Observations on the Retail Pivot

This summer I was on a multi-state road trip during the month of July to help one of my sons move. In the process, we also squeezed in some vacation. However, in this summer of the Covid-19 pandemic, even formerly simple activities such as staying at a hotel or picking a place for lunch got much more complicated. Hotels, restaurants and many other small businesses have had to pivot their business models to survive. Let’s consider a few examples.

First, hotels. We stayed at various different hotels, both associated with chains and independent, but the experience had many variations. For example, we stayed on 3 occasions at a Hampton Inn. For the most part, they’ve taken a visible approach to sanitizing rooms and in a couple of the locations, had the TV changer wrapped up with branded cardboard highlighting that they’d sanitized it. But the days of free continental breakfasts were transformed. Instead of eating in a shared seating area and picking out a variety of hot or cold buffet items, two of the locations offered “Grab and Go,” where a few items like juice or apples were put aside in a paper bag to be picked up. In another location, we could pick out buffet items, but only one person or family at a time could enter the room where the food was available. Another staple, hot coffee, was either self-serve, provided by the staff for one person at a time or not available at all. We did stay at an independent location in Townsend, Tennessee and they actually did provide the traditional self-serve continental breakfast. The bottom line is that hotels, notably the big chains, have been adapting to re-build their business. We saw clear evidence that Hampton Inns and Holiday Inn Express had changed their approaches regarding sanitation of touchable objects, revised their approach toward breakfast and required masks within interior locations, though the latter was not always strongly enforced.

We saw even more variety in the restaurant experience, not only on the road, but in our home state of Massachusetts. On the road, I discovered that Google Maps often has details on what kind of service options are being offered, ranging from take-out to delivery to seating (indoors or outdoors). As we crossed state boundaries, the options changed dramatically. In late June and early July, the most common option was to offer takeout food only. One of our favorites, Rein’s Delicatessen in Vernon, Connecticut, had just opened up indoor seating and offered impressive spacing between the indoor tables. Nonetheless, we opted to order inside and eat lunch outside at a stone table with an umbrella. That evening, we found a restaurant called the Braveheart Highland Pub in Hellertown, Pennsylvania. The state had just recently permitted indoor dining, but we again opted for outdoor seating and had a fine meal there. Another common option is to stop at a well-known chain. We found that Subway had a fairly consistent experience across several states, but seating varied from indoors to outside to none at all. But like other chains, Subway clearly was enforcing certain protocols, such as requiring their staff to wear masks. In ordinary times, I’ll often stay away from chain restaurants, but during these times, the existence of protocols and some common sense rules added comfort to the idea of eating out. By contrast, we encountered local restaurants in Tennessee and South Carolina where none of the staff wore masks and social distancing was limited or not enforced.

In the bigger picture, the pandemic has hit retail establishments very hard. We stayed for several weeks in Asheville, North Carolina, and the impact on shops, restaurants, bookstores, brew pubs and music venues was palpable. Many businesses were not open at all. One used bookstore required all customers to wear masks and enforced a limit on the number of customers who were allowed entry. Formerly busy spots like Green Sage, a popular breakfast and lunch spot, were very quiet, even though both indoor and outdoor seating was available. With only a few people in the restaurant, we weren’t too concerned about the safety of taking our breakfast indoors. Where I live, multiple restaurants have recently shut down altogether, while others have kept open, but depend much more on takeout than on indoor seating. The places that can re-invent themselves to provide a higher volume take-out or delivery business, seem to be faring the best.

One type of business that seems to be weathering the storm is farm stands. We found several open in North and South Carolina and took comfort in ordering fresh goods which hadn’t gone through long supply chains to reach us. Here’s one example, an apple store in Bat Cove, North Carolina, which had a variety of goods we normally wouldn’t see in a supermarket.

In summary, the pandemic has had a dramatic negative effect on numerous types of retail businesses. In this post, we focused on hotels, restaurants and other customer facing retail such as bookstores. These businesses have typically had to trim expenses and re-fashion themselves to find a balance between customer safety and generating enough business to pay their expenses.

If you have a retail business which has been forced to pivot during this pandemic period, we’d love to hear your story. Human Communications offers consulting services to businesses of all sizes in areas such as development or review of business plans and product / market strategies. Please contact us if your business is considering pivoting its strategy or has an upcoming new project that would benefit from a fresh look by an experienced business consultant.

James Rafferty has been active in the worlds of telecommunications, standards and university teaching in a variety of roles. He's been a thought leader in areas such as Voice over IP and Internet fax through his consulting, product management, marketing, writing and standards activities, and he is currently teaching business at Northeastern University. He loves to write and talk about new connections, applications and business models as communications, related technologies and business concepts evolve.

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