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Current state of retail and the impact of COVID-19 on the industry


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When COVID-19 struck, the retail industry suffered a crushing blow. Stores sent employees home, consumers squeezed spending, and the needs of a new retail landscape completely upended business as usual.

RingCentral hosted a North American Retail Roundtable where participants shared ideas on the state of the industry following COVID-19. Here are some of the major takeaways from the session:

Current challenges in retail

Challenge 1: Key retail operational pivots

The pandemic has had a dynamic effect, with some retailers experiencing spikes in both online and in-store revenue while others—with more experiential value propositions—significant decreases. 

As we shift to the next phases of reopening, retailers are taking a fresh look at journey mapping—weekly, in most cases—to ensure they can meet the continually new expectations of shoppers.

Retail trends that continued through the pandemic

While the pandemic has affected many aspects of retail, there was consensus that pre-pandemic retail imperatives persist. Retailers should continue to:

  • Move towards frictionless retail across online and in-store experiences
  • Build scalable infrastructure to deliver customer-centricity and surface data to make better decisions amidst fast market changes
  • Accelerate cultures of innovation to become more responsive to customer needs—even amidst the pandemic, don’t cease to innovate!
  • Shift the retail associate role. Store associates are really product experts who are best served to discuss product lines. They can, in essence, become call center associates with the use of UCaaS—alternately allowing call center agents to then become social media agents through the use of digital queueing. 

Key trends include a movement towards retail stores as fulfillment centers, delivering next-generation mobile experiences, and evaluating supply chains for optimization and resilience. 

For example, the curbside experience—implemented in response to COVID-19—turned out quite costly in some cases. In these instances, businesses need to rethink their curbside offering to turn a profit.

Challenge 2: adapting to remote work

For some retailers, store support staff aren’t able nor interested in returning to the office until the pandemic is over. As a result, retailers are learning to support a work-from-home retail culture. From implementing the right technologies to fostering strong relationships amongst remote employees, supporting work from home can be challenging when so many had never experienced this before.

For those interested in learning more, RingCentral has created resources designed to help support this “ever-evolving remote work,” including a dedicated site that makes it easy for anyone to Work from Home productively as well as Work From Home for RingCentral Users guidance.

Download The Remote Work Playbook 

Responding to COVID-19

Agreement on pre-existing issues

There was consensus that the onset of the pandemic exposed operational issues across all aspects of the value chain. Most attendees had shared experience with a lack of visibility into the supply chain, inventory in transit, and fulfillment challenges. 

Some also found that lack of redundancies created challenges when offshore contact center employees were subject to regional lockdown and there were no trained resources to pick up the inquiries. Many just could not get the right information to their customers about when and how they were open or planning on reopening.

Best practices for braving the pandemic

Insights and lessons learned shared by participants indicated retailers should consider the following as they operate amidst the pandemic:

  1. Identify alternative methods of fulfillment—whether curbside, delivery from store, or ecommerce
  2. Seek mechanisms to drive customer engagement in a contactless manner (e.g., mobile, virtual/augmented reality)
  3. Evaluate supply chains, both inbound and outbound, to ensure resilience
  4. Drive employee engagement supported by communication and collaboration tools
  5. Accelerate next-generation IT investments and security upgrades

Moving forward: Invest in future success

While the pandemic has been a challenge for all retailers in one form or another, all viewed it as a temporary state and that rather than retract, most are using the moment to move forward with investments so they come out on the other side in a stronger position than when the pandemic started.

Shopping modes: if indoors is out, now what?

Those retailers that did not already have BOPIS or e-commerce within their business model (e.g., food service, experiential and premium retail) chose not to implement curbside but have nevertheless changed courses to accommodate new modes of shopping. One has instituted appointment booking for stores that are now open to cut down on long lines outside stores and promote social distancing, while another has accelerated their e-commerce roll-out plans.  

Those that had rolled-out curbside and BOPIS used the opportunity to retune their operations. A common challenge with curbside was customer communication about the process and clear communication on when the order is available for pickup so they don’t show up too early.

Unified communications and customer engagement solutions were discussed as mechanisms to streamline and consistently execute curbside, BOPIS, and e-commerce communications.

Cloud computing benefits retailers

There was consensus that cloud computing solutions created advantages during the pandemic by:

  • Enabling employees to work from home
  • Facilitating the administration and management of mission-critical operations
    • One attendee shared how they were easily able to pivot and serve customers via a softphone on their computer from home instead of via handset in the office environment.
    • Another shared how the remote admin function allowed them to quickly update the IVR as they pivoted their operational model.

As retailers chart their course forward, it is clear that cloud-based communications and collaboration solutions should be prioritized as key components of a retailer’s overall business strategy. 

For insights into where consumers and retail associates say there are large communications gaps between the store and the shopper, and what retailers can do to keep customers as well as build and sustain long-term loyalty, download the new RingCentral Research Retail 2020 Connected Shopper and Employee Communications Report now.

Originally published Aug 21, 2020, updated Dec 30, 2022

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