At least once a week, my three-year-old asks me if the “bad germs” have gone away. “Bad germs” is the term we use to explain COVID-19. His little world has been turned upside down. He wants to see friends, go to the playground, attend art class and have a treat at Starbucks. (Me too, buddy!) We are all adapting the best we can to COVID as it transforms our world. We are creating new habits. We are assiduously washing our hands and keeping our distance from others while in public. As consumers, we are using curbside pickup, ordering restaurant takeout that includes do-it-yourself cocktail kits, and, of course, increasingly shopping online. The global market has always been at our fingertips but not always immediately at our doorstep. Thanks to retailers upping their game because of the pandemic, that global market is now arriving at our feet in a matter of days, sometimes mere hours. We are entering a recalibration. There is no going back to life exactly as it was.

A recent poll suggests perhaps only 35 percent of people will return to their bricks-and-mortar office when the pandemic is over. The same evolution is happening in the retail sector. E-commerce activity this April has increased 146 percent compared to April, 2019. These consumer changes will soon be the consumer norms. The good news is that e-commerce doesn’t necessarily mean large online retailers will win. The more challenging news is that the solution is not just for all retailers to jump exclusively online. In-store shopping is not dead. We have seen for ourselves the excitement people feel being able return to stores as physical restrictions have been lifted.

The new retail experience is not binary. It is not online versus in-store but a mixture of both. This evolution is being driven by consumers practicing what’s being called “Research Online/Shop Offline” (ROPO) and “Showrooming.” According to a survey by a global technology agency, DigitasLBi, almost 90 percent of Americans say they research a product online before buying it in a store. Conversely, two-thirds of Americans also indulge in “Showrooming” where they test out a product in a store before buying it online, often for less money.

Retailers must respond and innovate. Or perish. It is estimated one-third of businesses will not survive the summer in our current landscape. Many of these businesses weren’t going to last the next 18 months anyway, even without COVID. If your business was doing well before COVID you should take comfort in that but do NOT be complacent.

The successful retailer’s goal is difficult but has been made quite clear: provide a seamless online transaction with lightning fast delivery, while at the same time providing an amazing in-store experience that the customers cannot find online. That is a tall order but you, as a business owner, have no choice if you want to remain in the market.  

The biggest piece of advice I have for retailers and business owners is this: don’t do things differently, do different things. Don’t be a Blackberry. Don’t be fixated on one type of consumer experience. Don’t neglect your in-store responsibilities but get online! Your business can survive this recalibration if you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and innovate. 

Here are my non-negotiable COVID-19 business proofing tips for small business:

  1. Get online. Have a digital presence. An e-commerce platform is ideal;

  2. Customer service is your golden ticket. Create value add wherever you can;

  3. Public Relations. Amazon’s latest campaign is showcasing how they’re giving back to the local economy. Without deliberate action from the local community many retailers will not survive;

  4. Communicate your safety plans.

These changes were coming anyway. The pandemic has merely sped things up. Retailers who rise to meet the challenge will thrive, not just survive, and be even stronger when the “bad germs” go away.