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For Retailers, BLM Should Be More Than A Hashtag

Chicago retail, including other iconic shopping destinations, looked like a war zone this week – not a major market poised to re-open after months of closures. This week was supposed to be the next re-opening phase in Illinois – not another setback that some retailers will not survive. The stark image of damaged and boarded storefronts all across the country is hopefully the nadir from which we all rebuild.

Retailers as a whole have not historically been ones to champion social causes of this magnitude. Silence on social or civil unrest was often the preferred decision by management teams. This is no longer an option in our view. The retail industry touches almost everyone, and we’re witnessing a change that is likely permanent.

Brian Cornell, CEO of Target, issued a public statement to their huge workforce, “…as a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose.” And backed up his words with actions in the form of first aid supplies and essentials to the heaviest damaged areas and reassurance to employees their wages are safe even as stores are closed temporarily. Cornell went on to say, “… the safety and well-being of our team, guests, and the surrounding community will continue to be our paramount priority.”

Many retailers and consumer brands are responding similarly, but this feels different. This feels like a permanent change in how we choose to shop for and buy necessities and frivolous products alike and how retailers proactively give back to their community.

Consumers are demanding their favorite brands to speak out, and those who do not risk damage to their brand and future. Consumers will hold us accountable, and winners and losers in retail will increasingly be defined by their social and community positioning.

Posting a dark screen on Instagram will not be enough. “Consumers don’t care about corporate solidarity. They want donations,” according to a story on Vox from yesterday. “As brands rush to speak out, many statements ring hollow,” states a headline on Business of Fashion from earlier this week.

Small mom and pop retailers are most vulnerable, and many will not survive the double whammy of 2020. “Big retailers say they don’t mind the looting. It’s different for small businesses,” explains Cathaleen Chen on BoF.

From our vantage point, we closely monitor the “acceleration of trends,” and never has it been more critical for businesses to focus on building lasting relationships and less on the next transaction.

The long uphill battle ahead may be best exemplified by small retailers. They are at their best when customer relationships are strong – and nurturing such connections is more elementary for business now than ever.

Your voice matters, retail. As do all voices, big and small, that we have witnessed and support in peaceful demonstrations. Let’s look back on the second half of this year as a positive turning point – a time when the healing began. It starts with all of us.

Jim Okamura

Jim Okamura leads the digital practice at McMillanDoolittle. Jim has over 25 years of retail strategy consulting experience, focused on digital retail transformation. His work in organization design and international ecommerce strategies has resulted in industry-leading thinking on retailer best practices and strategic planning.

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