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A curated content platform of COVID-19 news stories with a supplier-retailer lens by Advantage Group.

Edition 12 – June 24, 2020

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How the Pandemic is Accelerating the Need for Omnichannel Retail

Coronavirus brought the world to a grinding halt. People were directed to shelter in place, work from home and non-essential businesses closed. Grocery retailers and other ‘essential’ businesses were able to remain open with their teams at the forefront to serve the public. At the same time, nearly every market experienced an e-commerce explosion as fears of the spread of disease grew. Now that non-essential designated retailers have started to re-open their brick and mortar stores for business, there is much conjecture on what the world of retail holds going forward. Many of these retailers may also shed new light on what the post-COVID economy will look like for retail in general, as they have had the opportunity to reflect on the future during long months of shutdown.


Over the past several weeks, headlines reported that multitudes of brick and mortar stores will close their doors over the next several years. For example, Starbucks plans to close 400 of their stores over the next 18 months and GNC has already closed roughly 300 of its health food stores. J. Crew and JCPenney, as well as other big-name retailers, announced store closings as their businesses dissolve. While some of this activity reflects the demise of struggling brands prior to the pandemic, it also depicts a drastic shift that will certainly change the retail landscape for big brands as well as ‘mom and pop’ shops into the future. Coresight Research predicts between 20-25,000 US brick and mortar stores will close in 2020 alone. For Canada, that could mean several thousand closures. Additionally, eMarketer reports that retail sales will decline by over 10% in 2020 yet calls for an 18% increase in e-commerce during the same period.

Another flurry of news indicates that big name chains announce the opening of new brick and mortar stores within the wake of COVID. Dollarama, a Canadian discounter, announced that their brick and mortar business is stronger than ever and says they will build more stores in Canada and in Latin America under the ‘Dollarcity’ banner that they have an ownership in. Amazon will continue its trend to open brick and mortar stores in 13 states across the US. Ulta Beauty also plans brick and mortar expansion with plans to open 400 stores within the next 10 years.

So, what is the public to make of this dichotomy and how it will play out? Will brick and mortar retailers eventually become relics of the past? Will e-commerce catch up to brick and mortar as the leading point of sale and delivery vehicle in the post-COVID economy? What of the retailers that continue to open stores in the wake of the e-commerce boom? To better understand these questions requires a peeling away of the layers in the complex and rapidly changing economic environment that we are in.

Reinvent Your Business to Stay Relevant

China and Southeast Asian markets were some of the first to open after lockdown. The initial view from these markets shows that for retailers to stay relevant, they will need to adapt in the post-Covid world. Asian retailers have seen a surge in consumers starved to shop. Dubbed ‘revenge spending,’ brands have seen a boost that has helped to jumpstart foot traffic in their stores after lockdown. However, as retailers and brands have been bolstering their on-line presence during the pandemic, there is a recognition that they also must invest in digital offerings to stay on track with consumer demands. E-commerce purchase and delivery options, social media and live streaming have become the norm during the pandemic and consumers will expect the same in the aftermath. For example, Benefit Cosmetics, an LVMH brand has launched an eyebrow try-on program via the popular social sharing app WeChat, which allows consumers to virtually try-on a brow product prior to making an appointment to come into a store for purchase. Sephora has entered a partnership with Chinese online giant TMall to open an e-commerce store on-line.

Kohl’s Corp. CEO, Michelle Gass believes that the pandemic shutdown should be viewed as a reset for brick and mortar retailers. She encourages business leaders to reboot ideas and innovations that were on a ‘back burner’ to affect change and to improve the level of service for consumers who relied on digital means during lockdown. She echoes the need for retailers to heighten the in-store experience for shoppers in her quote from a Bloomberg article last week saying: “The bar is raised on what experience you’re creating inside that brick-and-mortar. This period has heightened and accelerated all of these things for consumers and for businesses like us, both small and large.”

Brick and Mortar are Here to Stay

As difficult as it has been for brick and mortar retailers during the pandemic, e-commerce pales in comparison when it comes to facilitating impulse purchases and a positive purchase experience surrounding many other non-essential goods (e.g. fashion, cosmetics). Product categories that require touch and fit, and promote immediate satisfaction rely on the presence of physical stores. According to Credit Suisse analyst, Michael Binetti, “Eighty percent of people still set aside time to get in a car and go to a store to purchase something that they could have gotten online.” This is where we see the Warby Parkers (online eyeglasses retailer) and Amazons of the world making a shift to physical stores so they can satisfy consumer desires for a personal experience. People want to see, try-on and experience some items before buying, not to mention the urge for an occasional impulse purchase of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or package of M&Ms. At the end of the day, people buy from people and this is a part of what is lost in a fully online experience.

North American retailer Ulta Beauty has full confidence in their ability to sustain their brick and mortar business. Their core model relies on the belief that shoppers want to see, touch and try-on before purchase and they are determined to take-on other brick and mortar retailers and compete with Amazon and other e-commerce platforms. Their foundational strategy has pushed other retail giants like Target, Walmart, and CVS to invest heavily in their own cosmetics departments with better lighting, upgraded fixtures and more open spaces.

Localization has also become a buzz word during Coronavirus. Consumers, suppliers, and retailers found that staying close to home offers unique benefits that cater to local needs. For example, shopping in stores close to home provides a feeling of safety and personal connection as well as the sense that one is supporting their communities and neighbors. Identifying with community and managing supply chain using local suppliers and assets has led to efficiencies and has minimized complexity and risk in obtaining the goods and services required to keep them flowing to shoppers.

Integrating Online and Offline for Maximum Reach

The single most important learning for businesses post shutdown is the imperative to integrate the shopper experience from online to offline seamlessly. This is a warning signal not only for retailers returning to business, but for grocery retailers and suppliers whose businesses boomed over the past several months. Consumers have become increasingly savvy in the e-commerce and digital space. In fact, they are light years ahead of where they were before because they were forced online during the pandemic. While e-commerce exploded to new heights during the pandemic, the focus is now on omnichannel retail. A true omnichannel structure transcends the online-only experience. Omnichannel is the way to create interactions with the consumer in the ways that they dictate through the mediums that they want to use. Businesses enabled by omnichannel retail have the power to reach consumers and shoppers in many more ways than ever before spanning a combination of on and offline channels.

Starbucks made a recent statement that it will accelerate its strategy to integrate physical stores with digital coffee experiences. The transformation combines store closings with an increase in online purchase options as well as the addition of new store types. They will focus their efforts on Starbucks Pickup-Only stores in high density markets as well as build out other convenience-based solutions to increase the level of shopper satisfaction so patrons may drive-up, drive-thru, or walk-up to grab their beverage of choice. Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson says in a recent New York Daily News segment, “As we navigate through the COVID-19 crisis, we are accelerating our store transformation plans to address the realities of the current situation, while still providing a safe, familiar and convenient experience for our customers.”

Amazon is taking full advantage in their ability to bridge the online and offline divide by leveraging Whole Foods’ footprint, distribution networks and local communities. And while Ulta Beauty’s model is in favor of investing in their stores and upgrading the instore experience, they are undergirding their network of physical stores by building an online presence to empower consumers with more choices in the way they shop.

Automation to fuse online and offline vehicles enables consumers to interact with brands more seamlessly. From efficient inventory customer management tools, and digital marketing, investing in technology and software can impact retailers’ and suppliers’ abilities to streamline. In Dubai, InstaShop is helping to modernize the brick and mortar sector by offering an online marketplace for on-demand delivery. They have onboarded more than 500 local outlets since the onset of Coronavirus, so retailers can improve their ability to meet consumer needs in a unique way and allows them to transcend into the ‘new normal’.

Advantage Perspective

Over these interesting and incomprehensible last few months, we have experienced shifts in consumer behaviour as shoppers have been forced online to buy and pick up both essential and non-essential items. It is important to remember that retail is a people business. Shoppers seek people to help them find the products they are looking for and to fit and test items that they are intent to buy. Retailers and suppliers will continue to be reminded that the “people principle” will never fully go away. Working together today to better manage the shopper experience whether instore, online or a combination of both will require sharing, transparency, cross-functional teams, strong future-focused business plans and teams that are fit for the future.

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Voices on the Ground

This week, we conducted a roundtable discussion with our Advantage team on how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting Canada. Panel members included:

Jamie: In Canada, it has become very much about e-commerce. This is one of the highest growth channels right now nationwide, with almost every supplier and retailer making unprecedented advancements and investments in e-commerce innovation and technology.

There is a saying in the supplier and retailer community now that goes “Canadian e-commerce is like building a plane while you're flying it”. More honest words have never been spoken! We are hearing suppliers and retailers comment on the trajectory of e-commerce, saying that they expect that growth will begin to subside, but, I am not so sure about that. If you think about this from a psychological perspective, there is a principle called the 21/90 rule. It takes 21 days to start forming a habit, and 90 days to integrate that habit into your lifestyle. In Canada, the pandemic started roughly in mid-March, so everyone from suppliers to retailers and consumers alike have had 90 days to build e-commerce engagement into their lifestyles. In those 90 days, e-commerce has continued to develop and provide competitive and alternative solutions to support continued growth.

Dwight: The CEO of one of the largest retailers in Canada recently stated the pandemic is accelerating the e-commerce plans everybody had. Another CEO said that since the crisis started, they probably jumped forward three years ahead of where they would have been with e-commerce. When we went into lock down, I tried to order groceries online for pick-up and the earliest available timeslot in my area was two weeks out. Now I can find places to order and pick-up same day. Companies increased their pace of investment, and they now have improved infrastructure to deliver online compared to at the start of the pandemic. Many consumers got exposed to e-commerce that had not used it previously due to the ‘new normal’ of shopping, but there were also negative customer experiences that retailers needed to overcome to keep them coming back and hold them as we move to the new normal.

Jamie: It is also interesting to talk about the customer acquisition costs for e-commerce shoppers both now and pre-COVID. On average, e-commerce customer acquisition costs were higher pre-COVID. Retailers were pushing innovative bundle options, and referral programs to customers for higher penetration into the channel pre-pandemic. Compared to today, I would anticipate with all the alternative solutions in place and optimization of use, acquisition costs have declined. Customers are willing to pay for the convenience and safety of an e-commerce purchase and delivery versus shopping in-store, so long as the experience has been favourable.

Atul: I think this also touches back on the increased investments that suppliers and retailers are making in e-commerce. As suppliers and retailers experience a growing volume of e-commerce shoppers, it implies that these cost improvements need to be more scalable for channel growth. This is where innovation in product assortment, supply chain, and process improvement will become very important for the next phase of e-commerce development in the new normal. Jamie: In Canada, we have recently launched a ‘Voice of e-Commerce' program. It will be very interesting to see what kind of feedback suppliers and retailers give to each other. E-commerce right now is a very competitive race, and retailers and suppliers will need to leverage each others’ feedback to fuel their growth.

Dan: These are initiatives that consumers are really latching onto right now. The topics of brand reputation, community support, sustainability and customer loyalty have become more intertwined than ever, so retailers and suppliers must continue to treat this with high diligence. In one of my recent meetings with Smuckers Canada, they told me that they have frequent meetings on how they will continue these initiatives and shape their brand to avoid any negative connotations with consumers. In one example, they received a lot of press for their flour products because they ran out of their previous packaging for them. They elected to use local materials and repurposed their packaging on recycled paper with black and white ink. This was something that really resonated with consumers, as they felt Smuckers was making a positive contribution to the environment and society.

Jamie: Brands that have transparent, ongoing communication are viewed as more relevant and can ‘pull at the heartstrings’ to engage with communities. This becomes even more powerful when their efforts are connected to our national heritage and identity. A uniquely Canadian example of this is a local supplier of hockey equipment that repurposed their products to build protective visors for healthcare workers. From a grocery perspective, many Canadian suppliers have shifted their marketing budgets to support local businesses. One Supplier even supported an internal initiative, providing gift cards to all employees to treat their families to dinner on a Friday evening.

Overall, corporate cultures are really accommodating to meet the needs of communities. As Canadians, we thrive on diversity and community, and I think that really speaks to some of the strengths that both our suppliers and retailers have leveraged during this period.

Dan: It’s really about taking a holistic approach to goodwill efforts at this time. These are powerful efforts that can triple your brand coverage, and they can even be used to win back consumers who have left your brand for other competitors. The key thinking from a consumer perspective is: are these efforts just ‘lip service’ while we are navigating through this crisis so that the brand can increase sales? Or does the brand honestly believe in these efforts and have an imperative for societal goodwill?

Atul: Looking through the initial feedback gathered in our Advantage Engagement Program so far, we have found two key behaviours that are beginning to become much more prominent due to the crisis:

• Collaboration: We believe that the pandemic exposed the senior leadership of suppliers and retailers to how much more could be accomplished when they work collaboratively and adapt together to change. When it comes to activities such as pivoting strategy, changing promotional plans, and making decisions on inventory, these are examples of where effective collaboration and adaptability become paramount. It has become about understanding new and unique challenges and solving them collaboratively. Suppliers and retailers have come up with creative, fast, and innovative approaches to problem-solving in this period. An example of this is the centralized crisis management teams that suppliers and retailers have created internally so that they can make urgent decisions quicker and implement them immediately.

• Communication: We are seeing more honest, and open communication at a higher frequency resulting from the pandemic. Previously, suppliers and retailers may have only communicated on a weekly basis, or as required. Delays in communication were also very common. But now, both parties are responding quickly and taking immediate action. At the beginning of the crisis, suppliers and retailers would be in a scramble to find products to refill shelves, but they worked to build ways to continuously review inventory information. This alleviated much of the pressure that they had on managing production schedules and product availability.

I think that with enhanced collaboration and communication, one of the overall effects we are seeing is much deeper levels of trust. Suppliers and retailers are saying to each other, “we will get through this crisis sooner or later, together”, acting with a very positive, ‘can-do’ attitude that is fueled by a mutual commitment to one another.

Dwight: We had been asked to speak at some online sessions for various groups in Canada, such as the Food & Consumer Products of Canada, and the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, to share our insights on grocery industry collaboration and communication in the crisis. The larger question now becomes: now that senior executives have had more exposure to the benefits and agility of collaboration, will these behaviours continue to hold amongst suppliers and retailers? Or is there a risk of shifting back to the older behaviours? On the topic of communication for example, we know that there will be challenges on both sides. There will be a need to have proper expectation management around effective communication. Thus, one of the initiatives that we will be taking on is to encourage suppliers and retailers to develop a joint charter. This will help them codify the learnings that they have taken from this crisis period and continue to act on them well after the crisis is over.

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A Pulse on Big Brands

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