The next phase: let’s not forget what we’ve learned

James Lowman

ACS boss James Lowman offers some timely advice on how to cope with what looks increasingly like a second wave of coronavirus, urging retailers not to forget what they learned in the first wave.

by James Lowman, Chief Executive, ACS

Since the start of the Covid crisis my colleagues and I at ACS have not just been working to help members to deal with the immediate challenges they’ve been facing, we’ve also been leading a discussion about what we can all learn from this experience. Which of the behaviours we’ve seen over this period will last, which are specific to this time? What would we do differently if we had our time again or if the same issues emerged again? Some of this work has been formalised – see our Covid debate sessions during August and the many ACS Live discussions and Local Shop Podcasts where we’ve tried to capture some of the most important things to learn.

What we’ve fought shy of has been defining some sort of playbook, because a) with such complex issues and so many unknown and changing factors it would be pretty arrogant for anyone to think they knew ‘the answer’ to the questions about what happens next and how we would respond again, b) businesses and communities are different, so there isn’t a plan that works for even a decent minority of convenience stores, and c) given a and b, this sort of advice ends up being so generic that it means nothing and I personally get irritated at highly equivocal descriptions of past events being presented as practical guidance for the future, when it isn’t. However, with growing speculation that we’re going to see more restrictions on how the public lives, moves, shops and socialises, and against the backdrop of some of these already being imposed in different parts of the UK, here’s a non-exhaustive list of key advice I would give retailers and industry partners at this time.

Colleagues first

Everyone agrees that colleagues are our most important asset, but get past the warm words and listen to what they say they need to feel safe. Offer choices on PPE and processes in store, and look at opening hours and breaks to allow the store to replenish and your colleagues to decompress. Think about the bigger picture of your colleagues wanting to turn up every day and advocate for your business in the community.

Retailers with established social media channels did better in the first lockdown because they could tell their customers in real time and without physical contact what their policies were and how they were keeping stores safe. I know many retailers who have eschewed social media because they’ve seen face-to-face contact as more relevant – that’s fine but we’re in a different world now when the customer who came in every day doesn’t. We’ve got some good guidance on getting better at social media.

If in doubt, communicate. On social media, yes, but also with good signage in store. We’ve got resources but use whatever works for you and make sure it looks clean and clear.

Make local links. These might be formal, for example telling the council helplines what you do through the retailer services checklist, or they may be more informal links to local people who want to help customers and your store.

Alternative sources

Think about alternative sources of supply, whether that’s additional wholesalers, local suppliers, or suppliers to the hospitality industry who saw their trade crash, not fully recover, and could see it fall again. Evaluating and connecting with these sources will help keep your shelves fuller for longer.

Decide now what your objective is. Are you an emergency option selling a bit more food, or are you trying to build your reputation as somewhere shoppers will feed their families from? Both are absolutely fine as strategies, but if you’ve found yourself reverting to a sales profile of impulse snacks since restrictions were eased… well that’s probably what your business should focus on and the Covid period will be an exceptional time when you sell more food. If you’ve kept a chunk of your new food shoppers in the past three months, that’s a pretty good indicator that it’s worth trying to attract and keep more.

Talk to each other. The best ideas, advice and insight I’ve heard over this time has been from retailers on WhatsApp, social media, trade press and our own communications and online events. Use your existing networks, and expand your information sources by one or two retailers or organisations you don’t normally engage with.

Hopefully much of that sounds like common sense, because there aren’t magic answers here. The principles of our business – listening to customers, engaging colleagues and building your relationship with the community – are exactly the same as they were pre-Covid. It’s just more intense, faster paced and against the backdrop of a uniquely challenging time for the whole country and indeed the world. Keep these guiding principles and you’ll emerge from this even stronger.