Retail – re-opening to a new reality

Malta takes its first steps towards the re-opening of certain retail shops with certain retail shops that can open from Monday 4th May. These shops will be the first to face the so called “new normal”.

However as such retailers re-open on Monday 4th May, they will very likely be faced by a completely new reality than the one they operated in merely 7 weeks ago. A good portion of consumers (not just the ones of vulnerable age) will likely prefer to avoid visiting shops whilst tightening their spending as they face uncertainties related to their wealth and jobs.

So what can these retailers do (actually they should have already started doing this) to minimise losses whilst also trying to make the best of any opportunity that this crisis brought about? Here are my pointers in reply to this question:

  1. The need to deepen their insight and knowledge of their Customers: Knowledge of their customers has never been more valuable to retail business. They need to analyse data about their customers’ behaviours and buying habits on a daily basis to learn what is changing and what is not. What new unmet needs have emerged? What new pain points have surfaced? What new markets are emerging for your company?
  2. Cover the basics: As these retail shops re-open they need to let customers know that the business is now operating and how you intend keeping your staff and your clients safe. For example, those retail shops that will offer FREE hand rubs and FREE face masks as you enter their shop will obviously be at an advantage. Make the extra effort to sanitise the shop daily or at least periodically and publicise this through social media, website or emails. Even as you re-open your retail shop, the delivery of your products will remain important and a very much required service. How are you ensuring you are not spreading the virus through your delivery service and what tangible actions are you taking to communicate this to your customers?
  3. Keep pressing the gas pedal on online social communication: Social distancing has resulted in a huge spike in social media traffic. If that is where your customers are, that is where you want to be. This is an opportunity to build a relationship with your customers, they will want to know what you are thinking and planning, what is happening with employees and that you look forward to meet them once again in your shop.
  4. Open your digital shop: Many retailers in Malta have already moved in the direction of offering strong digital retail solutions. However not everyone managed to move swiftly ahead in this direction. How can you move in this direction? Besides having a good website you will need to set up online payment methods. This has to be augmented with creating a database and emailing customers to update them on new products in stock. Moreover, this is the space to be innovative. For example for those hairdressers that will not be allowed to open on Monday, how many of you are using the digital means to engage with your clients to offer them do-it-yourself hair colour kits? You need to make sure that your brand is not forgotten in the minds of your clients. Even as you now open your shop on Monday you need to constantly ask yourself “What can I do to engage with my customers who love my brand/s, my products, but can’t visit my shop?” Here is where you should strive to really be creative. Invite them to post songs about your brand or products. Whatever your are able to invent, this will engage your clients whilst keeping your employees busy and focused on brand-building during these rough weeks.
  5. Experiment: I recently heard of a catering company that is offering a full solution for online digital parties whereby it delivers the food and drinks ordered at the various residences of the persons invited to the digital party and also setups the Zoom or Teams meeting for the whole group. How about that for innovation and experimentation? As you take these steps, ensure you are translating well your value proposition to the digital world. This means that the defining benefits of your business should come through. You might be surprised that digital offerings have some unanticipated benefits, such as giving customers extra time to learn more about your offerings (that might not be possible in a busy shop). My message is that you can use this crisis as an opportunity to experiment with entirely new offerings that might be sticky — meaning they could survive the crisis. Now is a good time to experiment. As you do, pay close attention to the response — who is responding, what else are they buying, and who is not responding?
  6. Contribute toward the fight: Just pushing your products may be half the story. it would help immensely if you can concretely express empathy and communicate social initiatives. For example, if you are a clothes shop, can you offer some new clothes to the front liners in this fight?

This is obviously a tough time for all retail shops and it will not go away by just having some shops re-open on Monday. However, I do not agree with the approach that there is nothing that can be done. There are actually new windows of opportunity that need to be acted upon to have such retail businesses survive and then eventually re-emerge stronger than ever when in the months and years ahead all this would be behind us. Keep positive, re-set your mindsets, jump in, learn fast and think long-term even as you focus on surviving these next few months.

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Silvan Mifsud

Silvan holds a degree in Banking & Finance from the University of Malta and an MBA from the University of Reading, specialising in Corporate Finance and Business Leadership. Silvan has been involved in various sectors of the economy holding various managerial and directorship roles. Silvan is presently working as a Director for Advisory Services at EMCS, whereby he advises various businesses on their strategy, operations, corporate governance, financial performance analysis and sourcing their financing needs.