Helena Foulkes is a rare retail titan. She has spearheaded dramatic transformation as both the former president of CVS Pharmacy, and as CEO of luxury brand Hudson’s Bay Co, and she is a board member at Home Depot. As a cross-channel retail leader, Foulkes has learned how to manage a crisis in real-time. Here, she discusses COVID-19’s implications for retail in the WSL “Future Shop” podcast series.
Toss a crisis into the hands of Helena Foulkes and she’ll package it up as an opportunity.
“You can change a culture much faster in a crisis than you ever can in a good time,” she said. “As hard as things are right now, I do think great things will emerge from this.”
Following are edited excerpts from Foulkes’ interview with WSL CEO Wendy Liebmann, with eight takeaways covering the growing power of trust, the silver linings emerging from the pandemic and how to lead in a crisis.
1: Find Optimism in a Crisis
Foulkes looks at retail through the lens of shopper/mother as well as retail executive, and she sees an industry trying to plan against unprecedented uncertainty. Yet she senses a fresh optimism.
“We go through other crises and we at least know what the deadline is, [but] for this we just don’t know,” she said. “But there is also this positive spirit. I’m hearing from a lot of people, whether it’s CEOs saying, ‘Gosh my organization’s never moved faster or been so together.’
2: Trust is a Powerful Ally
“We need to tap into the power of trust, because we’re living in a world where we don’t feel safe,” Foulkes said. “We are worried about who we listen to, and I think that businesses in particular have this massive opportunity to build that trust in this moment of hardship. To me, that’s the ultimate way you have a relationship with consumers. I think the first question customers [ask] is: Is it a company that’s taking care of its workers? A: Because they want companies to have a heart, but B: Because that actually helps them feel safe. So there are lots of ways we can build trust as organizations.”
3: A Single-Minded Focus Permits Quick Action
Foulkes is encouraged by companies that are rolling out new innovations in weeks that normally would have taken 18 months.
“That is the ultimate in customer satisfaction – to do something in the moment and in such an agile fashion that will really stick. I hear a lot of CEOs say, ‘I used to have a very long list of investment opportunities and this crisis has made us singly focused on the things that really, really matter to the customer.’ We’re learning those things along the way about transformation.”
4: Prepare for a Long Overdue Shakeup in Apparel
Foulkes thinks the industry was destined for a shakeup, but adds that this will be “harder and faster than any of us would’ve hoped for.”
“I don’t think any of us imagine ever shopping the same way again. I was just having a conversation about apparel, a category where women, who are mostly the shoppers, love to touch and feel. How do apparel retailers come back? Yes, they’ll innovate around things like curbside delivery, but what elements have to change to bring back that sense of safety?
“If vendors start to think differently about … how the whole business model works, then I think that they can all do phenomenally well. But I don’t think this is something that snaps back in a couple of months.”
5: Watch for New Growth Categories
“Home care,” which many consumers had little time to think of before, is now occupying more thought, Foulkes said, “We’re all cocooning [and] it’s making me think about my home much differently.”
Foulkes also called out the phenomenon of emptying pet shelters. “People wanting animals with them makes a lot of sense because they worry about loneliness,” she said. “The pet business is doing phenomenally well, but what all does that spawn? Is that just a moment in time, or is it a forever thing?”
6: Accelerated Technology Supports a Crisis and Creates Healthcare Opportunities
Consumers will continue to manage their own healthcare, however, Foulkes expects new technologies will give consumers even more control of their health, including biometrics and telemedicine. Health retailers have an opportunity to find new ways to reinforce their trust among the community.
“We’re certainly in survival mode, but … when we have time we are thinking about mental health. I was always struck by our research at CVS; how women had such a broader definition of healthcare. This broader definition is exciting, and I think this [home] cocooning moment is a great time for marketers to take a step back and think: ‘How can we help them?’ That’s where you can marry the two – technology and face-to-face – to ultimately help people become healthier.”
7: Create the Right Message for the Times
Brands are built by emotions, not hard facts, Foulkes said. Retailers need to be true to those emotions.
“If you work for a brand that has typically been hard-nosed or low-key, to suddenly become heart-driven and lovey-dovey would feel really inauthentic,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with CEOs: ‘What are other ways to convey all the great things that you’re doing?’ Maybe it’s not you talking about it; maybe it’s somebody else talking about all the great work that you’re doing.
“It’s about relevance. I think a lot about the hair color companies that … had the whimsey to talk about hair color and say, ‘What are you going to do about your roots?’ It was more [like] friends-to-friends recognizing the situation. It covers the emotion of the moment; they’re saying, ‘It’s okay to worry about your hair color even though we’re worried about our immunities in other ways.’ It struck me as authentic messaging rather than trying to be something you’re not.”
8: The Power of Interactive Leadership
These times require what Foulkes calls interactive leadership, which includes two elements.
One element is that of pride and purpose. “Yes, it has been very hard with furloughs and lots of other tough things, but the very fact that people have been able to just persevere, and that their purpose in many cases is more important than ever, is a very empowering notion,” she said.
The second element is responding to and communicating not only what worries us, but also what excites us.
“It’s important as we’re stuck in our homes to be hearing from our leaders more regularly and giving a sense again of what they’re confident about, what they’re worried about.
“It’s an incredible time to be a leader of an organization. You have a lot of pressure, but there are very important and wonderful things that can happen through all this.”
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