The year 2020 will go down in history for a multitude of reasons, some of which we will not so fondly remember and some of which we may choose to forget. In its wake, it may have hindered customer experience to a certain degree but it also enabled some changes that will thankfully hang around for a while and perhaps some permanently. I liken this to a trip I made to India a few years back where I saw poverty as I had never seen before, became so ill that I could not eat for nearly an entire week, and could not bring myself to eat Indian cuisine for almost three years afterward. Eventually, I came to regard that trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience from which I still have lasting impressions and would not want to not have had that experience. Three years from now, can I expect that I will ever look back on 2020 and say anything similar? Time will tell, but as I look back on 2020, I can say that among all the upheaval created by the pandemic, there were a few bright spots and, in some respects, a more than welcomed transformation could have occurred. Here are a few examples of what I consider bright spots in an otherwise tumultuous and depressing year.

As an individual with a degree in science who believes in facts and respects the advice of experts in the field of epidemiology, I began wearing a mask early for personal protection and the protection of others well before they became required. Outside of a case of what could only be determined as the flu that I contracted back in February since Covid tests were largely unavailable at that time, I have had no other seasonal or occasional cold symptoms through the end of 2020. This is significant as that has never been the case for me in any past year that I can ever recall. I attribute that in part to wearing a mask and following the advice and precautions of the medical experts. I also feel proud of my diligence insofar as that best practice also helped protect others—in particular, family members and the elderly.

After enduring a bit of early shopping pandemonium centered around hand sanitizer and toilet paper hoarding exhibited by many, including some by friends and family that astounds me to this day, I came to appreciate the more orderly process of the one-way grocery aisles and especially the checkout process that has transformed from an otherwise annoying experience. I never could understand why the person behind me felt the need to pile their goods on the belt while nudging me in the rear with their shopping cart when a cashier can only operate sequentially and accommodate one individual at a time. The newly installed plexiglass panels that protect both cashier and shopper plus the contactless payment options that became more common also made this weekly shopping necessity a more pleasant experience and one example of what I would like to believe is a permanent change.

The pharmacy that I frequent also installed plexiglass panels where prescriptions, payments, and medications could be exchanged in a more safe and orderly manner. One wonders why it took a pandemic for this kind of a process change to take place. People use pharmacies to obtain medications often when they are sick. Why would a pharmacist or an assistant want to continually expose themselves to potentially sick people throughout the day and then possibly expose other customers who are perhaps not sick? There is likely a multitude of potential other process improvements for that environment but seeing what has transpired in just the short term is a great start and represents another hopefully permanent change.

One area of business that has been particularly hit hard by the pandemic is the restaurant business. There are many reasons why some of them were forced to permanently close, but some have cleverly transformed their layout and the way they operate to not only survive but to serve customers in a new, safe, and inspiring manner. One local favorite of mine brought in a design team mid-year that completely redeveloped the bar and seating area to maintain safe distancing by installing moveable seats and transparent panels on wheels to accommodate most customer distancing requirements. Kudos to them for not only taking a customer-centric approach to the situation but also for keeping their pricing structure in check to encourage and support their loyal customer base.

When I hear the words, “I can’t wait until we return to normal” it makes me want to cringe a bit. What do they consider normal? And what makes anyone believe that a pandemic is a one-time occurrence or that the existence of a vaccine is going to allow us to let down our guard and toss caution to the wind? We have experienced seven notable epidemics like COVID-19 since 1918. Some of these epidemics have been classified as pandemics, and all of them have had a serious effect on the human population in some way. There are things we can do as a nation to prepare for another possible pandemic outbreak like Covid-19. As individuals, it is critical that we all follow the appropriate advice and guidance from the experts and take the necessary steps to slow or stop the spread of any new disease. In a recent article written by Susan Meyer entitled Understanding the COVID-19 Effect on Online Shopping Behavior, she astutely points out the reality of this moment in time as consumers.

“I don’t think it’s too soon to say that the COVID-19 global pandemic will likely be one of the defining events of 2020 and that it will have implications that last well into the decade.
The situation is rapidly changing. The number of people deemed safe to gather in a single place has dwindled from thousands to hundreds, to ten. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and gyms in many major cities are shutting down. Meanwhile, many office workers are facing new challenges of working remotely full time. Essentially, people are coming to terms with the realities of our interconnected world and how difficult it is to temporarily separate those connections to others. To say that we are living in unprecedented times feels like an understatement. One of the responses we have seen to how people are approaching this period of isolation and uncertainty is in huge overnight changes to their shopping behaviors. From bulk-buying to online shopping, people are changing what they are buying, when, and how. As more cities are going under lockdowns, nonessential businesses are being ordered to close, and customers are generally avoiding public places. Limiting shopping for all but necessary essentials are becoming a new normal. Brands are having to adapt and be flexible to meet changing needs.”

The effect that the pandemic has foisted upon our work-life is yet another transformation that we are just beginning to grapple with. In another article by Denise Lee Yohn entitled The Pandemic Is Rewriting the Rules of Retail, published by Harvard Business Review in June 2020, she observes…

“Retailers need to stop expecting business to return to “normal.” There is no going back to how it was anytime soon. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, brick-and-mortar retailers had been fighting a fierce battle against Amazon and other e-commerce players. Those challenges have now accelerated at a staggering speed.”

No, we are not going back to normal. We are forging a new future forced upon us by nature itself and not by people of ill intent. The sooner we understand that and the sooner we begin to act and behave accordingly, the more we will begin to see bright spots unfurl as we usher in the year 2021.

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Karl Sharicz – Founder, CEO – HorizonCX, LLC. | August 2020

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