Technology advancement and shifting consumer trends provide a challenge to bring constant innovation and newness to the customer. The way in which retailers manage these changes is likely to be the single most important determining factor of success.

Managing the twin requirements of anticipating the future and responding to the current, retailers need to play a line between long term strategic planning and short term tactical action. While long term planning is crucial, short term events often conspire to spin these plans into the long grass.

The Coronavirus epidemic represents such an event and has moved food retailers into tactical overdrive in order to manage wartime-like emergency measures. For the first time in living memory, at least in Europe, safety and hygiene are now a rare moment of primary concern for shoppers and staff alike. Cashier barriers, distance marking, basket cleaning and controlled entry have been implemented across nationwide store networks within days, demonstrating the impressive ability of our retailers and their staff to act with agility and courage when called upon.

While the current situation is very much in center view, it will eventually come to pass. For the times ahead, retailers need to continue considering how to manage change in a future that is not so clear to see.

Change isn’t new, but the nature of change has, well…changed. The increasing pace of cultural, societal and technological transformation leaves retailers under increasing pressure to flex their offer and customer experience. For physical retailers, there is no doubt that the shop floor is where the change needs to happen as this is where it’s noticed.

Whether implementing strategic, seasonal or daily changes in assortment, or actioning new safety and hygiene measures, how can retailers best ready themselves for today, tomorrow and the future?

During a somewhat dubious moment in history, Donald Rumsfeld made a quite profound statement about “known knowns and known unknowns”. We know people eat breakfast in the morning, so we can prepare for that, but while we can speculate, we don’t know what the next big food trend will be. This somewhat demonstrates the complexity faced by retailers in managing change.

Most retailers are sufficiently capable of making changes to their stores, the main question remains whether they make the right decisions, and that they act on the decision at the right time and in a cost efficient way. So, what can be done?

While a strong long term vision is important, it’s also critical to find store level solutions that enable agile testing and learning for short and medium term change.

Enacting a continually flexible concept within the store also requires a different way of thinking about investment and store appearance. For example, if future needs require you to alter your space quickly to bring food departments into non-food areas, solutions that give you this possibility might take priority over perfection in the appearance.

Equally, if your store can be altered easily to serve breakfast food in the morning, then evening meal solutions at night, customers will accept the temporary nature of the experience for the benefit of something relevant at that moment in their day.

As we look forward beyond the current crisis it is with slightly blurred vision, bringing into reality an uncertainty of what lies ahead. It reminds us of the importance of staying flexible and ready for the known knowns as well as the known unknowns — with solutions for the store floor that let us manage these better.