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Video: COVID-19 is changing the face of retail, but where to start?

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Ecommerce spending is up 56% since late February, a time when news of the new coronavirus was just beginning to dominate news cycles in the U.S. and parts of Europe.

It’s a meaningful number, but Signifyd’s Ecommerce Pulse data shows the real meaning is in retail verticals, some of which have seen unprecedented growth, while others are performing more modestly. 

I had a chance to sit down for a video interview with retail strategist Carl Boutet to talk about what some of the numbers mean for retail today and beyond. Boutet is a leading retail thinker based in Montreal. As the founder of Studio Rx, a retail and technology advisory service, with clients around the world. 

And so, I wasn’t going to let him go. We talked for about 20 minutes, about a range of subjects including: 

  • The meaning of recent sales increases in luxury goods, health and beauty and apparel both to retailers and consumers.
  • How best to look at metrics if you’re a data-driven retailer — and if you’re a retailer, you’re data driven.
  • The effects of COVID-19 on retailers today and in the future.
  • The characteristics of businesses that will survive the COVID-19 disruption.
  • The challenges and potential of building a buy online pick up curbside operation.
  • The unique characteristics of the modern retailer.
  • The reason for hope and even optimism that retail will emerge stronger from the current health crisis. 

Yes, it’s a lot.  And so, I’ve prepared a summary with time stamps, so you can skip to the good parts, whatever the good parts are for you.

1:05 The migration from essential to discretionary

Boutet talks about what the run on luxury, health and beauty and apparel could mean for consumers’ mindset and their current view of the loosening of stay-at-home orders. And he drops some interesting knowledge about how COVID-19 has changed the way they’re tracking cosmetics sales in Hong Kong.

2:00 I’m not luxury. You’re luxury.

Yes, luxury sales are rebounding, according to Ecommerce Pulse data. But just what is luxury, Boutet asks. And does all luxury move up and down together? Hint: No. It doesn’t.

3:10 I’m outta here

What do shoppers’ buying habits have to say about the way they are viewing the pandemic and the way it has changed lives in ways that few of us imagined. 

3:43 Does where you are influence what you buy?

We’re glad you asked, Carl. Actually, we wished you’d asked us in about week. We have an idea, but we don’t have the data — yet. We will though and we’ll have you back. That said, Boutet provides some solid theories. 

4:00 When will job losses affect ecommerce sales?

The steadily mounting job losses no doubt are already suppressing the increase in ecommerce spending. But ecommerce sales are still climbing. What can we look forward to?

4:42 Retail is a numbers game

Yes, every retail operation lives and dies by numbers. But how should retail professionals view the tsunami of numbers? Boutet says he advises against reading too much into the short-range view. The longer the trend, the more real it is.

5:38 How significant is it to see a big ecommerce boost

It depends. I know. Worst. Answer. Ever. Boutet says good numbers are good. But if you’re an omnichannel retailer and 90% of your revenue is coming from online sales, you’re on the receiving end of a literal good news / bad news bulletin. 

“Everything is sort of out of whack. Because if you're saying ecommerce is up 30 for me, but it's like 90 of your sales, as much as you can get excited by that 30% increase, it doesn't mean your business is doing well.”

Carl Boutet, chief strategist Studio Rx

6:27 Weekly numbers have value

Hold up, Mr. Boutet. Doesn’t someone running a business need to know the direction he or she is headed in, like almost constantly? Well, OK, yes, Boutet says. It’s helpful to be aware of directional trends. Just don’t get hung up on the turn of every screw.

7:10 Retailers are people, too

It’s easy to forget in the midst of a mad scramble during a pandemic that retail executives and workers are people, too. They’re subject to the same anxieties, family pressures, hopes, dreams and frustrations that the rest of us juggle. 

8:17 The great acceleration

COVID-19 is pushing retailers into the future at a high-rate of speed. Twenty-four month roadmaps are turning into 24-day roadmaps.  

9:13 Winners and losers 

What are the characteristics of the retailers that are going to make it through to the other side? Who’s not going to be around post-COVID-19?

10:20: Smaller can be better

Boutet talks about the advantage small, independent retailers might have in a time of disruption. Why small independents might have an advantage in the pandemic..

11:24 Curbside is the new black 

The first step to retail reopening in many areas is buy online pick up at the curb — BOPAC. Boutet explains why the channel of the moment is not as easy as it looks — at least for those who haven’t already established it as part of their omnichannel experience. 

13:20 But wait. There’s more

Other challenges: velocity, returns 

14:50 Time to lead 

Boutet talks about how the strategy of being a  fast follower has gone out of style. It’s time to be an industry leader. The one-mile run is now a 200-yard dash. 

16:08 Fraudsters love the convenience of curbside pickup

How much do you really know about that mask-wearing customer with the trunk popped on his Impreza? Boutet talks about the margin-crushing potential of an increase in fraudulent orders. 

“You can’t afford to lose anything, whether by fraud or other mischievous things that are happening. “ ”

Carl Boutet, chief strategist Studio Rx

18:39 What’s for dinner?

Boutet examines the counter-intuitive struggles of meal delivery companies at a time when everyone is eating at home.

19:29 The downstream effects of bankruptcy

The reorganization of an enterprise can have something of a domino effect. Think of smaller businesses who suddenly aren’t getting paid. 

19:58 No time to be leaving coins between the couch cushions

This is no time to be leaking revenue. You can’t afford to lose anything, Boutet says, whether by fraud or by “other mischievous things that are happening.” 

21:12 Retailer and resilience both start with ‘R’

If you’re in retail, you’re entrepreneurial, Boutet says. Entrepreneurs figure stuff out. You’ll see.

22:22 Rising to the challenge

Few things look as bleak as a pandemic. But despite the pressure COVID-19 is placing on businesses and the economy, we’ll see some very bold initiatives, Boutet says. And some of them will be big winners. 

There you have it. And Carl, thanks for being on our show.

Photo by Getty Images 

Looking to navigate the COVID-19 and post-COVID world of retail? We can help.

Mike Cassidy

Mike Cassidy

Mike is the head of storytelling at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at [email protected].