NRF 2021: Are retailers stronger having made it this far into the pandemic?

Photo: Walmart
Jan 20, 2021
George Anderson

There’s no doubt that the novel coronavirus pandemic spelled the end for many retailers, resulting in a record number of store closings in 2020. This was particularly true of those chains that were in weak financial positions before COVID-19 became a household name in the U.S.

This 2021 virtual version of the NRF Big Show has featured a lot of discussions about what it took for retailers to make it through the last nine months and what it means going forward. Great hope is being invested in mass vaccinations of the population as the numbers of daily hospitalizations and deaths set grisly records.

Many themes, commonly heard over the course of the pandemic, are being repeated at the show about the resiliency of many businesses and the people that make them run. The mood has also been hopeful that the combination of diligence, when it comes to safety measures, and immunizations will bring a return to normality. (Walmart chief customer officer Janey Whiteside said she hoped to see the more positive parts return since many would be happy to leave some elements of their past normal lives in the past.)

Every retail executive has commented on how their companies were digitally vaulted years into the future in a matter of weeks or months as they responded to the fastest and most dramatic changes in consumer shopping behavior in history.

Ms. Whiteside spoke about Walmart having accomplished five years of digital acceleration over a period of five weeks.

Retailers consistently commended frontline associates as the keys to success during the pandemic. Ms. Whiteside, Chewy CEO Sumit Singh and executives from Reitmans and RW & Co. in Canada spoke in different sessions about the critical role that store-level, warehouse and contract center associates played in meeting customers’ need for socially-distant product fulfillment.

Retailers also frequently mentioned safety for both associates and customers and discussed steps that they had to take to protect critical stakeholders from the novel coronavirus.

Understanding and connecting with customers was also a regular feature of conversations taking place at NRF sessions. Chewy CEO Sumit Singh spoke about how his company’s move into online veterinary services in October was prompted by calls it was receiving from customers about health problems with their pets, such as a dog eating chocolate.

See last Friday’s episode of BrainTrust LIVE for some astute commentary on NRF Virtual 2021 from RetailWire BrainTrust panelists Ricardo Belmar and James Tenser.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: In what ways have you seen retailers emerging as stronger operators after making it through the first nine months of the pandemic? Do you see the industry making further gains this year or taking a step back?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Sadly, many retailers, large and small did not make it through the pandemic. But many more did, and with lots of changes are stronger for it."
"Although the pandemic had different impacts based on retail segment, one universal truth is that it accelerated a lot of trends."
"Retailers’ responses to the pandemic have been nothing short of heroic."

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17 Comments on "NRF 2021: Are retailers stronger having made it this far into the pandemic?"

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Neil Saunders

There is no doubt that, operationally, many retailers have really stepped up their game because of the pandemic. Many decisions have been fast-tracked out of necessity and corporate cultures have become nimbler as a result. However not all aspects of retail are stronger. While some, such as Walmart and Target, have benefited, other retailers have borrowed a lot to survive. As such, many may exit the pandemic with improved operations but much weakened balance sheets. In other words, the pandemic has been a very mixed blessing and has probably polarized retail even more.

David Naumann

The obvious benefit of the pandemic on retailers is the acceleration of enhanced omnichannel technology and processes to handle the escalated online, BOPIS and ship-from-store orders. It also forced retailers to become more agile and now they are better prepared for other dynamics that may create the need to quickly modify their businesses processes in the future. The pandemic has changed some consumer habits for the long-term, so the changes retailers made will be beneficial even after the pandemic subsides.

Bob Amster

The pandemic has had a huge impact on retail businesses but not the same impact on all businesses. Some retailers lost a lot of business and went bankrupt or liquidated. They did not have enough cash reserves to keep their businesses viable. Other retailers had the agility and the reserves to adapt to the abnormality of the situation and are that much stronger now for it. They will lead for a long time. Other retailers have not grabbed this bull by the horns and are teetering on the edge of the precipice. There are a number of retailers in each group; some much stronger because of what the pandemic has forced them to do, some that are already gone, and some that will struggle along until they figure it out or get an influx of cash.

Xavier Lederer

You are making great points Bob. For many small retailers the real test has not come yet though: have they accumulated enough cash in Q4 2020 to make it through the end of the 2021 summer?

Georganne Bender

Sadly, many retailers, large and small did not make it through the pandemic. But many more did, and with lots of changes are stronger for it.

My company works with independent retailers. As I have said before, these retailers are not fighting for a job, they are fighting for their livelihood. They have moved quickly to update websites, adopt new customer services and conveniences, and jumped with both feet into selling via social media. Ironically, even when their stores were closed, many experienced stronger sales and continue to do so.

Retailers are exhausted but continue to work harder and push forward, making their stores stronger. As awful as it is, the pandemic has caused retailers to make, tweak, keep and abandon changes faster.

Lauren Goldberg

The retailers who will be stronger going forward are the ones who focused on rapidly evolving customer needs during the pandemic and then were nimble enough to execute. In the past, so many retailers had great ideas or initiatives that would get lost in “analysis paralysis” and a bureaucratic corporate structure. The stronger retailers focused, accelerated and got it done. I envision a slight slowdown on innovation, as retailers now have time to take a step back and look at the profitability of their initiatives.

Gary Sankary

Some are stronger, some are worse off. Companies that were already working on digital transformation and implementing Unified Commerce strategies, in most cases, are doing well, some better than well. Companies that were lagging in developing digital channels or did not invest in these capabilities are struggling. This was the case before the pandemic, the last nine months has accelerated adoption of these capabilities and widened the gap between companies doing well and those who are struggling to to adapt or who, in some cases, undervalued the importance of the pandemic on their business. There are a many aspects of retail that have been changed permanently as a result of the pandemic and going forward I would expect to see “winners” continue to do well and thrive.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Two big operational changes dominated 2020 – technology and people. Seamless cross-channel shopping and fulfillment allowed essential retailers to survive and thrive. Recognizing the role and value of associates – and starting to reward them accordingly – is still a work in progress.

Richard Hernandez

I think the pandemic has made retailers pivot faster on some things like curbside or BOPIS but even more on things like contactless payment and the like. There are still some retailers that are taking their time either because of limited resources or an inability to scale the infrastructure as far as they need to go, but they know they have to make the changes to keep up with the rest that have already quickly adapted to the new normal.

Lisa Goller

A full acceptance of e-commerce for survival led retail’s rapid step-change.

Partnerships and process re-engineering made retailers’ omnichannel offerings more robust. Walmart teamed up with Shopify and Instacart to overcome its bounty of under-capacity stores. Target’s ongoing investments in digital paid off with a fast ship-from-store model. Lowe’s use of pickup lockers offered safety and convenience as home categories boom.

Overall, retailers are now better positioned to serve the needs of all generations of shoppers.

Matthew Pavich

Although the pandemic had different impacts based on retail segment, one universal truth is that it accelerated a lot of trends. A lot of NRF presenters have focused on this acceleration and it appears that the retailers who survived and thrived were able to adjust and transform some elements of their business into 2025 or 2030 much quicker than initially anticipated. As with any year in retail, some will make further gains and others will take a step back. The key will be continued investment into the capabilities of tomorrow whether it is in AI platforms, new supply-chain models or new customer and digital experiences to meet the needs of an evolving consumer.

Cathy Hotka

Retailers’ responses to the pandemic have been nothing short of heroic. I’ve spoken with hundreds of retailers during this time, and all believe that the innovation we’ve seen is just the beginning. It is genuinely exciting to think about where we might be headed.

Oliver Guy

Possibly. Those who were struggling before are likely to be really struggling now and may well have already become a casualty. Those who are still standing were likely more resilient and flexible before.
However making sure new operations are made more efficient will now be key – given the speed at which changes were made inefficiencies will have crept in – these need to be addressed. Failure to do so will threaten margins going forward.

Gene Detroyer

As many of us have written, what the pandemic has done is accelerated industry changes, for the positive and for those who are able to adapt.

Is the industry stronger? Yes and no. The big guys are surely stronger. The middling are weaker and will disappear sooner, if they haven’t already.

As we discussed a few days ago, the key to being successful during the pandemic has been adaptability and having an excellent and progressive IT infrastructure.

As far as the industry goes, there surely will be a bump up as the pandemic dissipates, but the long term trend does not change. The market is finite and will not grow at a rate greater than population growth. Based on demographics, it may be even slower.

Lee Peterson

I think those that adapted to the speed of change that COVID-19 brought on are way better off. To me, COVID-19 was an accelerator of forces already underway including dominant e-commerce, store closures, BOPIS, delivery and more. So if you adapted to that in one year, you are much closer to what we were going to look like in 2030 anyway. I guess you could call the last year a year of rapid progress and, for consumers, a continued paradise of choice, speed, and convenience wrapped up with a bow of all around better experience.

Jeff Sward

At this point I’m not equating a retailer’s survival with how well they adapted or evolved. Some, like Target, were ahead of the curve and emerged with their pre-pandemic strategies highly validated. Others, like Macy’s, may have survived, but now with more debt and a shrinking store base they are deeper in the hole than before. Most of retail is still in the proverbial recovery room, and a year from now we’ll see how supply chains, store content and presentation, and delivery mechanisms have settled into truly evolved models.

Craig Sundstrom

Some retailers — online sellers, for example — have done well. But I think that’s really overwhelmed by those that didn’t (and that’s particularly true if we mean “retail” in the broader sense of hospitality, entertainment and other and services, not just goods). The the sad reality is that for many extant businesses, far from “being made stronger by the ordeal” are barely alive, and many (more) ultimately won’t make it.

"Sadly, many retailers, large and small did not make it through the pandemic. But many more did, and with lots of changes are stronger for it."
"Although the pandemic had different impacts based on retail segment, one universal truth is that it accelerated a lot of trends."
"Retailers’ responses to the pandemic have been nothing short of heroic."

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