As the Vice President of strategy and insights for retail and consumer goods at Salesforce, I understand far too well that retail is amidst massive disruption, impacting all facets of the business. In an incredible response to the health crisis, most retailers condensed their roadmap for digital transformation from three to five years to three to five weeks. They were scrappy — making quick decisions to provide the products and services customers needed — from supplying PPE to curbside pickup. For the first time, boards of directors, Wall Street, and consumers gave retailers permission to fail as they experimented with new offerings. And the entire community came together in ways we’ve never seen before.

This kind of digital transformation isn’t led by machines. It’s led by people.

The industry is driving change in service of humans, the community, and the world amidst a global pandemic. That’s what retail is all about. That’s what Becoming Retail is about. Becoming Retail is an editorial series that will explore how retail leaders are thinking about digital transformation.

Now is the time to listen to the insights, the experiences, and the stories of retail leaders to understand how people in retail can reimagine the retail experience. One of the key elements of Becoming Retail is understanding how retail leaders embrace six types of Retail Leadership Principles. Let’s look at how executives embodied these principles in response to COVID-19.


1. Embrace technology

With the surge in digital shopping throughout the first half of this year — marked by 71% YoY revenue increase in Q2 — retailers turned to technology to bridge the gap between inspiration and purchase. 

With consumers focused on convenience and safety, business leaders that understood technology and how it effectively enables processes quickly stood up new ways to engage across marketing, commerce, and service. Many leveraged the cloud to manage capacity and partnered with software providers to drive innovation in notable areas of contactless engagement like virtual call centers, digital concierge, and curbside pickup.

In speaking with John Winer, seasoned retail ecommerce executive at Living Proof, he highlighted the importance of cloud technology in times like these. “When our ecommerce sales spiked during the height of the pandemic, our cloud platform enabled our website to function normally without slowing or crashing,” he explained, “This enabled us to focus on what matters: educating new customers, delivering great products, and creating more content.”


2. Leverage ecosystem

The pandemic forced the whole industry to move forward together at once. Leaders have collaborated with business partners, suppliers, and peers to better understand opportunities and share learnings on what worked during these unprecedented times. While any retailer will say that the sense of community makes this industry so special, leaders have tapped into their networks and relationships to help their peers, their people, and their executives navigate and plan through holiday and beyond. 

Deborah Weinswig, founder and CEO of Coresight Research, tells us, “While we are all going through a very challenging time, retail ultimately will be a better experience for the consumer. The idea of collaboration amongst retailers will serve them very well for the long term. The true visionaries are the ones that are leading the collaboration.”

The National Retail Federation (NRF) has really stepped up with its programming, content, and networking. They quickly launched Operation Open Doors as a valuable resource for the industry. According to the website, it is “providing guidance and tools that NRF members can use as they operate stores safely during the COVID-19 international health crisis. Areas for guidance include logistics, social distancing and safety issues, and how to bring employees back to the workforce.”


3. Inspire people

The health crisis has been coupled with an economic crisis, a leadership crisis, and a racial justice crisis. Employee safety and wellbeing have been at the forefront of retail tactics, particularly with store associates as doors being to open again and traffic increases. And consumers take notice. According to a Salesforce consumer survey conducted July 15 to 16, employee health and wellness is one of the top three brand qualities that influence a consumer’s purchase and loyalty.

That said, retail leaders have led with empathy and doubled down on diversity and inclusion. In addition to a diverse workforce — with diverse perspectives and skills — it is critical for executives to motivate teams to make decisions and execute with accountability. We’ve seen those who embody this principle and empower people with tools and resources for sustained success, which is particularly important with changing protocols, procedures, and regulations.

According to Jim Giantomenico, veteran Retail CIO, “Digital transformation starts with strong organizational leadership, commitment, communication, and accountability. It is an organizational process driven by and for people.”


4. Instill agility

Retail leaders showed nimbleness and reacted to this disruption and crisis. By providing clarity regarding how decisions are made — and shortening the typical process and bureaucracy — they were able to get everyone bought in and execute quickly. They did this by rolling out minimal viable products and iterating, which enabled them to figure out the best possible, if not perfect, experiences for their customers. Line reviews and new product introductions were virtual, new delivery options were stood up in days, and home office personnel worked from home — overnight.

The pandemic accelerated digital transformation for many retailers. Quickly and effectively gauging demand and preferences is crucial. When consumer needs and preferences are so fluid, leaders use analytics to scenario plan and inform decisions in short time frames, while at the same time adapting to changing regulations and situations.

Take Levi's® as an example. According to a recent article in the WSJ, their CFO Harmit Singh shared the brand “has had to accelerate amid shopping shifts brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. The company is focusing more on selling via its own channels, putting a bigger emphasis on head-to-toe looks and women's wear, and pushing further into omni-channel with ship-from-store, curbside and in-store pickup services.”

Looking ahead to back-to-school, there are many unknowns: will children return to in-person learning, a blended model, or will potential further lockdowns mean remote learning? This translates into the kinds of school supplies and products people want to buy. As the pandemic continues to shift values and behaviors, retailers must be agile to the impact on what and how consumers buy.


5. Set vision

We’re in an opportune time for experimentation. During the height of the health crisis, consumers were happy with anything that helped them shop in a contactless manner and get the products they needed.

Retail leaders listened to customers to understand needs and expectations. They placed bets and were okay with failure and imperfection. From adding subscription services to new distribution channels to using social media to its full extent, executives continue to look at their business models and test, learn, and sometimes fail.

They also find opportunities to fill gaps and meet new consumer needs. Target acquired Deliv for last-mile delivery in May. Lululemon bought Mirror, the at-home fitness technology company, to provide an alternative to customers who are unable (or don’t want) to return to the gym.

It’s been critical to communicate a clear strategy and be a change agent. Rather than merely building all capabilities internally, it is critical to understand where and when to leverage the ecosystem to execute on the vision. Collaborations and partnerships are becoming more commonplace to meet changing consumer expectations and maintain relevance.


6. Embody purpose

Retail is so much more than an industry. For those who live and breathe it every day, it’s a community, it’s a career, it’s an identity. And that’s why so many leaders set new standards during the pandemic to enact positive change not only for their company, but the world as a whole.

Organizations, led by people, gave back to the local and industry communities. We witnessed the retooling of manufacturing and supply chains to get health and safety equipment in the hands of health professionals and first responders. Take Lilly Pulitzer®. In addition to selling masks with their signature prints, employees at the iconic brand volunteered their time to produce and donate nearly 30,000 masks to 60 organizations.

According to the company’s Instagram post on April 6, “this is a cause near to all of our hearts as so many of us have family members, dear friends, and our cherished Lilly community that are on the front lines every single day. We thank them for all they do, and we encourage everyone to #bethesunshine in these unprecedented times.”


What does Becoming Retail mean?

Retail is more than simply a job. Retail is a passionate community that understands its impact and takes that responsibility seriously. To become retail means to become part of that community.

But that’s what it means to us. What does it mean for you?

Join us as we speak to executives about their leadership experience and learn what Becoming Retail means to them. To stay up-to-date, follow me on LinkedIn or Twitter.