Businesses in the retail sector have never needed sound advice more than they do right now. Even those who haven’t been directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic are feeling the pinch from the flow-on effects of lockdown. Now, many need assistance to help them navigate complex stimulus packages and tax concessions, along with their own business planning for the months ahead.

The announcement of the global pandemic hit the retail industry hard and fast, resulting in one of two scenarios for most businesses.

The first is the worst case scenario, where the music suddenly stopped, and so did sales. It went from ‘steady’ to ‘zero’ in a matter of days.

And, the second is Extreme Demand, in patterns we haven’t ever seen before. Initially, we saw panic buying of common household goods and food across the globe. Manic sales are still up for the right products that help families prepare for and survive in isolation.

It appears this was also borne out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ retail trade figures for March, revealing a whopping 8.5 per cent sales increase year-on-year (seasonally adjusted). However, the gains were mostly derived from spending on essentials, while discretionary spend and hospitality categories lost out in a big way. The ABS is also tipping retail to have dipped significantly in April (an estimated -17.9 per cent), so the sector can probably expect a bumpy ride over the months to come.

As always in retail, the key to success is to remain focused on what people want, and, at this strange time, it is even more about offering what people need.

Below are trends impacting the retail industry across three horizons throughout the pandemic, according to the below (rough) timelines.

Now: During the remainder of restrictions

Soon: Transitioning into a socially-distanced retail environment

Later: Post-vaccine, when we can return to life with the freedoms and opportunities that existed before

Now (3-6 months)

The uncertainty of COVID-19’s impact has left society bunkered down literally, and financially. The universal move for businesses has been to immediately cut costs to a bare minimum, and requesting relief from rent, bills and loans where feasible.

There have also been clear opportunities to divert some unneeded supply-side capacity to help people in need, and if manufacturers can fulfil, pivot to making much needed protective clothing for medical and care staff.

If there’s demand for a product, retail businesses need help people gain access to them safely, cleanly and at a fair price.

If those retailers are restricted by having to close their physical store, then expanding and scaling online fulfilment is priority one.

And if, for whatever reason, retailers have experienced a total or near-total halt to trade, then they essentially have three options:

  • Hibernate the operations and wait for life to partially return to normal. Leverage stimulus, tax concessions and other relief as much as possible.
  • For those who unfortunately don’t have the capital to get them through the pandemic, immediate advice on wrapping a business up should be sought and considered carefully.
  • Can the business expand product lines laterally? Can they distribute somewhere new? Can they collaborate with a business or creator from another space to create something new, unique, and useful to people in isolation?


As we begin to emerge from isolation, we will see ‘The Great Hesitation’ as the risk of another wave is likely, causing people not to return to normal life for a long period of time.

This is the time to focus on core products, running the business as lean as possible.

If a retailer hasn’t already, now’s the time to go all in on the internet. List your stock in as many places as possible, such as Amazon and eBay, but remember to manage sensitive customer data. Emails, analytics and sales data should all be kept as a primary source.

MYOB’s economist Jon Manning says now is the time to turn digital.

“This crisis has presented Australia with the opportunity to flex its digital muscles. The nation is more online, more cashless and more connected than ever and for those retailers who embrace this moment as a force for change, there will be financial gains that will safeguard their trade well into the future.”

Through this period, it’s important to maintain business-critical marketing initiatives. Be sure to communicate with customers about hygiene practices and how you are ensuring the safety of their staff and customers.

Assure staff they have a secure and valued position for as long as you plan on staying in business.


For retailers that make it through the pandemic, it’s evidence they have a strong brand and offering, and customer base. This should be leveraged to expand into other product ranges and markets. Retail businesses need to brace for The Long Tail Of Recovery, and constantly innovate and adjust to what customers are wanting and how they are wanting to access it.

Tommy McCubbin is futurist at Future Sandwich