The retail industry faced a stark, unprecedented challenge in 2020. Retailers were forced to navigate a global pandemic, embracing – almost overnight – survival tactics to weather the storm posed by lockdown, economic strain and rapidly-evolving consumer needs. For retailers, it was a period focused almost entirely on short-term solutions and survival-at-all costs. However, riding the wave of the eCommerce boom and Australia’s comparatively successful quelling of the virus, the retail industry – resilient and innovative – recovered as the year progressed.

With the new year still in its infancy, and the Australian economy out of nominal recession and recovering, 2021 has the potential to become a milestone year for retail businesses. Many of the safeguards and strategies implemented last year, such as digital transformation and omnichannel selling, will come to define successful business today. Here’s why and how retailers can capitalise on Australia’s relative stability and turn 2020’s challenges into 2021’s opportunities.

Turning challenge into opportunity

While by no means a new phenomenon, eCommerce exploded in Australia in 2020, as retailers big and small, old and new, created or enhanced their digital capabilities to meet and exceed the needs of their customers. High streets will always remain an important, vibrant hub for local communities, but the pandemic accelerated a previously-gradual digital transformation trend, empowering more retailers with the capabilities to cater to shoppers, online and off.

Australian Bureau of Statistics data that shows retail sales in November 2020 were up YoY compared to 2019, is proof of the industry’s recovery, resiliency and ability to turn a challenge into opportunity. So, while their hands may have been forced out of necessity, retailers who embraced digital transformation now possess the foundation on which to build more sustainable, future-friendly businesses than can adapt as the industry continues to evolve around them.

Where new meets old: Understanding COVID-normal

It’s unlikely that we’ll go back entirely to life as we knew it, nor will every pandemic-related trend remain long-term. Instead, retailers should prepare for COVID-normal’, in which pre- and post-pandemic trends will create an amalgamated, hybrid model. For example, there will come a point in which retailers won’t have to adhere to social distance-related capacity restrictions but they may have to implement long-term solutions to cater to an increasingly digital-first society.

In the retail industry, the proliferation of eCommerce saw numerous online shopping records shattered in 2020. Whether 2021 will be similarly record-breaking or not, the long-term importance of an omnichannel strategy that ties online and offline platforms together is unequivocal. That doesn’t just mean an online store, but a broad, sophisticated tech-empowered strategy that utilises, for example, customer relationship management software, tailored marketing, data analytics and process automation. It’s through this approach that retailers can leverage digital transformation to achieve the age-old industry pursuit of excellent customer experience in the new COVID-normal’.

How best to leverage technology to ensure even greater success in a COVID-normal

When it comes to technology, it’s easy to think that bigger is better. In reality, less is far more beneficial for retailers today. After all, having a separate solution for every business function such as digital marketing, inventory management, accounts, online store etc. is not only expensive, but is far more time-consuming to implement and master. What’s more, through this siloed approach, it’s far harder for retailers to automate the flow of crucial insights across their business.

Doing so either manually or not at all is not conducive to the agile, sophisticated, data-driven businesses that will come to define the industry post pandemic. Tools like, for example, Zoho Commerce contains, in one place, the functionality needed to build a website, accept orders, track inventory, process payments, manage shipping, market customers and analyse data. Technology is at its most empowering when it simplifies and streamlines, so retailers can focus less on mundane, day-to-day tasks and more on growth and strategy.

While 2020 was indeed a profound one for retailers, it presented opportunity – one that many, evidently and emphatically, are seizing. As ‘Covid-normal’ continues to manifest itself, by focusing on long-term success not short-term survival Australia’s retailers can lead by example in the new era.

Vijay Sundaram is chief strategy officer at Zoho.