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Executive Insight: Re-Imagining Retail in the COVID-19

Innovating to meet the new customer mindset and needs in the pandemic era and beyond

John Riddle, President & CEO, Howard’s

There’s an old saying that seemingly impossible situations are brilliantly disguised as opportunities. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, both on the physical and economic health of our customers, certainly present an impossible situation for consumer electronics and appliance retailers. Stores are closed or maintain limited hours, and customers are fearful of in-store visits, deliveries, and home visits by service staff and installers.

However, the COVID-19 impossible situation presents retailers an opportunity to innovate the way they do business to both succeed during the current crisis and to create a “new normal” for success moving forward.

In the short-term, two essential areas of strategy have proven to be tremendously successful for consumer electronics and appliance retailers since the pandemic began. Number one, retailers need to enforce strong safety protocols, not just for employees, but also for vendors that may be coming into our locations. Maintain a no-tolerance policy for not wearing masks, supply masks and gloves for customers who come into your store, and practice a visible and fastidious in-store cleaning regimen so your customers feel safe.

Number two, retailers need to market themselves to the general public as integral community citizens of the markets they serve, to be available to their neighbors and their neighborhoods, not just online, but also in-store and in-home.

This second need has pushed us at Howard’s to innovate how we serve customers. One new tool that’s been most successful for us: we’ve equipped all our sales staff with iPads to conduct Zoom calls to conduct virtual presentations of the products customers are looking to buy.

A conference room used to meet with customers at a Howard’s location.

We’ve also begun to schedule showroom appointments with customers so they can come in at a time that’s convenient for them. We suggest low-traffic times of day that are going to be safe for customers who may be high risk. We’re lucky to have conference rooms that allow us to get very focused and very private with customers.

We also have expanded our online chat capability, deploying not just our e-commerce chat team, but we have trained our sales staff to serve as chat experts. Through this expanded chat we can supply sales staff who can speak to customers for whom English is a second language. And if via these Zoom or chat calls an in-store visit is required, we can assign the appropriate sales person.

We’ve also developed a disciplined safe home delivery policy. All of our delivery crews are outfitted with masks and gloves, as well as a cleaning supply kit for cleaning both the product they’re bringing in as well as the installation area. All delivery teams meet every morning about following through on the protocol, and they have a script for when they arrive at the customer’s home to explain how the safe delivery is going to work.

Business is going to be there, and the basic principles of trying to serve that customer remain the same. Deploying innovative, even non-traditional strategies shouldn’t be limited to this impossible period of time, however, but should become the “new normal” to how we all approach business going forward.

John Riddle is the President and CEO of Howard’s. Founded in 1946 when Howard Roach began repairing radios in the back of a sporting goods store in San Gabriel, CA, Howard’s has grown over the past 74 years to 13 locations and has become Southern California’s largest and most trusted independent retailer of appliances, TVs, and mattresses.

See also: COVID Prompts Higher Appliance Replacements