Availability

Blog: Covid-19 Requires Retailers to Rethink the Concept of “Availability”

November 11, 2020  |  REINT JAN HOLTERMAN

A few months ago on the blog, I explored retail’s flexibility in responding to the current pandemic, as COVID has understandably caused a lot of turbulence for many people. We all see the changes in the way we live, shop, work or hang out with friends now, as opposed to the way things used to be. The media attention, the shortage of healthcare supplies in some regions, the social distancing rules and the use of face masks have changed our behaviors—and as these changes have been in effect for about three-quarters of a year already, they have gradually evolved into becoming our new “standard.”

Even in the unlikely event that the COVID-19 crisis will be solved completely within the next six months, it’s just not realistic to expect that people will return to how they lived pre-COVID. The “new normal” will simply transform into being just “normal.” Or, according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Retailers need to stop expecting business to return to normal. There’s no going back to how it was anytime soon.”

The result? A shock wave of innovations.
Strange as it may sound, I believe that shift is not necessarily a bad thing. COVID-19 has sent a shock wave through many industries across the globe, and unfortunately hit some harder than others. Retail itself has not been hit evenly hard across all segments: whereas fashion retailers, for example, have taken a serious dip in revenues and profits, supermarkets and DIY retailers so far have done surprisingly well (even better than last year). Shopping on Main Street became more difficult due to social distancing rules, and these same rules also made going out for dinner or taking holidays more complicated, hence the rise in spend levels at supermarkets and DIY stores (rather than spending free time and money on short breaks, people opted to do home improvement projects and cook at home instead).

Shock waves, especially the ones on a global scale like COVID-19, have the tendency to boost innovations. We also saw this phenomenon during and immediately after World War II, when a lot of things we now take for granted were either invented (such as the first electronic programmable computer, designed to crack the encrypted messages of the enemy) or else developed on a much larger scale (such as penicillin antibiotics that was put into mass production in 1943 to support the health of wounded soldiers). Times of crisis cause us humans to become inventive and innovative. Or put differently: shock waves cause us to temporarily transition from a state of gradual ‘evolution’ to a state of rapid ‘revolution’. If you’re interested to learn more on this, then please download our whitepaper on “Storevolution: Retail in the Age of the Consumer.

Self-Service is spiking.
We see this happening in Retail. For example, self-service concepts have been around for many years already, yet until the beginning of this year, the industry was evolving gradually. However, in response to social distancing limitations, many retailers have now prioritized self-service and rapidly implemented these kind of solutions in their stores, so that consumers can self-scan items in store and use touchless payment methods, or order online and pick-up in store.

Retailers invested rapidly in these ‘low-touch’, self-service type of journeys to give consumers the option to reduce person-to-person interactions in a store, and to offer store staff safer ways to work at the same time. It also (regardless of COVID) perfectly matched with consumers’ demands, to exercise more control over their own shopping journeys and to avoid having to wait in line, whether it is to check out and pay or to get personal assistance while choosing a new pair of shoes. 

Self-Service raises the bar for availability.

However, it is important to realize that simply buying self-service equipment, digitizing price tags and training store staff will not be enough. Self-service consumer journeys need to be ‘always on’. It is crucial that self-service equipment is readily available—at all times. Retailers can’t risk losing consumers’ trust due to malfunctioning equipment, especially since it will now be the consumers themselves who experience system failure first. By removing the buffer of the store associate, whenever a self-service system failure occurs, it will be first discovered by the consumer, which could create a tremendous loss of trust in the solution itself. So, this places much higher demands on uptime and availability. In other words: Self-service consumer journeys must be available non-stop, full stop!

However, as with most things, that is easier said than done, since retailers are usually working with a diverse set of hardware and software solutions—typically provided by a wide array of technology vendors. This leads to complexities in managing the end-to-end solution. For larger retailers with international operations, the puzzle is even more complicated: How to create operational standards on a multi-national scale while ensuring the swift delivery of local support services that truly understand the solutions? 

Prerequisites for ‘always-on’ store operations.
In our new whitepaper, "Driving Availability in a Complex Retail Environment" we take a deep-dive into pre-requisites for successful ‘always on’ store operations, and explore why self-service device availability in itself has become a KPI for success. As the technology is expected to be simply up and running at all times, traditional service models no longer suffice. It requires a new and different way of thinking about service and maintenance models: the fewer the number of business interruptions, the better. In essence, that means moving away from an SLA-based ‘break-fix’ services model to a proactive, end-to-end managed services solution.

In order to be able to set up such a proactive service model for any retail organization, there are four pre-requisites that need to be met. You will find more on these in our whitepaper dedicated to this topic, "Driving Availability in a Complex Retail Environment."

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