These are extraordinary times. This worldwide pandemic, while not unpredictable, certainly came on with a terrible swiftness, and it’s understandable for many of us to be feeling knocked off balance. We need to take a beat, catch our collective breath, and get our thoughts in order.
The next step forward for retailers may be, ironically, looking back. History is made up of extraordinary times and with the extraordinary people who have stepped up to meet the challenges. This is where we can find inspiration.
Let’s take a quick look at three strategies for retailers to meet the challenges of unpredictable surges in demand in the context of how three historical greats handled their challenges.
Be a Leader
In 1940 Winston Churchill famously became Prime Minister of the British Empire in its “darkest hour.” Alone and under threat of imminent invasion, Churchill rallied his nation with inspirational speeches, defiant quotes, and a consistent public presence.
These were certainly vital to the effort, but what set Churchill apart as a leader was his tremendous capacity for detail and his willingness to do the hard work to make the best forward-looking decisions.
In a similar way, retailers must remain committed to openly and inspirationally meeting customer demand any way possible: changing business hours to allow more time to stock shelves, redeploying corporate employees as needed to in-store positions, evaluating demand on a minute-by-minute basis and reacting accordingly.
But to be true leaders, retailers must dig in and do the hard work necessary to find the valuable takeaways and lessons to be learned. For example, retailers that have not already been implementing automation technology should note the critical areas in this very real-world scenario where that technology would be helping now.
For those who do have automation technology, the consideration should be understanding differences between how it was intended to be used and how it is actually being used. Retailers should start with “now” in mind in terms of meeting surges in customer demands and work their way back to figuring out how to organize automation to best meet those demands.
Look for Advantages
In 1974 when Pat Summit began her career as coach for the women’s basketball team at the University of Tennessee, she was barely a year older than many of her players, and her job duties included washing uniforms and driving the team van to away games.
Over time Summit built a powerhouse program that included 1098 wins and 8 NCAA championships. As a former player and Olympic athlete, Summit recognized her special insight into the nascent sport and took every opportunity to use that insight to boost not just her program but women’s basketball as a whole.
Retailers, too, need now to look for any advantage they have. Those with automation technology in place should look to implement strategies that address continued demand surges in online and in-store shopping. Evaluating data to uncover and anticipate inefficiencies and to optimize order fulfillment is especially critical as the world moves past the initial crush of in-store activity and into increased online activity.
Again, starting at the point of what is necessary for meeting customer demand today and working back to leveraging automated technology will create balance and adaptability. Today’s technology allows companies to take full advantage of software algorithms to assess picking opportunities and workflows to best optimize order fulfillment.
Consider a Different Way
The great American scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver, is probably most famous as the inventor of peanut butter (which is a shame because he wasn’t). He was, however, a tireless promoter of peanut products as a way of helping poor farmers in the post-Civil War American South.
Dr. Carver recognized that decades of growing only cotton and tobacco had been a way of life, but it had dangerously depleted nutrients in the soil. He introduced the concept of systematic crop rotation to rebuild the soil and provide additional cash crops for farmers.
As we move past the peak of this current crisis, retailers, too, should start rethinking their processes, especially their distribution models. In the recent past, a single, giant distribution center feeding dozens of stores made excellent business sense and was the model of choice. But now — in addition to the current crisis, growing trends include smaller stores and increased urbanization — that model may not be the best fit for all cases.
The need for increased speed and flexibility is pointing many retailers toward hub-and-spoke models where order fulfillment is more dispersed and automated. Instead of a rigid, top-down hierarchy, orders can be handled more nimbly across large and small distribution centers, as well as omnichannel fulfillment from in-store stock.
Hub-and-spoke models include dark stores and micro-fulfillment centers that can address unplanned surges in demand and be quickly converted, for example, from online fulfillment to immediate in-store fulfillment.
From Darkest to Finest
Again, these are extraordinary times. But we find inspiration and insight in the diversity of past challenges. And for the retailers who step up to become the leaders, who look for advantages, and who consider a different way, they may well look back one day and say (to paraphrase Churchill), “this was our finest hour.
Mohamed Ali Vaid is vice president of commercial acceleration at Dematic, an intralogistics company that designs, builds and supports intelligent, automated solutions for manufacturing, warehouse and distribution environments.