Did we Miss an Opportunity?

We are reminiscing on the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its natural to look at the lives lost, the jobs lost, and the upending of our lives due to this pandemic. However, there has been something that has been stuck in the back of my mind. Despite the losses we have all felt from this pandemic, I believe there is an opportunity presented to us. A chance to innovate and improve on the status quo.

Going into lockdown one year ago, left many industries and businesses forced to redesign long standing logistics and business models. While service and professional industries could realign into a virtual environment relatively easily, the retail and restaurant industries were forced to seriously rethink their models. The restaurant industry continues to struggle, mostly due to its nature of being a socially active endeavour. However I have noticed that retail locations in Canada are notoriously slow to adapt to change.

It is well known that Amazon has been making a killing due to COVID-19. If there was a company that was made to thrive during a global pandemic, Amazon seems to be it. The criticism of Amazon for building a monopoly in online retail is somewhat undeserved in my opinion. Amazon has simply foreseen the landscape of commerce and is capitalizing on the opportunity that COVID-19 has present it with. I ask, where are the competitors. More importantly, why aren’t they Canadian?

Currently, the biggest competitor to Amazon is Walmart. For years the American retail giant has been encouraging customers to purchase online, with a big component being their curbside pick up:

During the pandemic, Walmart has upped their game to expand their e-commerce platform into fully automated fulfillment centres. Much akin to Amazon’s testing the waters with their Amazon Go sites. Walmart recently announced a partnership with new Canadian start up Ghost Kitchen, expanding their ability to bring American Brands to the Canadian market. All of this bodes well for consumers, as major brands strive to accomodate our lifestyles as opposed to demanding we meet theirs. The pandemic has encouraged Amazon and Walmart, to embrace innovation and change in order to remain competitive in the market place.

This of course, raises the question of where is the great Canadian innovation? We are with our own well known Canadian brands of course, and yet when it comes to see what they are offering, we are left wanting. I look at who would be positioned to at least make the in roads to disrupt the old styles of shopping in Canada and the first options I come up with are Indigo and Loblaws.

Indigo already has a starting point to compete with Amazon. Both companies started out with selling books. Indigo has expanded their online retailing to offer some additional wares from their retail locations. Unfortunately that seems to be where the innovation ends. Anecdotally, my wife bought an online gift card for Christmas from Indigo. Unfortunately, there was a mix up and she had to return it. The refund was only put through a few weeks ago, after a needlessly frustrating encounter with their customer service department. Is this an apples to apples comparison, no, but it did indicate a difference in cultures between Walmart and Amazon and Indigo.

In the case of Loblaws, for a year now, curbside pickup has been synonymous with the retail experience. Major retailers that offer apps to place orders are common place. However, they do not charge fees. Shopping online at Fortinos, a subsidiary of Loblaws, comes with added fees for curbside pickup. I cannot say if these fees carry over to other Loblaws locations, as we not have any others in our community. However the argument that the fee is required for the cost of curbside is ludicrous. Call it what it is, a deterent to the service in order to drive traffic inside their stores, so that they can rely on good ol’ product placement to encourage shopping. This technique is antiquated and more harmful in the long run.

Where is the drive on the part of major Canadian brands to meet the consumer where they are currently? Curbside, mail order, and online shopping are no longer premium nice to haves in the retail landscape. Like it or not, COVID-19 has sped up the change that was already here. Online retailing is the future. The age of the brick and mortar store is dying. Make the effort to change and make the changes to encourage your customers to embrace the changes.

We need competition in the market place. Walmart and Amazon are not invulnerable to upstarts. Canadian brands are well placed to take on the challenge. The only thing holding them back is culture. Innovate and look forward, rather than wait for things to return to normal. Normal isn’t coming back. New habits have formed after a year. If retailers wish to thrive once pandemic restrictions are lifted, they need to be poised to run as soon the gun is triggered. If Canadian retailers are expecting a return to old, they will be sorely mistaken. Some things from this pandemic aren’t going away. One of them is increased use of online retail. Now is the time to get this right. Playing it safe will not be its own reward.

2 thoughts on “Did we Miss an Opportunity?”

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