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4 Key Lessons for Merchants During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Businesswomen staring away from laptop

The long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic has yet to be determined, but the immediate turmoil confronting the merchant community as a whole is already here.

With the rapid spread of the virus, giant retailers announced temporary closings in various countries.1 Some have reopened as restrictions were cautiously lifted in places as the rise of COVID-19 slowed.

But for smaller merchants—those without the benefit of global outlets to offset some of the disruption—the challenge of maintaining a business in the face of community lockdowns and stay-at-home orders can seem overwhelming. For example, 61 percent of small- and medium-sized U.S. businesses say they have reduced business spending, while half have either shut down or furloughed employees.2

Regardless of size or location, though, merchants can take several steps now to lessen the pain—even in the midst of a broader uncertainty. By considering their most important constituents, these businesses can mitigate some of the disruption while building long-term value by engaging customers, protecting employees, managing finances and serving their communities.

In this way, companies that address both internal operations and key stakeholders can set themselves up for short-term survival and future success. To help navigate through current challenges, here are four key elements that every merchant should consider:

4 Key Considerations for Businesses

1.  Customers and E-Commerce

Among the most important shifts for merchants in the face of this pandemic is the sudden need to move many transactions from in-person service to online fulfillment. As such, merchants should be sure to retrain employees on digital capabilities they can perform remotely and inform customers about new ways to make purchases.

For many merchants, it can be difficult to quickly transition to a fully online operation while managing risk and maintaining back-office responsibilities. But it is also a time to uncover new lessons. By taking advantage of this business slowdown to upgrade systems and think through the user experience, merchants can improve the overall customer relationship long-term while developing new strategies for when employees return.

Especially now, retailers and others should also strive to take action that is noticeable and reflects a value proposition appropriate for current circumstances. By adapting policies, prices, terms and conditions, coupon expirations, and even rewards programs, merchants can demonstrate that they understand customer needs and shifting priorities. Through well-considered marketing and advertising—done with sincerity and care—businesses can both maintain and increase visibility and loyalty.3

As the pandemic is affecting everyone, raising both anxiety and questions, merchants should take each of these steps while always recognizing and responding to the needs and concerns of customers. This crisis, as challenging as it is, "also brings opportunities to strengthen current relationships and build new ones," observed Bain & Company.4

Whether it's online, over the phone or even in curbside pickup, empathy and open communications should be at the forefront of all customer interactions.

2.  Employees and Flexibility

Throughout the world, stay-at-home and shelter-inplace orders have been announced, forcing workers and managers to quickly develop remote solutions. In this environment, companies should focus on several essential steps to help ensure that both productivity and morale remain high as employees adjust to new routines and might worry they are less valuable.

"Companies need to increase communication, balancing the needs of the business with expectation setting and morale building, so employees know that their well-being is top of mind," according to a report from McKinsey & Co.5 In addition, the flow of work must be adapted to help accommodate the challenges that remote work entails.

The new work environment is undoubtedly stressful, and because there is no one set of solutions that will apply to all enterprises, understanding the difficulties that individual employees face is key. By holding regular group discussions, and encouraging one-to-one conversations with managers, companies can help reduce the anxiety that many workers are feeling.

And for those operations that require in-person attendance, adjusted sick leave policies, the availability of materials for personal care, seating arrangements that allow for social distancing, and an increased focus on office hygiene are among the most important steps to take.

The flow of work must be adapted to help accommodate the challenges that remote work entails.

Last, setting good examples wherever possible by having managers wear face masks, increasing office cleaning schedules, supplying bottles of hand sanitizer, and taking employee temperatures should also be considered to help comfort employees.6

No matter the environment or specific steps taken, talking with workers and listening to concerns can help assure everyone that they, as employees, are a top priority. Even difficult news can be better shared and accepted when open communication is empathetic, consistent and forthcoming.

For additional information and advice, visit the website of the World Health Organization.7 In the U.S., visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.8 For EU members, national information resources are available here.9 For residents in other countries, please consult your national health organization.

3.  Digitization and Financials

While attending to issues of liquidity and cash flow is always essential, this unexpected crisis provides the opportunity to do even more.

For example, organizations might discover unforeseen cost savings that arise from flexible hours, remote employees, online orders and more interactive websites. Bain & Company advises using this experience to consider redeploying workers to higher-value activities while exploring additional digitization—not only to survive today, but to take advantage of possibilities in the future.10

This unexpected crisis provides the opportunity to do even more—for example, organizations might discover unforeseen cost savings that arise from flexible hours, remote employees, online orders and more interactive websites.

To date, governments throughout the world have stepped in to provide billions of dollars' worth of payments, tax relief, benefits, and other protections for companies, retailers, small businesses and employees.11 Indeed, countries from North America, Europe and Asia to South America, Africa and Australia have responded to varying degrees with business support.12 And in many places, more government funds are being considered.

If you haven't already done so, check with the National Retail Federation13 in the U.S., the Retail Council of Canada,14 the Association of Convenience Stores in the UK,15 or similar associations in other countries that can often provide guidance. By maintaining a close watch on updates on their websites, these industry groups can be a great source of current helpful advice.

While these programs are aimed at alleviating immediate cash flow issues, many banks and credit card issuers are also offering to address concerns and/or discuss lending through this difficult time.16 Because financial institutions manage the assistance that many governments are providing to small businesses, speaking with bankers and lenders is crucial.

4.  Community and Caring

Every merchant has a location, whether its business is purely online or conducted through bricks-and-mortar. Despite the many challenges an enterprise might face, taking the time to recognize the importance of the town or region where employees live can deliver both immediate and long-term dividends.

By partnering with nonprofits or hospitals, and announcing support for workers in healthcare, education, food banks or law enforcement, merchants in any sector can deliver a meaningful contribution. Although communication is important, actions—providing money, products, services or time—will always speak louder than words in building goodwill throughout the community.

Throughout the world, major manufacturers have shifted production to make ventilators and hand sanitizer, restaurants have provided free meals to hospitals and first responders, and single volunteers have sewn face masks at home. One outdoor apparel maker and retailer converted its facility in Seattle to make Personal Protective Equipment, while shoe manufacturers have provided free footwear to health care workers.17

Planning for the Future Recovery

The probable duration of the current pandemic is unknown, but no crisis lasts forever. While each economic crisis presents a potential threat, it can also provide valuable insights and lessons about how to adapt and steer through unexpected disruptions and improve a company's long-term outlook.

With the current need to avoid personal interaction, the pursuit of new capabilities for digital transactions, creative methods for customer engagement, an increased focus on community, added insights into suppliers and lenders and a demonstrated care for employees can deliver unforeseen opportunities in the years ahead.

Even when the pandemic ends, the challenges and lessons of this difficult time will remain as the world adapts to a new normal. Despite a likely multistage return to regular business activity, the long-term implications will continue to linger, and working closely with local officials and health professionals will remain as important as ever.

"Consider what happens not just today, but tomorrow and beyond," advised PwC in a recent report.18 "The resulting wider and longer-term perspective can help make the company's emergence from the crisis even stronger and more sustainable."

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1 Reuters, Factbox: Retailers close stores around globe to curb coronavirus spread. Viewed 30th March 2020.
2 McKinsey & Co., Tracking US small and medium-sized business sentiment during COVID-19. Viewed 6th April 2020.
3 Mobile Marketing Association, Inc., MMA COVID-19 Marketer Support Hub. Viewed 2nd April 2020.
4 Bain & Company, Put Your Customers and Employees First during the Coronavirus Crisis. Viewed 31st March 2020.
5 McKinsey & Co., COVID-19: Implications for business. Viewed 1st April 2020.
6 Entrepreneur, Coronavirus Outbreak: Best Business Practices to Implement Right Now. Viewed 2nd April 2020.
7 Digiday, 2018. WeChat, with 1 billion users, is now doing payments at 50 U.S. retailers. Viewed 8th May 2020.
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers. Viewed 6th April 2020.
9 European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Viewed 6th May 2020.
10 Bain & Company, How to Come Out Stronger from the Covid-19 Crisis: Accelerate Simple and Digital. Viewed 9th April 2020.
11 International Monetary Fund, Policy Responses to COVID-19. Viewed 10th April 2020.
12 Reuters, Factbox: Global economic policy response to coronavirus crisis. Viewed 17th April 2020.
13 National Retail Federation, Coronavirus Resources for Retailers. Viewed 6th May 2020.
14 Retail Council of Canada. Viewed 6th May 2020.
15 Association of Convenience Stores. Viewed 6th May 2020.
16 Bankrate, List of banks offering help to customers impacted by the coronavirus. Viewed 10th April 2020.
17 Wired. The Nonprofits and Companies Helping to Fight the Pandemic. Viewed 8th May 2020.
18 PwC, COVID 19: Confidently navigate through the coronavirus crisis. Viewed 17th April 2020.


The information provided herein is sponsored by Discover® Global Network. It is intended for informational purposes, and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.