Inspiring Leaders in Retail: Lessons On Being Bold Through Uncertainty

Posted by Louisa Cervero | 11-Dec-2020 17:22:56

Retailers have had an undeniably difficult year in 2020. Facing multiple lockdowns and a fast-tracked digital transformation, it is one of the sectors hardest hit by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking ahead to 2021, there are certainly challenges that remain, but also a great deal of opportunities. Members convened for a virtual breakfast in partnership with Equinix to discuss what 2021 will look like for the retail industry, as well as how to exploit data and drive infrastructure innovation. 



Digital transformation for retailers was on the horizon even before the COVID-19 pandemic and multiple lockdown measures came into place. The transition towards smooth and well-running eCommerce capabilities was already a fundamental requirement across the retail sector; now even more so. As Matt George, Director of Segment Marketing, EMEA at Equinix explained, COVID merely accelerated this transformation, it was not the key driver. Businesses, and particularly more traditional brick and mortar retailers, had to pivot extremely quickly to serve their customers and employees. For example, many organisations had to set up call centres within two weeks. Matt then spoke about the benefits of interconnectedness to customer service teams in particular. Customers are now expecting that sub-60 millisecond loading when it comes to how they purchase items. These expectations can only be met when there is interconnection and a distributed network of digital core and edge locations. 

Members then heard from Dan Hall, Enterprise Infrastructure Architect from ASOS. He outlined the steps ASOS has taken to succeed in the digital space during the pandemic. Dan started off with a disclaimer: “no company has ever had a playbook for a pandemic”. He then went on to explain that ASOS was lucky because of how far along they already were in their digital journey: ASOS was already a digital-only eCommerce platform with the ability to scale. This allowed for a seamless transition to a lockdown world, albeit with a number of lessons learnt along the way. There were 3 areas Dan examined these lessons learnt: technology, people and strategy/execution. 

Firstly, looking at the technology side, for ASOS, the pandemic simply fast tracked a lot of scaling, as well as a new standardisation of digital and practical measures across teams. Dan also explained how a high degree of automation and interconnectedness across hybrid environments allow for efficiency and consistency across the board. This meant that the digital platform side was ready to be sustained for both employees and customers when the pandemic hit. Moving forward, the plan is just to keep scaling and continue the work that is being done to prevent tying employees to a physical location.

Dan then came onto the second point: people. This is where the culture shift of the organisation came in. Remote working has come with a lot of issues - both for security reasons as well as employee wellbeing reasons. Continuing the work that has been done to facilitate home-working into 2021 as hybrid working becomes the norm is what businesses should prioritise. 

Finally, strategy and execution are important aspects necessary to reflect on moving into 2021. Dan explained that ASOS went through a reactive phase, as many businesses did, at the beginning of the pandemic. The period of uncertainty and reactivity has allowed them to be more prepared and proactive for crises in the future. That is where the importance of strategy comes into play. This period of crisis has given organisations the opportunity to reprioritise, which is particularly useful going forward. Dan finished by explaining that growth is possible and focusing on delivering the strategy will allow organisations in the retail sector to be successful.



Members then moved onto a fruitful discussion about their own organisations’ challenges and strategies moving forward into 2021. 

The ever-important question of remote working was a theme that the discussion particularly focused on. Many members appreciated the benefits of flexible working while also seeing the issues that arise because of it. In particular, there was reference to being more productive overall, while also losing out on the crucial collaborative element that innovation teams have while working  in the same physical space. 

The other theme that members touched on was the speed-to-market and the speed of transformation that has become a norm within their organisations. The consensus was reached during the discussion that going back to the old normal of how long transformation projects took is no longer an option. The fact that things are changing so quickly is a good thing and this pace should be kept up in 2021 to help foster that all-important growth. 

Finally, members discussed the next steps to be able to plan for the future rather than recovering from the past year. The poll that was conducted at the start of the event asking “are you still in recovery mode, or are you in planning mode?” yielded optimistic results for the retail industry in 2021. 82% of attendees said that they have flipped into planning mode from recovery mode with 18% answering that they were doing both. With new developments in digital and people and customers, strategy has had to follow suit. One attendee explaining that their planning strategy has gone from quarterly plans to full-year plans to accommodate the need for long-term vision. 

Encouragingly, there was not a single attendee that said they were still in recovery mode. This was agreed upon by members as an incredibly important step to move into 2021 successfully. 


This event was held in partnership with Equinix, a cloud and infrastructure solutions provider.

Topics: Event reports

Written by Louisa Cervero

Louisa is an Editorial Executive at Nimbus Ninety. She produces our summits and finds the most disruptive innovators in business and technology.

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