Widespread stay-at-home orders and government-mandated lockdowns have brought about a seismic wave of change for hundreds of thousands of retailers, who are now operating in a pandemic-induced “new normal.” While it remains to be seen how that environment will look like for brick-and-mortar players and e-commerce giants, America’s biggest retailer has helped paint a picture of what to expect in the year ahead.
At this year’s virtual National Retail Federation Big Show: Chapter One, Walmart EVP and chief customer officer Janey Whiteside shared her views on the retail landscape for 2021 and beyond during a panel titled “Economic Outlook: Truths and Consequences.”
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“It’s interesting how many people I’ve noticed recently have talked about going back to normal and then said, ‘Yes, but not everything about ‘normal’ was really that great,'” she told Deloitte chief global economist Ira Kalish. “So how do I redefine what normal is going to be?”
According to the exec, remote work or telecommuting will likely continue long after the health crisis has receded, as well as online shopping. Walmart itself has taken steps over the past several months to boost its omnichannel operations, including consolidating certain work divisions and unveiling a new redesign of its outposts. (The retailer has recorded heightened demand throughout the course of the outbreak as panicked shoppers load up on household goods and other essentials.)
People might also have a propensity to travel less for business, Whiteside shared, even as COVID-19 vaccine distribution ramps up across the country. Thus, retailers must learn to leverage physical and digital channels to “create really personalized experiences” and “give the customer choice” as new consumer behaviors either emerge or further take hold.
“I think this notion of … [having] more options will be incredibly important,” she said. “Some days I want some things within an hour, a day, a week… I’m going to need retailers to come to me where I am.”
She advised, “You’re going to have to meet customers where they are [and] when they want. I think bringing together multiple facets of people’s lives to help make decisions easier is going to continue to be important.”
Whiteside also explained that retailers need to think about their customers as the “North Star” of sorts — an anchor to help them determine the direction of their businesses as they navigate coronavirus times.
“I’m not sure anybody really knows what this is going to look like yet,” she said. “I would imagine [in] six, 12, 18, 24 months, people [still] won’t quite know… So having the ability to learn from customers, understand where they want to go [will] be incredibly important.”
She added, “We have super exciting ambitions [at Walmart] … so we’re focused very hard on how do we listen to, learn from, learn with and grow with our customers.”