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Rebuilding retail after the pandemic

To help retailers understand the new normal, Zebra Technologies has identified the pandemic-related industry changes as the 3 Waves. This outlines the recovery process of most retailers, spanning the immediate changes that ensured stability in the early days and the longer-term, strategic changes that will become institutionalized.

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The pandemic has caused a noticeable change in consumer behavior, which in turn necessitates a corresponding change in every retailer’s business processes. As the Philippines reopens its economy, businesses are reassessing their strategies and recovery plans differently. In fact, about 45% of business owners are hesitant to resume their operations, according to a survey by the World Bank, National Economic and Development Authority and Department of Finance.

Retailers are used to reacting to evolving market demands, and they understand that the pandemic’s impact on the industry is likely to be long-lasting, even after a vaccine is found. To help retailers understand the new normal, Zebra Technologies has identified the pandemic-related industry changes as the 3 Waves. This outlines the recovery process of most retailers, spanning the immediate changes that ensured stability in the early days and the longer-term, strategic changes that will become institutionalized.

WAVE 1: MAINTAINING BUSINESS STABILITY

Wave 1 started when global economies began to shut down in early March 2020, and many retailers were forced to stop operations in response to quarantine protocols. Many had to cut back on costs to stay afloat. Those that kept their operations had to optimize resources and labor hours while ensuring employee health and safety.

When panic buying started to strain supply chains in the early months of the lockdown, retailers realized that conventional demand planning models no longer worked. They had to find new ways to meet consumer needs without compromising their employees’ safety or incurring greater costs.

Retailers immediately started investing in technologies that could give them a crystal-clear picture of what was happening within their four walls and their supply chains. Many retailers increased their use of mobile computing and scanning solutions, helping boost their capacity to replenish orders, speed up end-to-end fulfillment and accommodate customers’ basic needs and wants both in-store and online.

Based on the collective feedback from retail leaders and store associates, the biggest lessons during Wave 1 were the importance of:

1.  Real-time operational visibility

Retailers should invest in technologies that improve their capacity and speed in managing their inventory to cope with the demand, while providing them with real-time visibility across the supply chain at the same time.

According to Zebra’s APAC Shopper Study, 88% of retailers agree that maintaining real-time inventory visibility is a significant challenge. And up to 85% say their companies need better inventory management tools to ensure accuracy.

Having access to data on operations in real time will help retailers to address consumer needs immediately and avoid either under- or over-inventory situations. This enables retailers to ensure operational efficiency and business resilience even amid pandemic constraints.

2. Distributing actionable intelligence to store associates and supply chain partners

In any given day, especially during the pandemic, store employees and supply chain partners face challenges in assisting customers. Retailers must provide them with the right tools to attend to customers’ needs by swiftly locating inventory within their stores and knowing how much inventory is left so they can get it replenished. This prevents loss of sales and translates to greater customer satisfaction thereby improving business outcomes.

This is where prescriptive analytics, intelligent automation, wearables and handheld mobile computers become exceptionally handy.

3. Overcommunicating with customers, especially when you aren’t going to be able to deliver what they want on time or at all

When stay-at-home orders were issued, many consumers had to stop going to physical stores and relied solely on online shopping for their groceries and other essentials. Being unable to see store shelves, consumers had to rely on real-time stock inventory information presented on the website or mobile app to know whether an item was available.

According to a study conducted by Nielsen during the Enhanced Community Quarantine, 27% of Filipino consumers switched brands in certain categories because the products from their preferred brands were out of stock. In such cases, the lack of communication about what is available and the inability to provide alternatives to consumers created frustration among consumers. This compromised their trust in the retailers’ capability to meet their demands and needs.

4. Prioritizing worker and customer safety above all else and compensating associates for the risks they’re taking on the front lines

Some retailers provided financial aid to their employees to help them during the pandemic. But beyond the monetary assistance, store associates are more inclined to come to work and give their 100% when they feel they are being taken care of and are physically protected. Employees expected and appreciated efforts by retailers to maintain strict social distancing and sanitization measures, especially during the early months of the quarantine when paranoia about the virus was so high. These measures included frequent disinfection of shared scanning and mobile devices and the investment in “personal” protective wearables. 

WAVE 2: A NEW RETAIL NORMAL

As operations started to stabilize, essential retailers were able to focus on institutionalizing new ways to engage customers with online and in-store experiences. Retail leaders made efforts to get people in and out of stores as quickly as possible. They ensured physical distancing through several measures, such as limiting the number of people allowed in the store at any given time, setting up directional flow lines and installing dividers to prevent contact. Temperature checks, regular disinfection and other cleaning regiments helped provide a safe environment for both shoppers and store associates. 

Even when the pandemic quiets down, retailers will still take precautions to maximize the health and safety of both customers and employees in stores, corporate offices and warehouses. Services such as “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) with curbside pickup options, contactless purchases and increased integration between digital and physical experiences will become the standard means of engaging with customers.

WAVE 3: LONG-TERM TRANSFORMATION

At some level, the long-term transformation in Wave 3 should occur simultaneously with Wave 2. The pandemic is accelerating retail digitization by several years. As retailers prioritize new technologies and solutions to ride the tide of increased online shopping, such new approaches will be part of efforts to ensure retail business viability moving forward.

Retailers have no choice but to accelerate planned efforts to increase product sourcing diversity, leverage intelligent automation and scale e-commerce fulfillment capabilities. As such, businesses should consider prioritizing increased product sourcing diversity, intelligent automation and optimizing last-mile delivery to achieve greater resiliency and backend efficiency.

When demand for certain non-discretionary products spiked as news around COVID-19 broke, Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry imposed limitations on the purchase of basic commodities to prevent supply shortage. Many retailers, however, have not yet diversified their product sources to a point where backend shortages remain “invisible.”  This reinforces the need for product sourcing diversification to ensure enough supply. 

The combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics can bring data-driven approaches to supplier quality, merchandising, distribution, and logistics and fulfillment, giving retail leaders the insights necessary to maximize value capture. Instead of reacting to external forces and rapid changes in consumer behavior, intelligent automation creates opportunities to operate more proactively.

As the pandemic emphasizes the need to improve e-commerce and logistics capabilities, retailers are realizing the need to enable and optimize last-mile delivery to satisfy customer expectations, reduce marginal costs and improve overall efficiencies. To optimize last-mile delivery, retailers can provide flexible delivery options based on delivery method and location, create a collaborative network with suppliers to maximize visibility on the backend, leverage brick-and-mortar stores as fulfillment centers and use technology to maximize the value of delivery routes. All these will help ensure a safer and more efficient business flow that minimizes the impact of the pandemic while positioning the business for future success.

The pandemic has stressed the need for retailers to reassess their business processes and study the importance of innovation. Understanding the industry and choosing the right combination of solutions will assure business continuity for retailers, and service reliability for their customers. Retailers that can strengthen their digital capabilities and ensure a better online shopping experience will gain end-user trust and encourage more online transactions. This translates to greater business success not just during the pandemic-recovery phase but also in the future.

Strategies

Workplace study during pandemic finds managers should talk less, listen more

For communications professionals, remote work made it harder for them to build trusting new relationships. They, like others, felt isolated, missing critical conversations and small talk.

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Workplace communication often took a back seat this past year, as employees and employers rushed to work remotely, struggled with technology barriers and adjusted to physical distancing. But the pandemic has resulted in valuable lessons for communicating on the job, according to a Baylor University study.

During the onset of COVID-19 — along with accompanying layoffs and a recession — “there likely has never been a moment with such demand for ethical listening to employees,” said lead author Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor.

“Ethical listening” was defined by one communication manager as “listening with an open mind and being able to hear the good, the bad and the ugly. Strategic listening is then taking the good and the bad and the ugly and knowing how to use the information.”

For the study, published in the Journal of Communication Management, researchers interviewed 30 communication professionals in the District of Columbia and 13 states in the USA: Arkansas, California, Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Interviewees represented technology, financial and legal services, food and beverage, hospitality, energy, health care, trade associations, transportation, higher education and consultants.

The professionals interviewed stressed the importance of protecting confidentiality so employees feel comfortable giving feedback and do not fear retribution.

When COVID-19 hit and workers often no longer shared physical quarters, the use of Zoom soared, whether for large group meetings or one-on-one sessions, researchers noted. And while senior managers valued communication, it became less of a priority as companies made such quick changes as mandated quarantines.

For communications professionals, remote work made it harder for them to build trusting new relationships. They, like others, felt isolated, missing critical conversations and small talk.

“We heard that the pandemic posed challenges in internal communication due to the alienation many employees experienced, and it prompted us to reevaluate the moral responsibility communications holds for keeping employees feeling connected to their teams,” said co-researcher Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina.

The study shed light on companies’ challenges, how they strove to meet them and how they might use those strategies in the future.

For example, a communication manager for a trade association of the hospitality industry said that its members also are primary stakeholders in their companies.

“There were stakeholders who were saying, ‘I’m going to have to close my doors. Please do something.’ And there’s only so much we can do. It called for a different type of empathetic listening. This is these people’s livelihood. In hospitality, that’s like any business owner, that’s their baby. But it’s not just their baby. It’s a baby that generates income for the employees they deeply care about. It’s not just that it impacts them; it impacts their employees, which is a double cut to the heart.”

Meanwhile, a communication manager in health care encouraged senior leaders to schedule 30-minute “walk-around” sessions — whether masked and in person or via technology.

“Trust has to be built with actions and follow-through, not just words,” Bowen said.

For all the organizations studied, “the desire and follow-through to ethically listen to employees appeared to be a challenge,” Neill said.

Most participants said the ratio of management messaging to employees compared to feedback was lopsided, with far more talking than listening.

“We cannot promise we are going to fix everything,” said a communication manager in the financial services industry. “But we have the mantra if you are asking for feedback, it is critical that you close the loop and say that.”

Communications managers often have limited staff to analyze feedback. They also contend with a lack of communication between departments, especially in larger organizations.

To solve those problems, some communications professionals suggested having a team member to sit in on department meetings and serve as a liaison. One professional in a law firm said she makes it a point to invite the less vocal members to share their thoughts, while another uses on-on-one meetings for them.

“They open up a lot more when it’s just one on one,” she said. “In groups, large groups, they do not speak as freely, because there’s a hierarchy. If the older, more senior people are not saying anything, then the younger less seasoned attorneys more than likely will not say anything.”

Some internal communicators also said that during the pandemic, they saw a need for shorter, more focused meetings, in part to cut down on stress. And one consultant said that more visual communications, such as videos and video conferencing, seemed to help employees feel that they are cared for.

“I’m making sure that I have my eyes trained on the screen on the facial expressions,” said a communication manager for a trade association. “Part of active listening is also looking for visual cues of the reactions of your colleagues.”

Neill said the researchers were encouraged by the heightened level of empathy for the impact of organizational decisions on employees’ lives.

“We recommend that senior leadership and communication professionals seek ways to continue to improve moral sensitivity well after the global pandemic has receded, which can lead to more ethical decision-making,” she said.

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Strategies

The market advantage of a feminine brand name

What do iconic brands Nike, Coca-Cola, and Disney have in common? They all have linguistically feminine names. In fact, the highest-ranking companies on Interbrand’s Global Top Brands list for the past twenty years have, on average, more feminine names than lower-ranked companies.

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Researchers from University of Calgary, University of Montana, HEC Paris, and University of Cincinnati published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that explores the linguistic aspects of a name that can influence brand perceptions without people even realizing it.

The study, forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “Is Nestlé a Lady? The Feminine Brand Name Advantage” and is authored by Ruth Pogacar, Justin Angle, Tina Lowrey, L. J. Shrum, and Frank Kardes.

What do iconic brands Nike, Coca-Cola, and Disney have in common? They all have linguistically feminine names. In fact, the highest-ranking companies on Interbrand’s Global Top Brands list for the past twenty years have, on average, more feminine names than lower-ranked companies. How can you tell if a name is linguistically feminine? Easy–does it have two or more syllables and stress on the second or later syllable? Does it end in a vowel? If so, then it is a feminine name. Linguistically feminine names convey “warmth” (good-natured sincerity), which makes people like them better than less feminine names.

A brand’s name is incredibly important. In most cases, the name is the first thing consumers learn about a brand. And a brand’s name does the work of communicating what the brand represents. For instance, Lean Cuisine conveys the product’s purpose. Others, like Reese’s’ Pieces, have rhyming names that promise whimsy and fun. Making a good first impression is critical, so it is not surprising that the market for brand naming services is booming. Boutique naming fees can run as much as $5,000 – $10,000 per letter for brand names in high-stakes product categories like automobiles and technology.

Specifically, the number of syllables in a name, which syllable is stressed, and the ending sound, all convey masculine or feminine gender. People automatically associate name length, stress, and ending sound with men’s or women’s names because most people’s names follow certain rules. Women’s names tend to be longer, have more syllables, have stress on the second or later syllable, and end with a vowel (e.g., Amánda). Men’s names tend to be shorter with one stressed syllable, or with stress on the first of two syllables, and end in a consonant (e.g., Éd or Édward).

We often relate to brands like people–we love them, we hate them, we are loyal to certain brands but sometimes we cheat. We associate brands with masculine or feminine traits based on the linguistic cues in the name. So, attributes associated with gender – like warmth – become attached to a brand because of its name. “Warmth” is the quality of being good-natured, tolerant, and sincere. Researchers believe that warmth is incredibly important because deep in our evolutionary past, primitive people had to make a quick, critical judgment whenever they encountered someone new–is this stranger a threat or not? In other words–is this stranger dangerous or warm? If the newcomer was not warm, then a fight or flight decision might be called for. People still rely on warmth judgments every day to decide whether someone will be a good partner, employee, or friend.

So, it is no surprise that warmth is an important characteristic of brand personality. And because linguistically feminine names convey warmth, features like ending in a vowel are advantageous for brand names. As Pogacar explains, “We find that linguistically feminine brand names are perceived as warmer and are therefore better liked and more frequently chosen, an effect we term the Feminine Brand Name Advantage.”

But does all this matter in terms of dollars and cents? Yes, according to the Interbrand Global Top Brand rankings, which is based on brand performance and strength. Angle says that “By analyzing the linguistic properties of each name on Interbrand’s lists for the past twenty years, we find that brands with linguistically feminine names are more likely to make the list. And even more, the higher ranked a brand is, the more likely it is to have a linguistically feminine name.”

After observing this feminine brand name advantage, the researchers conducted a series of experiments to better understand what is happening. Participants reported that brands with linguistically feminine names seemed warmer and this increased their purchase intentions. This pattern occurred with well-known brands and made-up brands that study participants had no prior experience with.

There are limitations to the feminine brand name advantage. When a product is specifically targeted to a male audience (e.g., men’s sneakers), masculine and feminine brand names are equally well-liked. Furthermore, people like linguistically feminine names for hedonic products, like chocolate, but may prefer masculine names for strictly functional products like bathroom scales.

It is important to note that results may vary based on the linguistic patterns of name gender in the target market country. Lowrey summarizes the study’s insights by saying “We suggest that brand managers consider linguistically feminine names when designing new brand names, particularly for hedonic products.”

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Strategies

How to get customers to talk about you

WOM is arguably the most influential means of persuasion and can be a critical driver of a company’s growth. For this reason, many companies offer consumers incentives to encourage them to generate WOM.

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Researchers from Arizona State University, New York University, and Northwestern University published a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that examines how marketers can fuel positive word of mouth (WOM) without using explicit incentives.

The study, appearing in the Journal of Marketing, is titled “How Marketing Perks Influence Word of Mouth” and is authored by Monika Lisjak, Andrea Bonezzi, and Derek Rucker.

WOM is arguably the most influential means of persuasion and can be a critical driver of a company’s growth. For this reason, many companies offer consumers incentives to encourage them to generate WOM.

Classic examples of WOM are referral and seeding programs, whereby a company literally “pays” current customers to generate positive WOM and attract new customers. Despite its intuitive appeal, however, this practice can backfire. Ironically, incentivizing WOM sometimes can hamper, rather than increase, consumers’ willingness to engage in WOM.

This research shows that commonly used marketing perks–e.g., gifts, benefits, and rewards–can effectively foster WOM without being used as explicit incentives. Their effectiveness at boosting WOM, however, depends on how they are framed and therefore perceived by consumers: Marketing perks are more effective at fostering WOM the less they are perceived to be given out of contractual obligation. The term “contractuality” refers to the degree to which a perk is perceived to be given to consumers in exchange for engaging in specific behaviors dictated by a company, such as filling out a survey or making a certain number of purchases.

Lisjak explains that “We demonstrate that marketers can influence the perceived contractuality of a perk with easily implementable pivots. Consumers can perceive the exact same perk, say a free coffee, as more or less contractual simply based on how it is framed.”

As one example, the perceived contractuality of a perk can be lowered by giving consumers a free item after a set number of purchases, but not making the number of purchases salient to the consumer. As another example, the same perk could be accompanied by a thank you note, as opposed to a note that highlights all the effort a customer had to put in to earn the perk. In both instances, companies do not have to change the offering, only how consumers perceive it.

Interestingly, however, perks lower in contractuality can sometimes backfire against companies. This is more likely to occur when a perk characterized by low contractuality comes from a disliked or distrusted company. Under such circumstances, consumers become wary of the company’s intentions and then interpret the perk as a manipulative act of persuasion driven by ulterior motives.

When this happens, perks lower in contractuality in fact hinder rather than fuel WOM. To illustrate, many consumers do not like utility providers or financial institutions. To the extent that such dislike prompts consumers to make hostile attributions of benevolent gestures, such companies might be better off using perks that are higher in contractuality.

Finally, contractuality can entail a trade-off. Despite being more effective at fostering WOM, low contractuality perks might be less effective than high contractuality perks at inducing compliance with a direct request. For example, if a company wants consumers to complete a customer satisfaction survey, offering a high contractuality perk can be more effective and efficient than offering a low contractuality perk.

Simply put, when brands have a specific action other than WOM that they would like consumers to take, perks higher in contractuality might serve as better incentives because they make behavior-reward contingencies clear and salient.

Bonezzi summarizes the study by saying “Our findings suggest that marketers could nudge consumers to generate positive WOM by providing them with perks that have fewer strings attached. Of note, this could be achieved at a similar cost to perks that come across as highly contractual.”

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