-term.

Natural Tendencies

Even with unnatural stimulus and response, natural tendencies will still kick in. In times like this, it is important that we remember that old patterns will be permanently changed. No one knows the extent of what those changes might be, but companies must be flexible enough to be able to react when what is normal deviates.

A perfect example of this will be the Back-To-School season. With so many schools shut down, it is difficult to predict what this might look like going into the 2020-2021 school year. As disruptive as the COVID-19 crisis has been to retail, it has been even more disruptive to education. Apart from the question of “when” schools will reopen (which is still unclear and will continue to be so for some time), the whole practice of education is being “unnaturally” changed.

Many school districts are adopting virtual learning and distance education. The best of these districts will learn from this experience and, like retailers, accept that there are some good practices that will be in effect until the disease is neutralized and many that should be permanently adopted. This will impact everything from school supplies lists, to how children go to school, to how schools are staffed. The only thing clear is that it is likely that the Back-To-School shopping season will be very different from what (and when) it was last year.

The clear lesson in the pandemic is that it is not enough to just “get through it.” Companies must accept that the world is permanently changed, and that even some of the “temporary” reactions will need to be in place for at least a couple of years while scientists race to develop and administer measures to neutralize the virus. Retailers will need to be prepared to live with many of these new conditions for the foreseeable future.

The whole concept of change management is crucial during this time…

Successful retailers will take a proactive approach to ensuring that their organizations are aligned to the required changes at all levels, and that the change is managed deliberately.

It important to remember that killer waves have a few characteristics:

  • Tons of pressure
  • Irresistible
  • They can be the ride of a lifetime…
  • … or take you out!

For those of us who are riding the wave right now, remember that it isn’t just about staying on the board (although that is our first priority), it’s as much about anticipating the next waves and having a plan to stay upright without so much pain and effort.

For those of us watching the wave and getting ready to jump into the water… start paddling now!


[1] A killer wave is one that, should you be unfortunate enough to wipe out in one, pushes a surfer 20 to 30 feet underwater with no idea which way is up. Add to that sense of confusion and urgency the fact that another wave is likely to hit within 20 seconds or so, and you can see why they are called “killer” waves.

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Ty Law

Ty Law is the Director of Retail at Connors Group, and brings a rich perspective on the benefits of workforce management and labor modeling.
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