Blog | Jan 27, 2021

The Future of Retail Post COVID-19: Business Continuity & Adaptability

Future of Retail

Preparing for a New “Post-COVID” Era in Retail

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for seismic change within retail. Across the sector, there is now an acceptance that the disruption and speed of change that we have seen over the past year, is set to become the norm, rather than the exception.

Accenture describes the coming years as; “a period of unpredictable and possibly muted economic recovery with new competitive threats and opportunities, and quite possibly a new era of the Never Normal, defined by fast changing shifts in cultural norms, societal values and behaviours.”

This means that retailers can’t just focus on weathering the current storm, surviving through the pandemic and then returning to a strategy of gradual innovation and incremental digital transformation.

Instead, retailers need to first re-imagine their go-to-market strategies to ensure that they remain relevant and meet fluctuating customer demands, and then build the operational agility and resilience to react and compete in a highly unpredictable marketplace. A major focus, therefore, will need to be business continuity.

Adaptability and business continuity under the spotlight

Retail leaders have long talked about operational agility and resilience being a key strategic objective for their organizations. But now COVID-19 has turned this into a critical imperative. The pandemic has pushed even the most well-prepared business continuity plans to their limit, and in some instances, have been found wanting.

In particular, COVID-19 continues to put a huge burden on workforces, with restrictions on travel and movement meaning employees had to change their working patterns and behaviors almost overnight. With this comes uncertainty, anxiety and usually a drop in workforce productivity.

Retailers are also being hit hard by significant numbers of staff taking time off work to care for family members, or to self-isolate in line with health guidelines. This increased level of absence is presenting a significant challenge for many organizations as they scramble to respond to ongoing changes in customer needs.

Traditional resourcing models, combined with fixed infrastructures and in-house software deployments, have made it very difficult for many retailers to react and respond effectively to this disruption. Thereby exposing the risks of an over-reliance on human resources within traditional operating models and highlighting the limitations of many business continuity plans as a result.

Increasing resilience and agility with a digital workforce

Without doubt, brands that already embedded agility into their operations –in terms of technology, resourcing and processes, have been able to react far quicker to the challenges brought on by the pandemic. Technology has been at the forefront of this response and those organizations deploying intelligent automation have been able to ensure continuity of service and maintain first-rate customer experience, while also supporting their workforces.

The benefits of cloud-based intelligent automation is being highlighted with many immediately scaling up their use of digital workers to overcome a whole range of challenges – from re-configuring and optimizing their supply chains, through to launching new digital services, improving customer experience across multiple channels and easing the pressure on their human workforces. In some cases, digital labor has arguably been the difference between survival and extinction!

We’ve seen numerous examples of how digital workers are being deployed by retailers to overcome huge operational challenges at incredible speed. One customer launched a new click and collect offering, another shifted its entire call center operation to remote working, and a third automated the provision of home working equipment and support for 4,000 staff. In each case, the change was delivered seamlessly in a matter of days.

The rapid increase in the size and remit of digital workforces has also helped alleviate the strain on employees during this difficult period. Workers have been freed up from many repetitive and time-consuming tasks and are now able to focus on higher value tasks which further improve customer experience or deliver against key strategic objectives.

Intelligent automation at the heart of business continuity and operational agility

Aside from meeting consumer demand, retailers will also need to navigate huge change and innovation in supply chain and logistics, as well as payments and fraud detection. They will also need to re-imagine the way in which they attract, engage and motivate their employees, ensuring they have the agile processes and technologies to build a future-fit workforce which can operate effectively alongside digital workers.

Importantly for the retail industry, in which digital transformation has too often been hindered by complex, legacy IT systems and failed Integration projects, intelligent automation allows retailers to rapidly drive through innovation projects without requiring them to overhaul their IT infrastructure.

Digital workers have proved what they can do in a crisis.

The speed of change and disruption within the industry is set to increase exponentially. So now is the time for retailers to accelerate their use of intelligent automation in order to provide the adaptability and resilience they will need to not just survive but thrive in a post-COVID economy.

Join us next week where we will take a more detailed look at the long-lasting impact that Brexit (and COVID) will have on supply chains.

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