The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the growth of eCommerce, put another nail in the coffin of the bricks and mortar retail, and given rocket fuel to industries that may otherwise have floundered in the online world.

Notably, a raft of businesses that had previously been adopting offline-only strategies as a point of differentiation, or to meet specific audience needs, have been forced to change tune and ramp up their eCommerce efforts in a hurry.

This in turn has created a number of new fulfilment challenges for an already over-stretched logistics sector, leaving companies struggling to get their stock into the supply chain and forcing consumers to endure lengthy delays for their items – particularly those deemed ‘non-essential’.

All of which poses an interesting conundrum as we move to the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic: will retail customers continue to stay home once the lockdown restrictions are lifted, and what are the implications for fulfilment providers should this prove to be the case?

Muscle memory

Most predictions about a swift economic recovery have been predicated on people returning to pre-crisis behaviours – e.g. shopping, dining, attending gyms etc. However, it seems just as likely that people will exercise extreme caution when venturing out in public for the foreseeable future.

There are no guarantees that bricks and mortar stores will possess the requisite muscle memory to draw customers back in sufficient numbers, particularly if older and less digitally savvy audiences – who are also comparatively more at risk from serious infection – have now upskilled and learnt how to book deliveries and order staple items online.

Employees may also want to stay home

It’s possible that large numbers of employees will be reluctant to travel into busy city centres even once the crisis abates, particularly if they have to do so on over-crowded public transport.

We don’t yet know how many of the organisations currently reliant upon make-shift remote operations will mandate that their staff return to the office post-crisis (or whether we’ll see any pushback from employees should this be the case), but it seems likely that home-based working is going to grow exponentially over the coming years.

Will these workers still step out of their home office to make lunchtime grocery and shopping visits? It’s entirely possible that they’ll replace their former city centre behaviour with greater reliance upon home deliveries, perhaps even exploring whether local retailers offer last-mile fulfilment.

Trending items will change

If eCommerce and home delivery continue to be prioritised over physical shopping trips, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the same items will retain their popularity in the post-COVID environment. For example, households aren’t actually using more toilet roll or pasta. And yes, people may be using more flour currently, but is the trend towards baking really going to endure in the long run? The same can easily be asked of jigsaw puzzles.

For logistics providers, our role is to anticipate these evolving wants and needs and, if necessary, reengineer our warehousing and fulfilment operations to make sure that items are prioritised appropriately.

We need to dive into the data to understand how habits are changing, as well as contextualising our findings to determine what is indicative of a permanent shift in behaviour. For example, if the pandemic has genuinely made people more health conscious, could home-delivered vitamin supplements or hand sanitiser maintain their current levels of popularity into the post-COVID world?

Changes are needed to anticipate raised expectations

Ultimately, if people continue to stay home once the lockdown restrictions are lifted – and there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest that this may be the reality – then our industry needs to raise its game. Customers have been tolerant of lengthy lead times, shipment delays and customer service challenges due to the exceptional circumstances we’ve all had to live through. This is unlikely to remain the case once the crisis subsides.

We need to strengthen the resilience of supply chains across the industry and place greater emphasis on keeping team members safe and healthy. And we need to solve the industry’s problematic record on employee retention, because it’s only by nurturing loyal, engaged workforces that we will be able to boost productivity and meet these raised customer expectations.

It’s too soon to tell whether customer habits and behaviours have permanently shifted towards the home, but irrespective, the roadmap for our industry is achingly clear.

Paul Dodd is Co-Founder and CTO of third-party logistics provider Huboo. Designer of Huboo’s ‘hub’ model, Dodd has scaled Huboo’s operations and technology from zero to more than 250 clients. He has more than 20 years’ experience managing global and local supply chain operations for P&G, including extensive experience delivering business continuity planning and business transformation. 

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