Omicron threatens to mess retail up

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Jan 04, 2022

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is now, according to several accounts, the fastest spreading virus in history with over one million cases reported yesterday in the U.S.

News of the virus’s progress is creating a new wave of disruption in retail operations as workers, already in short supply in many businesses, are forced to stay home after testing positive. Consumers, themselves hit with the variant or seeking to avoid getting it, are turning to online ordering for delivery or curbside pickup in greater numbers.

The good news is that retailers are relatively well prepared to deal with this moment after nearly two years of practice responding to the ebbs and flows of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The bad news is that complicating factors, such as a lack of personnel and people dismissive of the public health threat, make it more difficult for businesses to address the current challenge and are potentially creating a scenario that may prolong the pandemic.

Retailers have responded in a variety of ways to the rise in cases.

Apple has closed some of its locations to customers and others, including Walmart, have shut stores temporarily.

Other retailers have been forced to add hours and pay overtime to keep up with demand as they find themselves short-staffed in the face of rising cases. Some have limited store hours as their personnel and systems are stressed by demand and rapid shifts in shopping behavior created as a byproduct of the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Face mask rules and social distancing have largely been left up to customers. In some parts of the country, shoppers tend to wear masks in stores but, in many locales, stores are packed with unmasked customers who remain unconcerned about getting or spreading COVID-19.

The province of Quebec, this past Sunday, began requiring businesses designated as non-essential retail to close for the day. This was the first of three planned closure days. Pharmacies, convenience stores and gas stations are allowed to remain open.

Retailers objected to the action.

“The last thing businesses need during these difficult times is additional restrictions,” Charles Milliard, president of the Quebec Federation of Chambers of Commerce, said in a statement. “We must leave the choice to businesses to open or close at the time that makes the most sense for them, their employees and their customers.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How well do you think retailers are responding to the current operational challenges created by the spike in Omicron cases around the country? Do retailers have a responsibility to do more to try to curtail the spread of the virus in its current form?

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Braintrust
"The only thing retailers can do is continue to reinvent customer services and ride the wave because we have no idea what will happen next."
"I think they are responding the best they can. This fast spreading variant creates problems for shoppers and employees alike."
"Where the challenge becomes clear is with labor shortages."

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26 Comments on "Omicron threatens to mess retail up"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

The most important thing retailers can do is to remain vigilant and flexible. Conditions are changing daily, and can vary considerably by geography. Most retailers are doing everything they can to create a safe environment for shoppers and staff. While Omicron is creating new challenges, the protocols retailers already have established are likely good enough. Everyone has a responsibility to play their part to curtail the spread of the virus, and I believe that most retailers are doing the very best that they can.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

Retailers need to enforce mask mandates for the next three months. Omicron seems to be a milder version and is coming at the right time. I believe this is our best chance to gather herd immunity. Experts say this will peak in the next 60 to 90 days. We need to either get everyone vaccinated or get herd immunity before the next variant, which could be more lethal, it appears.

The simple truth is that we could have nipped COVID-19 in the bud by locking down completely for three weeks. But that was two years ago, so the best we can do now is mask up, boost up, and shop safely.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

My local pharmacy is an embarrassment. Pharmacy techs wearing chin diapers — and then, lo and behold, they didn’t have enough people to staff the store on Saturday and just closed.

Most other retailers seem to be doing a reasonable job. Thing is, this thing hit so fast, it took a few beats to adjust to the new reality. It was that sudden (in Florida).

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Sorry, but I just can’t think like this anymore. With the dominant form of preferred shopping now being online, what’s to stop you from getting what you want no matter what happens? Remember the “supply chain” issues? You know, the ones that never happened? I think retailers are so much more savvy than say five years ago, they will overcome Omicron with excellent e-commerce (including AI), BOPAS, next-day shipping and whatever it takes to get goods to consumers. We are NOT reliant on physical space anymore so, if the consumer is at home due to illness or fear of it, and you have what they want/need — so what?

George Anderson
Staff

While shopping online is no doubt a option that many will choose, supply chain issues are an ongoing reality and the list goes on and on. Here’s just some of what I’ve noticed locally in the past week. Trader Joe’s had more empty shelf space days before New Year’s Eve than I’ve seen in decades of shopping the chain. Target stores here, never known for being very good at maintaining inventory, have been bad by their own standards. Online orders placed with Whole Foods for pickup come back with OOS notices. Local pharmacies are out-of-stock on COVID testing kits or limiting purchase amounts to try to stay in-stock.

Scott Norris
Guest

More of this: one of the bigger Twin Cities’ school districts just informed parents their milk provider can only supply half of expected demand due to shortages in, of all things, paper milk cartons. At my company, there isn’t enough thick cardboard available anywhere in our supply chain to fulfill all my customers’ orders for current titles of bingo games and puzzles — let alone to allow us to introduce new titles.

Physical retail or not, when your drivers, packers, and vendors are falling over sick or have to stay home to care for their sick children/parents, that shuts down the supply chain cold.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Target fulfills e-com out of their stores, which is the issue there — they have publicly announced that supply chain was not an issue and I can testify, since Whole Foods was purchased by Amazon, their shelves are bare all the time, that’s an algorithm issue (or someone that knows nothing about G stores), several pubs ran stories about supply chain not being an issue for retailers — hence my comments. We recently did a survey of over 2500 people asking their preferred method of shopping going forward: it was e-com for 68% of them. The most egregious thing I ran into was charging ridiculous prices to ship (AMZN), seemed like they just didn’t want to.

Anyway, thx for the comments, fun discussion, but as a consumer/family: we scored 100%, and fast.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

What’s to stop you, of course, is the spread through distribution channels: out front may be more vulnerable and of interest to us, but the backroom isn’t immune.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Is this “Here we go again,” or are we prepared and practiced to quickly adjust to this new wave of COVID-19? The Omicron variant is the third wave of the pandemic. Just when we think it all may be behind us, here we go again. The difference is this time we have some experience. We know how to deploy our workforce and move away from traditional retail (in-store and in-person, if necessary) and, while not ideal, we’ve had a little practice.

Everyone should do what is necessary to curtail the spread of the virus. Practice smart and healthy retail. Watch what the best are doing and emulate it as much as possible.

Gary Sankary
BrainTrust

Retailers have learned a ton in the last 22 months about how to flex resources and react to fast changing conditions in their markets. This will be no different. From my experience the vast majority of retailers are doing their part to follow CDC guidelines to protect their teams and their customers. The speed and broad scope of this variant is causing new headaches just staffing stores in what was already already a tight market. But as we see, retailers are adapting and reacting to get through this.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Most retailers relaxed but never completely abandoned COVID-19 protocols, so tightening them up again should not be too problematic. What is challenging is the shortage of labor as those who test positive have to isolate – that’s causing all sorts of issues from proving adequate customer service to fulfilling digital orders. There is little that can be done about this in the short term. What retailers cannot do – and indeed should not do given that the latest variant seems mild – is completely lock down. This is onerous, economically damaging and an overreaction – especially when everyone has now had the chance to get vaccinated.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

Obviously Omicron is bringing new challenges to consumers and retailers. No one wants to see mandatory closings. Despite hopes that this is the last wave and less harmful, retailers need to take the lead in recommending or requiring staff vaccinations, including a booster. Furthermore, store requests for customers to wear masks and maintain social distance need to be highlighted again, despite customer pandemic fatigue. Short of taking these necessary steps, mandated closures may result.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Chicago is vigilant: Masks indoors and no one aged 5+ can enter a restaurant, bar, gym and other public places without masks and proof of vaccination. Suburbs are beginning to follow suit. Retail stores do not require proof of vaccination. Yet.

The only thing retailers can do is continue to reinvent customer services and ride the wave because we have no idea what will happen next.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

I’m so proud of the way retail has responded — reinvention has been good for the industry!

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

There’s a lot to be proud of, that’s for sure!

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

Retailers are frustrated yet remarkably flexible at responding to Omicron.

Over the past two years, they have embraced operational agility with e-commerce, BOPIS, curbside pickup, faster checkouts and dark stores. They have collaborated with tech and logistics partners for omnichannel options that allow business continuity.

Retailers have a responsibility to keep their associates and customers safe. Apple and Walmart have shown leadership with their bold responses to this unique, contagious variant.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

Omicron doesn’t seem to be intimidating consumers, at least anecdotally based on some recent store visits. But retailers trying to staff their stores are absolutely challenged by the spread of the virus, even if the quarantine period is shorter and the side effects are milder.

Most governments lack the political will to reimpose mask mandates at this point, so responsible retailers need to take that step as soon as possible.

Brent Biddulph
BrainTrust

Retail leaders that have invested in robust e-commerce capabilities (personalization, owned delivery) combined with renewed supply chain partnerships will do exceedingly well (once again). Retail laggards (under-invested in e-commerce) are likely to face deja vu from the first COVID-19 wave, again faced with brick and mortar store closures, depleted workforces and constrained inventories.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Do I think think retailers are responding to the current operational challenges created by the spike in Omicron cases around the country? Yes! And I am really proud of our retailers as they took as many steps they could to keep all safe in their stores. Many continue today to keep restrictions for the safety of customers and their staff. Will they have to up their game? Yes, and I believe these professionals will give it all they’ve got!

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

The relentlessness of the pandemic has become exhausting on so many levels. The spread of omicron is concerning. However with increased vaccinations and potentially herd immunity, there may finally be a horizon to the almost two-year global pandemic. The retail industry, especially the front-line store associates, has been the most vigilant, diligent, and resilient group.

We should expect that the mask and social distancing laws will become stricter for the next few months. In addition, there will continue to be supply chain disruptions for both in-store and e-commerce shopping experiences. The winners during the pandemic will be those retail organizations that have invested significantly into their digital platforms, customer experience, infrastructure, supply chain capabilities, and last-mile partnerships.

Let’s all hope for better days ahead.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Retailers are amazingly resilient. Most retailers have learned some best practices and have applied these to their business, in some cases overhauled their business entirely. The omicron variant will be a blip on the retail radar many decades from now — nothing more.

As for responsibility, retailers must continue to prevent spreading of the disease as part of its modus operandi. Ultimately, these costs are baked into their success anyway. Protecting staff, customers, and reputation will go a long way.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Dealing with Covid is not new. Retailers and their customers have been dealing with it for 2 years. The biggest difference is the rate at which Omicron has and continues to spread, meaning while the health impact may be less, but far more people are impacted, adding to the staffing challenge.

I believe most retailers are handling the challenges well given the issues they face. For many systems are in place to allow customer pickup, touchless payment, etc. I don’t see any one thing that will suddenly make a large impact. Retailers have to follow the follow the rules but the governing bodies and where they may think are not stringent enough impose their own.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

This article seems curiously Quebecentric … hard to know if they’re a pioneer or just an outlier.

Anyway, as with pretty much everything else in life, the “responsibility” of retailers is to follow the laws and regulations which are imposed upon them, which I think most have done, and will continue to do … however grudgingly.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

I think they are responding the best they can. This fast spreading variant creates problems for shoppers and employees alike. At least it seems Omicron isn’t hospitalizing the vaccinated as much and the symptoms are milder for the vaccinated. In person shopping is still predominate in grocery (other than Whole foods where it seems to me they are more delivery buyers than retail shoppers) and of course pharmacy is generally in person. In some cases, if too many employees test positive the store will have to reduce hours, and shoppers are making necessary adjustments to switch to online and delivery (assuming the delivery system holds up as drivers are at risk too).

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

Retailers have been operating over two years with the pandemic and in my part of the country, Los Angeles, they appear to be adjusting well to the ever evolving threat. Moreover, consumers have adopted the technology, behavior, and in-store safety rules that curtail the risks of in-person shopping.

However, all these measures are only effective if consumers and retail employees follow pandemic protocols in all of their public and personal behavior. The retail industry can be the pathfinder in navigating pandemic safety, but ultimately it’s the community that bears the responsibility.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
Retailers have certainly learned a lot over the past 2 years of this pandemic and have shown they can adapt quickly to changing conditions most of the time. Where the challenge becomes clear is with labor shortages. Yes, retailers can adopt, or re-adopt, COVID protocols, and hope that customers abide by them, but what happens when your employees start testing positive despite being vaccinated? Sure, they will have lighter symptoms, and hopefully will not require hospitalization, but it still means they’ll be at home recovering for many days. With the higher case rates we’re seeing with omicron, labor shortages may become more common for short bursts. That can cause havoc in the supply chain or in distribution or even keep stores from opening (see Apple, Walmart). Having more digital channels available for customers is one thing, but as we’ve learned during this pandemic, every step of the purchase path requires human action in some capacity and when those humans aren’t available, everything stops or slows down. Ultimately, retailers need the communities around them to embrace… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The only thing retailers can do is continue to reinvent customer services and ride the wave because we have no idea what will happen next."
"I think they are responding the best they can. This fast spreading variant creates problems for shoppers and employees alike."
"Where the challenge becomes clear is with labor shortages."

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