This is a defining moment in retail. With COVID-19 creating a national emergency, the majority of people are staying at home. The result is a massive spike in demand for groceries and other household essentials alongside widespread concerns about safety from both customers and employees.

Retailers are responding with agility and resilience as they navigate dramatic shifts in category preferences, channel preferences, and consumer shopping behavior. Here’s what every retailer can do to address the challenges and build trust as we enter the new normal of retail.


Improve merchandise agility and visibility

Shoppers have cleared store shelves of items like hand sanitizer, bottled water, and toilet paper. Even bread and canned goods have been scarce. In fact, between March 13-15, 44% of household grocery shoppers in the U.S. said they are stocking up on cleaning supplies, medications, personal care items, and food to keep themselves healthy and prepared for whatever may come next.

Consider the following best practices as you shift into overdrive to address sudden, unexpected shifts in product preferences:

  • Ramp up efforts to replenish. As stockroom inventory dwindles, stores seek to bring in more product as fast as possible. Costco CFO Richard Galanti said the procurement team was, “working, in some cases, around the clock to procure supplies for both existing suppliers and from other sources where possible.”

  • Ensure every shopper has access to essentials. Some retailers have implemented purchase limits on high-demand items, from paper products to canned goods to baby supplies. Price gouging is another threat, and Amazon is cracking down on sellers setting outrageous price points for high-need items.

  • Refactor manufacturing and supply chain. Brands such as Crocs, Canada Goose, and New Balance have taken advantage of their scale, leverage, and agility to provide safety and protective products to healthcare and other professionals on the front line.

  • Communicate your efforts to shoppersRetailers added notices to their websites, or to their doors, to reassure customers supplies would continue to arrive and to explain any other new policies, such as Amazon’s prioritizing shipments of essentials over less-necessary items.


Adopt contactless engagement

As shoppers try to stay home, demand for delivery has skyrocketed. Instacart, Walmart Grocery, and Shipt saw 218%, 160%, and 124% increases, respectively, in average daily downloads compared to the previous month. And, generations traditionally not used to shopping this way, such as the elderly, are also getting on board with new technology.

Expand contactless payment and delivery services as well as other ways for shoppers to get groceries or other essentials without having to navigate store aisles or come into close contact with people.

  • Provide contactless payment. Walmart has updated its mobile app to remove the need for shoppers to make physical contact with a self-checkout station. “Checking out at Walmart will be completely contact-free on any register when you use Walmart Pay on the Walmart app in the coming week,” the company announced.

  • Offer more delivery options. CVS hired home delivery drivers, while Dominos seeks to hire 10,000 new employees and promises customers contactless delivery. Companies can also add delivery times to meet increased demand.

  • Accelerate Buy Online Pickup in Store (BOPIS). Shoppers who need items fast can see if they are available in a nearby store, claim them and pay online, and pick up the items at the store. This eliminates in-person visits to multiple stores in search of a hard-to-find item and unnecessary contact at the store. Shoppers simply walk in and pick up their orders or can even take advantage of curbside delivery.

  • Update customers on new options. Clearly communicate available services. Grocery stores managing online delivery services can keep customers informed and respond to inquiries quickly using Salesforce Care for Employee and Customer Support.


Set new policies to ensure shopper — and employee — safety

The unprecedented threat to health and safety calls for never-before-needed measures in brick-and-mortar stores. To protect the most vulnerable, consider the following practices:

  • Institute specific shopping times for the elderly or immunocompromised. Welcome these individuals in when the store first opens in the morning, when it is cleanest and fully stocked.

  • Implement safety protocols. Limit the number of people in the store at one time and instruct shoppers to remain six feet apart. Some grocery stores have put tape on the ground to mark where shoppers should stand while waiting to enter or check out. 

  • Step up cleaning efforts. Modify open hours to facilitate regular deep cleaning. Install hand sanitiser dispensers throughout the store and encourage shoppers and employees to use them.


Respond with empathy and creativity

Grocery and pharmacy workers have become frontline heroes in this pandemic, especially those who come into contact with the public, such as cashiers and stockers. Warehouse workers also put their health on the line. Leaders can support them in multiple ways:

  • Increase compensation for hourly employees. Acknowledge their hard work, and their risk of exposure, with a tangible raise in pay. Amazon boosted employee pay by $2 per hour through April, up from $15 or more, and doubled overtime pay for warehouse workers. San Antonio-based H-E-B also raised pay by $2 per hour.

  • Prioritize worker health and safety. Increase the cleaning cadence for warehouses and other workspaces and provide protective equipment if possible. Bolster leave policies to encourage sick workers to stay home and fully recover. Learn other ways to enhance employee wellbeing with Camp B-Well (Trailhead).

  • Be transparent as your response evolves. Leverage Quip to establish a crisis strategy and craft templates for communications. Share changes in policy to all stakeholders and encourage feedback. H-E-B established a coronavirus hotline for employees in need of information or assistance.

  • Pledge no layoffs. Give employees peace of mind by committing to no significant layoffs for 90 days for salaried, non-salaried, and hourly employees alike, in order to show dedication to your workforce. 


Next steps and resources

These are challenging times for the retail industry. While digital has seen very healthy growth in the first quarter, it won’t come close to offsetting the seismic drop in physical foot traffic. Those leaders who adapt to the challenges created by the health crisis are attracting new customers and cementing lifelong relationships. Learn more about the Salesforce Care Solution, which helps you communicate with customers and employees directly or on social media.

Our Leading Through Change series provides thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Check out some of our most recent articles: