People waiting to shop amid the coronavirus pandemic in Brooklyn, NY.

We as an industry have a history of offending people. And while many have laughed it off in the past and chalked it up to “creative license,” the truth is that most retailers have never truly understood their customers, never stood in their shoes to consider their view of the world.

The pandemic and social injustice issues have brought this all into focus for many of us. They have magnified issues that have long hovered beneath the surface and have accelerated change at a pace which most retailers and brands could have never foreseen. Which is why I call retail industry leaders right now to please, just stop. Take a deep breath, and listen.

In the recent past, I have been vocal about retailers and brands that have launched tone deaf or offensive styles, like a Columbine sweatshirt with bullet holes or a blackface turtleneck. I’ve called them out for cultural misappropriation like using Native American images without regard for culture or consequence. Whether intentional or just purely ignorant, retail has been contributing to the growing problems in our country for decades.

We, as leaders in this industry, control our own destiny. And as we look upon an industry that has been transformed over the last three months it is not a time to be feckless. It is time to lead. And that means dispensing with old beliefs and charting a new course forward. It starts with understanding customers who have been forever changed.

The pandemic has transformed everyone in different and unpredictable ways. Some people can’t wait to go back to work, while others want to work from home forever. Some consumers want to wear masks and others do not. Some consumers no longer feel like buying new items at all. Some of your customers are taking to the streets to protest, while others are responding in different ways.

As a result, the old ways of segmenting customers demographically whether it be by gender, age, geography or even past purchase or browsing behavior no longer work. We as an industry need to learn who our “new” evolving customers truly are now, like right now. That means closing the door on past behavior.

For example, believing that you know who your customer is and how they feel at this moment. We need to step through into the new world where our consumers now live and rethink everything we thought we knew with our ears wide open to listening to what they have to say with a true intention of trying in some meaningful way to understand them. Truly understand them…not just lip service. The alternative? Sit on the tinder box waiting for the match to strike.

Recently, Walmart chief executive officer Doug McMillon was interviewed on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” and I was taken with some of his comments about following the customer journey through the first weeks of the pandemic. He mentions that his priorities were centered first and foremost on supporting the frontline associates, serving customers and helping others, and not worrying so much about the short term P&L, knowing that those rewards would likely come later.

The company moved in unison with its customers even as their needs changed quickly, first stocking up on paper goods and hand sanitizers, and then food, and then ensuring people were able to solve problems like entertainment and educating their children at home. The company was consistently one step ahead because they knew and understood who their customers were in this new world. They also spoke with associates and found ways to inspire confidence in a safe working environment. Even now, in the midst of the civil unrest, he is continuing to support the safety of customers and associates while also reinforcing the need for diversity and to “address hard realities.”

Crocs is another brand that is doing it right, listening to the voice of their customers and aligning with their needs. Crocs president and ceo Andrew Rees said in a recent article that during the early days of the pandemic, “Over the past week, we have spoken to health-care workers, their facilities and even their family and friends, and they have specifically asked for our shoes in an effort to provide ease on their feet as well as ease of mind as they need the ability to easily clean up before they go home to their families.”

Crocs found a way to align with the needs of the customer in the moment, and pledged to do its part by creating its “Sharing a Free Pair for Healthcare” program. Since March 25, 2020, Crocs has donated over 860,000 pairs of shoes globally to health-care workers on the frontlines of COVID-19.

As we move forward, the solution must start with understanding customers (understanding the person you call your customer), spending time in their shoes, and bringing a thoughtful approach and a point of view on products based on their needs and view of the world. There is just no way to forecast your way out of this one. Retailers and brands must re-learn who their customers are and that means gathering real-time insights by reaching out and talking to them. I mean communicating with them in a dialogue. Using technology to listen and understand right now what they want from you. Not mining data and projecting it onto them (likely, all with good intentions). Understanding is built on first listening.

Core to this new approach will be appointing someone, or a team of people, within each organization who can empathize with consumers and tell authentic stories around products that resonate. Importantly, these consumer advocates must absolutely report directly to the board. Whenever the board stops listening, come up with a point of view and hold the board accountable. The team must also be provided with all the tools necessary to create a listening platform. Thanks to the massive wave of innovation during the pandemic, technology stands ready to help. By the way, when you select those customer advocates, make sure they are great listeners with no internal or external agenda but to understand.

Greg Petro

Greg Petro  Patrick MacLeod/WWD

Consumers have also shown a willingness to engage with retailers and brands to offer their opinions and respond early. We have seen a surge in engagement in our platform, with consumers’ eagerness to share their feedback enabling our customers to close digital product engagements more quickly now than pre-pandemic. Why? I believe they want to be part of the solution.

We now stand on the cusp of a new era and a massive opportunity. We are truly in charge of our own destiny. Choices we make now will dictate whether we as an industry are keeping pace with this new consumer, or if we are doomed to repeat the sins of the past.

I say to the industry, now is the time to stop. Consider your point of view as a company, and take a moment to meet, and understand, your new consumer — maybe even seek to truly understand that person behind the word: customer, guest, consumer.

Greg Petro is chief executive officer of First Insight.

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