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Australian Retailers Association’s CEO on the Retail Industry’s Silver Lining

Over the past year and a half, Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra, has been a steadying and sobering voice for retailers far and wide. In the lead up to Paul’s keynote address at the Salesforce Industries Summit for Retail and Consumer Goods on 22 September, he has provided some thought-starters on the current state and inevitable direction of the industry.

Since January 2020, how many times have you heard someone say “we are living in challenging times”? Too many to count, I’d imagine, and it’s become the pandemic’s unofficial slogan for good reason. But I’d like to propose a second-half to that slogan not mentioned often enough; one that embodies the efforts of the retail industry, across the board:

We are living in challenging times… that are reminding us of the tenacity, ingenuity and decency of human beings.

The way in which our retail industry continues to adapt, innovate and reinvent itself never ceases to astound me. In 18 months, we have not only met challenge after challenge head—on; we have not only almost completely altered the way we operate — but we have done so while simultaneously progressing forward on social and environmental issues. Yes, we’re only at the beginning of a long journey, but looking out towards the horizon, I see much more silver lining than clouds. Today, I’m choosing to focus on the former. 

Home is here to stay

Our everyday home and work lives are forever changed. Yes, the world will reopen. Yes, we’ll once again commute to offices and wander around shopping centres, but not in the same way or capacity as before. The lightning-pace with which we have innovated out of necessity, has forged a new relationship between company and consumer, one that will outlast the very challenges that turned the wheel of that innovation. 

How do we know this relationship has changed? We only have to look at periods between lockdowns, when Australian’s weren’t as bound by restrictions. Of course, there will always exist a loyal group of in-person shoppers, but regardless of when we’re once again unconcerned with QR codes and social distances, this migration to online omni—channels — this expanded accessibility of scroll-and-browse and click-and-deliver — is here to stay.

The stats only reinforce this shift. In 2021, 2 trillion transactions and 2.6 billion B2C messages will take place on the Salesforce platform alone. And 68% of consumers report that they will continue to buy essential goods online once we come out the other side of the pandemic.

Meeting the customer wherever they may be

For businesses of all sizes, this has been a culture shock – one that those hard at work haven’t had too much time to sit back and reflect upon. And here’s where I want to commend how quickly our industry has found ways to reinvent the retail experience, especially with such a seemingly unbridgeable gulf between company and consumer. We’ve found ways to not only bridge that gulf, but also to enrich and personalise the customer experience for the digital age. In many ways, we’ve been forced to prepare for a future that came sooner than expected. 

Whether innovations in customer interactions (live/video chat, social), in-store experiences (dynamic online shopping), or newer technologies (AI and Augmented Reality), retailers are harnessing the digital tools at their disposal to satisfy customer demands with increased sophistication and sensitivity. 

Our collective task, now, is to ensure every business, from the megaretailer to the corner store, has the ways and means to implement clear and sustainable digital strategies. I have every faith that we will get there — and the Australian Retailers Association (ARA) is doing everything it can to empower this newly engrained normal for everyone. 

Damage control with a social conscience

Amidst this frenzied evolution, retail is still managing to set new standards in sustainable practices. While sustainability is a challenge across all industries, we are amongst the leaders in energy commitment and sustainable design. We are not only fulfilling customer and government expectations, but in many cases, going above and beyond. We are working with transparency, collaborating with experts and implementing groundbreaking programs. The ARA is also doing our part, expanding our sustainable development through new appointments, bodies and strategies. 

Just as pressing and on the forefront of my and most minds is diversity, equality and inclusion, and retail has made leaps and bounds in working towards a unified future. The ARA has established a committee that brings together retail leaders from all walks of life and each day, businesses are coming to the table with their own initiatives that promote meaningful discussion, learning and of course, action. 

When it comes to all of these difficult yet vital issues, there is still a long way to go. But when I compare today to a decade ago, it’s clear as day that as an industry on the whole, we are further along the right track than could ever have been predicted. 

Retailing to the future

No matter which way you look at the current state of affairs, the future is now. Unavoidable circumstances have moved the goal posts for retailers, customers, stakeholders and the entire industry we hold close to our hearts. As expectations continue to shift by what seems like the minute, we will continue to enhance and refine both the virtual and face-to-face retail experience, and we will do so with ingenuity, steadfastness and humanity. 

Discover more about how the ARA are leading the charge in digital and social transformation at the Salesforce Industries Summit for Retail and Consumer Goods on 22 September 2021. 

Paul Zahra will deliver his keynote address: Fuel Growth and Cultivate Connected Relationships with Digital, from 1 p.m. AEST.

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Paul Zahra

Paul Zahra is CEO of the Australian Retailers Association.

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