A Retail Story: Innovation the Key to Helping Businesses Respond to COVID-19

Retail is an industry that is constantly evolving. However, significant changes such as the eCommerce boom, changing customer expectations or new trends and technologies are usually stretched out over time — months, shopping seasons, even years.

But what happens when the entire industry is forced to change fundamental practices almost literally overnight? Such are the challenges presented by the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Bracing for the Next Normal

Bricks and mortar retail has been one of the many sectors devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning in March 2020, many retailers began closing their doors as others put in place new policies and social distancing measures. Thousands of employees were laid off or furloughed. Spending on retail merchandising campaigns and rollouts was severely curtailed, with projects put on hold amid drastic declines in revenue and uncertainty about the future.

The ripple effect, of course, extended to customers who had to navigate a whole new reality simply to buy groceries, clothing or other necessities. But it also took a serious toll on businesses and workers that are essential to the retail ecosystem — for example, the people who transport goods to the stores and the many companies that supply the retail and food industries.

Pivoting to Innovation

Meanwhile, at their sprawling manufacturing facility and corporate campus in Rhode Island, Jay Long and Doug Robertson were assessing the situation and mobilizing to transform their normal operations in response to the crisis.

Their company, Visual Creations (VCI), is one of the nation’s leading manufacturers and suppliers of retail store displays, fixtures and related products. The partners had spent over three decades working closely with some of the best-known brands in the business; and they were bracing themselves for a severe economic hit, expecting business to drop off precipitously as their retail clients canceled orders and postponed projects.

But they were simultaneously flipping a switch on some serious innovation.

Of course, the factory floor would need to be reconfigured to put distance between workers outfitted with personal protective equipment, and the sales and support team would need to develop new procedures for supporting customers while working remotely across the country.

They also realized that, though their retail clients would need far fewer displays and fixtures for an uncertain period of time, their mission of supporting the retail community was about to take a new and unexpected turn — supplying retailers across the nation with protective products to safeguard their customers and staff.

The team at VCI set to work determining what types of products their retail customers would need to help weather the public health crisis and quickly rolled out a new line of products.

They also had a head start on this due to the fact that Rose Displays, a division of VCI that specializes in signware and related products and services, had an existing line of products that they could adapt to the needs of retailers grappling with the challenges of COVID-19.

In almost no time, they were able to supply eager customers with such essential health and safety products as:

  • Clear protective shields and partitions
  • Modular sanitization floor stands
  • Sneeze guards
  • Counter shields
  • Register shields
  • Tabletop shields
  • Hanging guards, shields and dividers
  • Social distancing counter fixtures
  • Solutions for displaying important messaging

The effort required to pull it off felt at once exhausting and monumental.

“We had to shift our core manufacturing to adapt to speed to market with the rollout of these essential items. We were able to leverage our supply chain as a large-scale manufacturer to get the necessary inventory in-house for these products in a timely manner,” said Long. “We had every gear, every team in this company engaged; and we were able to do it in record time to keep up the demand for what our customers needed.”

Retail clients that had postponed orders of traditional displays, fixtures and signware were suddenly placing rush orders for products they needed, in some cases, to reopen stores to the public.

“The customers could not open their stores without some of these essential products,” said Long, who noted that because “every state was opening at a different time” shipping and delivery schedules had to be executed with utmost precision. “It was necessary for the entire company to leverage every department’s skillset,” he said.

VCI was also well-positioned to make such a quick and nimble transition because it had relatively recently made the decision to reconfigure its manufacturing operation to more easily accommodate smaller jobs; this in recognition of the fact that, amid the eCommerce boom, even some of the largest retailers were now more conservative about nationwide rollouts in their physical stores.

Ongoing Adaptation

Though at first VCI thought of the protective equipment as a short-term need, it quickly became apparent that the retailers and restaurateurs are likely looking at a longer-term need to implement and maintain COVID-19 safeguards.

This also means that more businesses are seeking COVID-19 safety solutions that are not only as unobtrusive as possible but are also designed with an eye toward aesthetics. Fortunately, VCI’s decades of experience collaborating with retailers to create custom merchandising solutions that are attractive and on brand will come in handy here.

VCI has long emphasized a collaborative, customer-centric approach with its clients. The idea is to understand and serve their retail customers so well that the relationship evolves from typical third-party supplier to that of trusted brand partner — one who can be counted on to understand brand guidelines, design considerations, store configurations and more when creating custom solutions for their stores.

“We put our customers’ customers first in whatever we’re doing. Now we’ve also had to customize how we interact with our customers,” said Long, referring to adapting old ways of doing business as states relax restrictions and retail gradually moves toward fully reopening.

In recent months, VCI has onboarded video conferencing technology to stay connected with clients, often holding meetings in which everyone is working remotely instead of at the office. They have sent samples to customers’ homes and even met in a client’s parking lot to avoid the risk of meeting in a crowded conference room.

“We’re adapting; we’re changing to their needs,” said Long. “We’re still here for them, even though everything is different.”

As a self-described “relationship company,” VCI has always been laser focused on staying ahead of the retail curve. Moving forward, they plan to continue exploring the most innovative ways to engage with the ever-changing needs of their customers — always focused on adapting smartly to the never-ending evolution of retail.

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