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16 Steps We’re Seeing Retailers Take to Prepare for the Next Normal

A number of industry experts have commented that we’ve seen the equivalent of three years’ worth of store operations’ evolution in the span of the last 6 weeks. As many states begin to tiptoe back from sheltering-at-home, what’s even more eye-opening is the broad agreement that we likely still have a long way to go before we settle into the Next Normal.

At Theatro, we’ve been busy supporting customers across the retail landscape, both those that have been operating through this unique period and those planning their reopenings. Through these discussions, we’ve compiled a list of best practices across the four critical fronts on which this battle is being fought.

In arriving at these 16 key steps, two takeaways have become clear.  First, frontline associates are central to evolving plans both because they define the customer experience and because they are retail’s largest expense. Second, rebuilding trust is the name of the game. Covid-19 has left shoppers and employees alike, “distracted, scared, and overwhelmed,” in the words of one retailer. Imparting confidence and stability through what is sure to be a learning experience for all will be an ongoing theme.

Enabling New Customer Engagement Norms and Models

  1. Instill Consumer Confidence with Clear Signals like Visible Social Distancing, Sanitation Measures, and Employee Protections

In uncertain times, consumers read into everything. Let your new procedures tell their own story. While floor decals, occupancy limitations, rerouted traffic, plexiglass shields, and sanitizing stations are now table stakes, let people see the measures being taken in action throughout the day. Seeing associates engaged in regular sanitation tasks is the first step. Setting clear expectations around social distancing and safety measures required inside the store, and enforcing them as Costco does, is another. But perhaps the biggest sign shoppers look to are associates themselves. Logic suggests that if you’re taking good care of employees, you’ll take similarly good care of customers. So make sure your team is well equipped, informed, and feeling supported so they project the feeling of safety you want customers to feel.

  1. Remind Associates: Outstanding Service Now Takes More Initiative Than Ever

Face masks and social distance do not, unfortunately, lend themselves to great customer service experiences. At a time when guests may need more help than ever, given the change and uncertainty taking place around them, safety measures are likely to make it more difficult for them to signal a need for help, and for associates to recognize a need on their own. Employees will need to go the extra mile to engage guests and provide customer service. Masks may shield our facial expressions, but smiles come through the voice and the eyes too! Making sure employees understand what it takes to deliver a great service experience despite new constraints can’t be overlooked.

  1. Expect Curbside to be Part of the Next Normal

The ability to pick up pre-ordered items at the curb will likely be a part of our lives for a while.  This is the #1 question we’re fielding from customers today, and while retailers that were well-positioned with BOPIS and Curbside delivery prior to the crisis are reaping the benefits now – one retailer cited a 6-15x increase depending on the store – a spectrum of variants have popped up. We’re seeing everything from “manned” curbside (aka “the Chik-fil-a model”) where a staff member approaches your vehicle to gather information, to fully contactless like that available at The Container Store, where customers indicate their arrival through a text or email and merchandise is delivered to the trunk within minutes. Expect continued maturation across these models as attention increasingly shifts from immediate reactions to profitability with time.

  1. Turn on Ship-from-Store to Help Manage Inventory and Reduce Shipping Costs

Many retailers have also ramped up in-store fulfillment to take the pressure off distribution centers overwhelmed with online orders and reduce shipping costs and store inventory by processing more at the local level. Gap, for example, announced that it will double the number of stores currently processing ship-from-store orders. Streamlining these processes often includes the addition of proactive order notifications, inventory location assistance, and first-available team member order acceptance automation. The same pick processes can also be used to support curbside pickup, so many enhancements can be leveraged for both last-mile alternatives.

Providing Strong People Leadership

  1. Maintain Employee Confidence by Making Them Feel Safe & Showing Empathy

From regular health screenings to personal protective equipment and communicating clear guidelines around what to do in the case of illness or exposure, a culture of communication seems to be the key. Work with employees to define what this means and set clear expectations of the actions the company is taking to keep them safe. Even if every need can’t be met, positive intent and transparency help establish the belief that you’re working as a team to solve for new risks together.

  1. Anticipate Questions, both from Associates and Customers

“Enablement” is a key word here. Many businesses established a “Pandemic Task Force” employees can call, often with a local designee they can reach out to for more immediate inquiries. A regularly updated living document with how to handle questions frequently asked by shoppers or simple mechanisms like Costco’s whiteboard at the store entrance identifying out of stock items can also help. The point is to get ahead of the need for information by addressing questions proactively with in-ear messages and daily updates, offering information in easy-to-access locations, or providing a resource for quick and accurate responses to inquiries.

  1. Lead from Afar (While WFH) is The Next Normal.

Nothing is more unnerving than silence in times like these. The more structure and guidance the frontline can hear from leaders at all levels of the organization, the better – even while executives and HQ staff are working from home. And don’t just rely on the written word. At Theatro, we see time and again the power of hearing these messages in a leader’s own voice. The human voice delivers emotional richness and creates a connection that can’t be replicated on paper.  A weekly leadership call, recorded to share with those both on- and off-shift, can work wonders to reinforce core values and reassure employees that things are under control.

  1. Get Creative with the Power of a Simple Thank You

We’ve all heard how a simple thank you or the acknowledgement of work done well drives employee engagement, but in times like these, it can be a lifeline during a tough stretch. Employees need to know that their work matters. Make it easy for people to offer appreciation – up and down the hierarchy and peer-to-peer – and strongly encourage them to do so. Many companies are showing incredible creativity in bringing their brands to life to make their messages of appreciation that much more heartfelt and impactful, for example, by bringing in not only senior leaders from across the enterprise, but also key vendors, partners, and even celebrity customers to share their thanks for the teams’ ongoing commitment.

Operationalizing and Evolving New SOPs

  1. Prepare for Continued Procedural Change

Just because businesses are reopening doesn’t mean the pace of operational changes will slow any time soon. Organizations will continue to optimize new procedures while they work to crack the code on sustainably meeting the demands Covid-19 has introduced. Ultimately, this may come to be seen as a forcing function to develop more mature change management protocols to help manage the barrage of process changes for The Next Normal.

  1. Extend Critical Communication Resources to More Employees

One of the first things to happen as the crisis unfolded was an immediate move to enable better communication across teams. Particularly as social distancing made traditional means of communication less effective, whether that meant through the prioritization of regular updates like daily huddles and afternoon checkpoints, or the expanded usage of communication tools like Theatro’s Manager’s App to a broader set of users, enterprises have moved fast to improve the flow of communication among and down to the store associate level.

  1. Establish a Communication Cadence to Develop Muscle Memory

To drive awareness and prompt action around new operating procedures, those companies with communication capabilities have pulled together communication schedules to help associates keep up. From sanitation reminders to new process descriptions, repetition helps build muscle memory – and when delivered in multiple formats, accommodate employees’ different learning styles.

  1. Be Conscious of Execution Variants Based on Local Regulatory Guidelines

Much like differing national regulations across the EU, in the U.S., companies must navigate state and county regulations. For example, Vermont, Michigan and other local governments have told retailers not to sell “nonessential” items, like clothing or toys. Face coverings are required in some areas; not in others. Navigating this web of state and county limitations has caused confusion for both shoppers and retailers and only promises to continue as each reopens at their own pace. Ensuring store teams are consistently and accurately informed of resulting SOPs for their specific locations will be a task in and of itself.

Preparing to Do More with Fewer People & High Turnover

  1. Prioritize the Right Staff as Traffic Returns

Most reopening retailers are planning for a slow ramp and won’t be operating with the same staffing levels they had before the crisis. In the first phases, only a few associates may be on hand to help fulfill and deliver curbside orders, increasing as more services become available. With ultra-lean teams, the people that will come back first will be those who are cross-trained and can take initiative to jump in and fill needs fast.

  1. Onboard Efficiently – and Effectively

The WSJ recently reported that Walmart, who announced that they’re hiring 5,000 new associates a week to keep up with needs, committed a 12-person team to build “a system to onboard new workers within 24 hours, instead of the usual two weeks.” Other retailers will similarly need to optimize their training so new hires can hit the ground running, with options like automated training and lessons that can be delivered in digestible bits throughout the day, preferably in an interactive fashion on the floor, rather than in a classroom. Giving new hires an easy way to ask questions, for example by having them shadow more tenured employees either virtually or in-person, can help.

  1. Support Ongoing Learning to Cross- and Up-Skill for the As many states begin to tiptoe back from sheltering-at-home, what’s even more eye-opening is the broad agreement that we likely still have a long way to go before we settle into the Next Normal.

Retailers with best-in-class employee training programs understand that associates should never stop learning and make it a priority to deliver a continual learning agenda, whether that be around cross-training skills, product knowledge, anticipating shopper questions, or a combination of all three. In the next normal, team members are less likely to be able to carve out time for classroom learning, so retailers will need to determine how to deliver bite-sized lessons while associates are on the go and have a moment to absorb them. Expanding opportunities to cross-train and upskill are of particular interest in this time when staffing levels are expected to be light.

  1. Better Leverage Technologies Already in Place for The Next Normal.

Lastly, we’re seeing retailers look for more opportunities to utilize the tools they have, like traffic counters and order management systems, and apply them in new ways to ensure they can make the most of the people they have on staff. Streamlining even simple tasks like proactive notifications when an order comes in or dynamic alerts when more team members are needed on the sales floor can drive significant efficiencies. They also generate the all-important data that enables feedback loops and insights on which further process optimization can be based.

What are the priority pain points your team is trying to solve?  We’d love to hear, and discuss your plan to address them in more detail. Our team is currently conducting workshops to help retailers develop new normal playbooks for their store operations teams.  Please let us know if we can help with yours by reaching out to us at info@theatro.com.