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Rainy-day planning still matters even when the storm passed.
Rainy-day planning still matters even when the storm passed.

Retailers can’t afford to ignore the business lessons of 2020

The economic bounce-back from COVID-19 is well underway, but BARRY URQUHART cautions those who do not heed the permanent changes to the market – and consumers’ expectations.

It was difficult to look forward in 2020. Many perspectives, variables, influences and government-funded initiatives made everything more challenging and complex.

Control, while not ceded, was compromised; stability was beyond reach. Budgeting, forecasting and prudent resource allocation were vexing.

Therefore, in most instances, outcomes were at best optimised – given the variable external forces – rather than maximised.

In the broader economy, multiple players were actively seeking to stimulate interest, recognition, and demand for retail. Some campaigns were creative, and a few were innovative and original.

In many instances, the messages were changed, and consumers’ expectations were elevated. Regrettably, the products and services, typically those in local communities and shopping precincts, were static – same old, same old.

Profound disappointment, compounded by fragmented, truncated trading hours, limited stock availability and inadequate service became the norm.

Collectively, consumers did not have good experiences with retailers.

It is one thing to make a promise, and quite another to deliver on that promise, with the inherent advantages, benefits and rewards that delivering brings.

Yet help was at hand, in the form of countless ‘experts’ – many extolling their virtues and skills in managing small businesses.

Business owners are enjoying, profiting and banking the fruits of their fortune with no questions asked.

A common lesson – revealed over time – was that the increase in the number of not-for-profit consultancies was directly commensurate with the number of unemployed and underemployed people, as well as the pools of funds within government coffers.

One lesson learnt by business owners in 2020 is that a significant gap lies between improving internal efficiencies and financial survival.

At the same time, rudimentary customer service training for front-line service staff is laudable, but falls well short of being strategically competitive and advantageous. It is the bare minimum.

Rose-coloured glasses

Perfect vision – known, appropriately, as 20/20 – is typically most valued in hindsight.

Yet contemplating the relatively rapid and widespread economic recovery being enjoyed by many sectors in diverse locations throughout Australia, it is apparent that business owners are enjoying, profiting and banking the fruits of their fortune with no questions asked.

Very few are critically analysing, formulating, documenting and implementing contingency plans for any downturns during 2021, and in the immediate future.

Indeed, the order of current business is anything but orderly! Normal has morphed into abnormal, while surprises and the unexpected abound.

Rules for commerce, communications and consensus are being rewritten.

It’s a work in progress – everyone, it seems, is applying their own guidelines and frameworks.

Big isn’t as big anymore; downsizing and contractions have evolved into forces
in their own right. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Demand, momentum and productivity appear to be fluid, while ‘solid’, ‘intense’ and ‘consistent’ seem to be pensive calls from the past.

Adapting to change

In times such as these, it is prudent to embrace contrarian-thinking in order to address possible countervailing forces.

Each dimension addressed above – and many more – suggest a noticeable absence of constraints. Shackles and hackles need to be cast aside.

What is holding back most companies, brands, products, services and applications are the thoughts from within, rather than the market forces from without.

To put it allegorically, elephants can be locked down by only the presence, rather than the strength, of a fragile rope.

A microscopic focus on your business can, and should, highlight problems or opportunities which elicit immediate and positive responses. Discipline, structure, and management of risk are key.

The intent is malleability, scope for timely responsiveness and self-belief – which are the marks and measures of a well- prepared business leader.

So, wake up, shake up, stand up, and speak up; don’t lose sight of the future – yet avoid being lost in spurious visions. Focus on the now, how and wow of your business.


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Barry Urquhart

Contributor • Marketing Focus

Barry Urquhart is managing director of Marketing Focus. He has been a consultant to the retail industry around the world since 1980. Visit: or email

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