Advice for Retailers During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Make no mistake: COVID-19 is having a major effect on retailers, just as it does everything else. Perhaps even more so as retailers have direct, and, in the case of physical stores, physical contact with large segments of the public. At least we hope it’s large in normal times. But this is not a normal time.



I have been in London the last few days to attend the London Book Fair,an international event for publishers, writers, and book retailers held over three days and attended by thousands from all over the world.

It was cancelled.

Cancelled at the last minute out of concern for the coronavirus outbreak.

I’m here, so I took advantage of having time to review the local retail environment, both High Street’s major retailers and small specialty shops.

In many ways, Europe is ahead of the USA in responding to this problem. Italy has just announced that the entire country is quarantined. Schools are closed. Most all travel is banned. All public events like concerts and sports events are canceled. People are advised to stay at home. France has banned all gatherings of more than 1,000 people. This is the most serious event of its kind since WWII.

On the streets of London, the first very obvious thing is that foot traffic is way down. Streets like Regent Street, usually shoulder to shoulder with tourists and locals, is emptier than anyone can remember. Restaurants and theaters are especially hard hit. Drug stores, on the other hand, are not only busy but are selling out of goods like toilet paper. Some people must be stockpiling enough toilet paper to last until the next full eclipse.

So I asked people in several stores how they are reacting to this business challenge, and I’d like to share what they had to say within the context of The Five Laws of Retail.


Health and Safety

First, not surprisingly, is “People First,” the First Law of Retail. In this context, that means the health and safety of employees and customers is the most important priority. Employees must be able to wash their hands frequently. Most importantly, anyone sick should stay at home. This may be a challenge for minimum wage hourly employees, especially if they do not have paid sick leave, but a way must be found to make it possible for anyone displaying signs of illness to stay home. It could be a matter of life and death.

If a retailer does not currently provide home deliveries, this a really good time to explore how to make that happen. A third-party provider may be the solution as more customers self-quarantine. Later, this will be a long-term benefit.


Inventory Control

Next is the Second Law of Retail, “Turn is Magic.” Retailers must work with suppliers to delay or cancel deliveries. Most retailers will want to drastically reduce inventory levels quickly to maintain close to a normal turn. Markdowns and price reductions may be ineffective. Twenty percent off isn’t going to make anyone feel better in these circumstances. Retailers must review their inventory status daily and react quickly. When we are past the worst of this, demand is likely to spike in a good way, and you want to be prepared to take advantage of that opportunity.

Last, make notes. Keep records of what you are doing. It may be hard to believe in the midst of it, but this will pass. The sun will come out. The birds will sing. All will be rainbows and unicorns again. (Well, maybe not that cheery). But a sense of normalcy will return, and customers will flock back. Time will pass, and next year at this time, many will have forgotten what happened and exactly when, how it affected business and actions taken. Make notes and be prepared to seize the renewed opportunity.

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