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Operating under COVID-19 conditions can be especially tricky
for a retailer with a selection as wide as Big Lots. The retailer not
only has to take the proper safety precautions regarding essentials like food,
but also the different — but still important — best practices around durable
goods like home furnishings. The company rose to the occasion by looking at the
actions that needed to be taken, ways to support its staff and shoppers, and
tying it all together with strong communication.
In fact, the communications aspect was at the heart of the
entire operation. Big Lots brought together a team of executives and other
leaders very early on in the crisis, and scheduled daily meetings that the team
credits with its rapid, effective response to changing conditions.
“In this time of increased videoconferencing I really think it’s been to the benefit of our company and how we’ve reacted,” said Monica Welt, VP of Compliance at Big Lots during a Retail Reset webinar, sponsored by Reflexis. “We started out with a cadence of every morning at 8 o’clock, seven days a week, and we had all the right people on the phone across all divisions in the company. This allowed us to raise some issues up, provide recommendations and make a decision, in instances where [previously] we maybe would have run a trial or a test in a couple dozen stores. Here, we realized we didn’t have the time to test things out — we needed to respond quickly.”
The results of those calls are disseminated down the chain,
keeping every part of the business in the loop. “We cover everything from
COVID-related topics to what our supply chains look like, supplies related to
COVID, transportation, staffing – you name it,” said Lynda Kline, VP of Store
Operations at Big Lots. “That gets transferred all the way down from that
senior level call to individual department calls, then we engage the whole
field leadership along with our office partners on a call that cascades that
information to them, and allows them to share any information from a field
Regular Collaboration Limits Disruption During A Chaotic
Big Lots didn’t just rely on internal expertise to take the
right actions — the retailer also brought in outside help where it was needed.
One of the key players was a medical consultant with expertise in guiding
corporations through pandemic conditions, who helped the company predict what
was coming and gave recommendations on what needed to be done.
Thanks to this foresight, Big Lots implemented traffic
controls before mandates came down from state governments, which helped the
retailer implement them in a controlled fashion without the disruption of an
unexpected order. The company also placed limits on items it knew would sell
out quickly and rapidly laid out safety procedures across its stores,
warehouses and corporate offices.
Even promotions were impacted by the precautions. Big Lots
didn’t want to amplify panic buying and create a traffic influx with its
traditional sales, so the company found ways to offer discounts without putting
shoppers or associates at risk.
“We run, like many retailers, a quarterly friends and family
sale with 20% off everything in the store, and it’s clearly our biggest
day of the quarter,” said Nick Padovano, SVP of Stores and Store Operations at
Big Lots. “Instead of doing that, we offered a ‘spend it your way’ coupon that
she could use across the entire month of April, and that really allowed her to
choose when she would come in.”
Big Lots’ varied inventory brought different challenges. For
example, furniture sales continued while most stores were closed. To minimize
the chance of virus transmission, returned items were placed in the back room
for 72 hours after being cleaned, and Big Lots asked its third-party delivery
partners to avoid entering customers’ homes for the safety of both parties.
The retailer also has looked out for its employees with pay
increases, discretionary bonuses and a special COVID-19 hotline designed to
answer any questions related to the disease, ranging from concerns about
showing symptoms to worry about family members. Big Lots even closed on Easter
for the first time in 20 years to give associates some well-deserved rest.
Communication Remains Strong As The Crisis Winds Down
Retailers are starting to open back up as the COVID-19
pandemic declines, but Big Lots is staying in touch. The daily calls have been
scaled back to three per week, but the company is sharing daily voice and video
messages and hosting regular fireside chats with Kline, Padovano and President
and CEO Bruce Thorn to keep associates in the loop.
“Communication is absolutely key,” said Lynda Kline, VP of
Store Operations at Big Lots. “We’re doing everything we can to engage our
teams, keep them informed and celebrate the great things that are happening out
there in spite of these challenging times.”