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The global coronavirus outbreak is changing retail, and the customer experience, unlike any other industry disruption. It's also changing how consumers will shop and behave in the future, says Yaniv Sarig, co-founder and CEO of Mohawk Group Holdings.
There is no question the retail industry is undergoing an unprecedented transformation ignited by the global COVID-19 pandemic that has shuttered retail around the world in the past few months — driving unemployment to record-setting numbers and causing an economic fallout that may well be worse than the Great Depression.
Within the industry, major changes are taking place due to pandemic strategies of social distancing, the necessity to protect employees and consumers and an e-commerce tsunami that even has Amazon spinning on its heels.
To get insight on what's to come for retail as non-essential businesses begin to open doors and consumers once again begin visiting brick-and-mortar retailers, Retail Customer Experience reached out to Yaniv Sarig, co-founder and CEO of Mohawk Group Holdings, a tech-enabled e-commerce consumer products company that primarily sells via Amazon and Walmart, and tracks consumer search patterns and behavior through its proprietary software, AIMEE.
Sarig believes the biggest barrier to faster adoption of online shopping had been the need to change existing consumer habits, and this current shift will permanently change consumer behavior, putting direct to consumer brands in a favorable position to increase market share in the long run.
Q. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic event, what should retailers be doing to ensure they're engaging with customers and is there anything they shouldn't be doing?
A. It's crucial to monitor customer conversations to have a clear understanding of how their habits are evolving, how their interactions with the brand are shifting, and where the brand can meet their changing needs. Monitoring social conversations, analyzing data, learning from what other retailers are doing well and not doing well, and having direct conversations with customers and industry stakeholders in a mindful way are all keys to ensuring positive engagement with consumers. When there are numerous relatable critiques from customers, it's important to acknowledge them and determine how and why your business will make a change. When responding to challenges or happenings within the industry, transparency is paramount and will move your business forward in the long-term.
The crisis has also illustrated the importance of maintaining as many direct connections with consumers as possible. An over-reliance on third-party partners and intermediaries has proven to be challenging during a crisis with such widespread disruptions. SaaS solutions allow retailers to minimize disruptions and maintain closer connections with their customers by better meeting their needs, minimizing third-party reliance, reaching a wider market, and increasing customer attentiveness.
Q. How can retailers, today, prepare for the next potential crisis such as the coronavirus and its impact on the retail segment?
A. The COVID-19 crisis has tested retailers' abilities to pivot in response to swift and sudden changes like nothing we've seen before. So many brands have mobilized quickly to meet PPE supply shortages, ease the burden on frontline workers, add protections for at-risk customers, and support struggling small businesses. The crisis has pushed retailers to meet rapidly changing consumer and industry needs and demands, forcibly advanced innovation and pushing the boundaries of what's achievable.
While every retail sector has been impacted, consumers are still spending and it's important to note where and how they are spending, how their needs are changing, and where the data patterns lie. Omnichannel retailers, DTC brands with centralized supply chain and fulfillment structures, and retailers using SaaS solutions to minimize partner disruptions have all been better positioned to meet changing demand and maintain direct connections with consumers. Companies that have embraced and invested in advanced data analytics, machine learning and automation are also better prepared to react quickly to sudden change. These capabilities will remain advantageous for the next crisis and retailers must afford themselves the kind of flexibility they offer moving forward.
Q. What do you think are the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic event for the small and the big retailer?
A. One of the biggest lessons learned from the pandemic is how the current shift toward online spending will impact consumer shopping behavior over the long-term. Even categories once thought to be "Amazon-proof" have seen a significant increase in online demand. Our research shows that search volume for freezers has increased by nearly 140% in March 2020 compared to March 2019, with over 15 million unique searches across Amazon. Mini-fridge search volume has also increased by more than 25%, to nearly 33 million, while humidifiers and beverage coolers have also seen increased demand. This accelerated adoption of online shopping will continue beyond the pandemic, and retailers big and small should embrace these changes to meet consumer demands in the long-term.
The analysis of massive quantities of data and continued acceleration of artificial intelligence and machine learning adoption will be vital to meeting the rapidly shifting online consumer purchasing landscape.
Q. Why is attention to staff, and training for staff, so critical to surviving a crisis like COVID-19?
A. Establishing consistent engagement with your workforce and supply chain partners is critical to surviving a crisis like this. The ability to pivot has proven to be vital for businesses big and small. Maintaining consistent engagement across teams – from offering training and development, to seeking feedback and providing strategic updates — can help retailers mobilize in response to crises faster. Anything businesses can do to ensure all team members and staff feel engaged, heard, and committed will put them in a position to survive challenging times.
Judy Mottl is editor of Retail Customer Experience and Food Truck Operator. She has decades of experience as a reporter, writer and editor covering technology and business for top media including AOL, InformationWeek and InternetNews.