Four women leaders in retail spoke about the challenges – and opportunities – of Covid in an everywoman webinar yesterday.
The Covid pandemic may present opportunities for some smaller businesses who have found that their ability to be agile and creative has given them an advantage over their larger rivals, an everywoman webinar heard this week.
The webinar, Retail Leaders Talk: Resilience, Innovation and Reinvention, featured Alice Boaten, regional manager of Sainsbury’s Argos, Mary Homer, CEO of The White Company and Marisa Horden, founder of jewellery company Missoma. It was chaired by Holly Tucker, founder of Not on the High Street.
All the women admitted that lockdown had presented major challenges and had meant long working hours. There was no blueprint as no-one had lived through a pandemic before and no-one knew when it would end. Many staff members were anxious. That meant the women’s leadership skills were tested.
They talked about having to take risks, taking responsibility for colleagues’ well being, having to come up with a plan that their teams could feel confident in, even if it was subject to change, building in contingency plans and showing resilience, even if they were panicking underneath. They had to make decisions very fast, explain their rationale clearly and put safety first along the entire production line. Holly Tucker spoke of the relentless nature of the work, for instance, relocating people and supporting them to work from home, as well as family pressures.
Their experience depended to some degree on the nature of their business. While many high street retail firms have had to shed jobs or keep their staff on furlough during the pandemic, the discussion was led by those who were already digital businesses, had a strong digital footprint or were frontline stores. Mary Homer said she was fortunate in being a lifestyle business given people were staying at home more than usual. Also the fact that people could not see family members and friends meant they spent more on special occasions like birthdays, she said.
Alice Boaten said ensuring supply lines was a major challenge and that had meant streamlining the range of products available in Sainsbury’s and Argos, whether in store or online.
While Covid had tested the businesswomen to their limits, there were a lot of positives. Boaten said the experience had taught her the value of transparency and empathy – of listening to and hearing what her colleagues were saying and understanding their worries. “The biggest learning was that Covid taught us to connect,” she said.
Communication was vital and entrepreneurs said they had had to communicate more and more clearly. Marisa Horden said she had to communicate a positive problem-solving attitude to her team and inspire them to move forwards. She added that the fact that her business was small and agile meant it could pivot much more quickly than larger organisations, which gave it an advantage.
The future was very uncertain, with Brexit also in the mix, so caution was important, said Mary Homer, but she added that it was also important to plan for when the virus is no longer around and to be optimistic. She thinks the high street will bounce back because people are social animals and says she has already seen positive signs.
Marisa Horden said that while footfall was down in the regions, sales were sometimes unchanged – except in London where the situation was very bad, for obvious reasons. She thinks people will be so happy when Covid is over that sales will bounce back, although she expects a long term acceleration of the move to online shopping with more digitally savvy customers expecting greater transparency and ethical behaviour.
While many in retail will be worried about Christmas with more people being made redundant and people worried about their financial security, Homer expects Christmas sales to be good for her business and says they are already selling Christmas trees and advent calendars. “People are already in the mood. I think they will go over the top,” she said. Holly Tucker added: “Those moments are more important than ever and small businesses will benefit.”
She stated: “Suddenly smaller businesses are on a level playing field with the bigger players as no-one knows what is going to happen. They are more agile. It’s like David and Goliath and in that environment SMEs can thrive.”
Horden agreed. “Small businesses can be more personal. They can talk more directly to their customers. Their agility is an advantage.” She added that she anticipated a growth in start-ups in the future. She said: “Every recession has led to a growth in new businesses and in innovation.”