Claudia Ferguson
Claudia Ferguson

The long view: Keeping customers centre stage

by Claudia Ferguson. Currently, business is an experiment. The one thing that should be clear, is your business view.

by Claudia Ferguson. One of the difficult things for businesses to do is get out of ‘the now’, especially as they emerge from the ashes of lockdown and an economic battering that has been previously unseen. After all, ‘the now’ is what they needed to focus on as they navigated the sharp transition from day-to-day business operations to survival mode. And survival mode is understandably all about the now – tackling the most pressing issues first and weathering down to brace for impact. And the impact has been hard.

Just look at Victoria Secret which declared bankruptcy; Zara is closing 1200 fashion stores around the world; Starbucks announced 400 stores will permanently close; and luxury department store, Harrods London, is cutting almost 14% of its workforce. These are big international retailers who have not escaped unscathed and have been forced to make changes to their operational structure.

Locally, we are seeing a similar trend. Flight Centre, one of South Africa’s largest booking companies, is expected to close 40% of its network, and it is not the only one. According to a recent Sakeliga survey, nearly 5% of the respondents indicated that their businesses would be closing down in the next 12 months, while 44% of respondents said they were unsure about closures over the same period.

What’s more, retail sales YoY in South Africa is expected to be -3.00 percent by the end of this quarter according to Trading Economics global macro models and analyst expectations; and many have- and will continue to- face the impact of stifled business and changed consumer behaviour.

As we emerge from survival mode, while the ‘now’ needs to continue to remain a priority, I do believe a longer-term view is still needed. Currently, business is an experiment – demand is difficult to forecast, there are polarising consumer sentiments and comfort levels and regulation isn’t always clear. The one thing that should be clear though – is your business view.

Businesses always start with a plan. A vision and an ideal. Revisiting this is now more important than ever before. Staying true to it, even more so – but understanding that things have shifted, new areas may need to be reconsidered, workforce scenarios need to be drafted and channels and focus areas relooked – means things need to change. And the changing needs of the consumer must be at the heart of this.

Rapid shifts

Business and markets have always been shifting. Just look at digital transformation, the rise of public opinion, the need for sustainability and the move to ecommerce with easier, more convenient payment methods. Retail has always had to navigate some sort of flux – driven by consumer requirements. The difference however is that progress has been slow and steady, change did not happen overnight – but now that it has, things need to progress more quickly.

Consumers attitudes, behaviours and purchasing habits have changed – and many of these changes are likely to remain post-pandemic. People are shopping more consciously, which is supported by a shift in focus to supporting small businesses and buying local. Furthermore, we have seen a significant rise in digital commerce and reduced-contact channels when ‘buying’ goods and services – all of which reinforces the need for trust (in the brand promise and its integrity) in such uncertain times.

To build consumer confidence (with responsibility and resilience), means that operational decisions and changes need to take consumer preferences, and feedback, into account and work outwards from there. Redefine relationships with ecosystem partners based on customer needs. Reimagine your organisation and ways of working that elevates customer experience and trust. Reshape your marketing plan around new demand and brand purpose. This is how the sector can support consumers as the recession deepens – and this is where growth lies.

No crisis is an isolated incident. It has far reaching impact and defending your base is critical. In this case, your customers. They too are feeling the pinch, but now more than ever are looking to support a business that meets their needs of affordability, convenience, safety and sustainability. The more you tailor your services and operations to their requirement, the more you understand them. The more you understand them, the more you can manage demand fluctuations, pre-empt needs and manage your workforce (under different scenarios) and keep your people. It dictates how you maintain trust in your brand, how you reset expectations, how you plan for the future.

Of course, you can’t lose sight of the ‘now’ and other risks – goodness knows there are many – but a longer-term view is needed. Consumer spending is the heartbeat of the retail sector, and while we know spending has slowed, it will shift. Having that longer-term view allows you to shift with it.


Claudia Ferguson, has an impressive consulting career and her fair share of industry stories to tell. And she does exactly that – tell brand stories, backed by strategy and high-level consulting – all focused on impact. She believes in the power of the African continent, the value of insight and experience and the importance of relationships on the continent and beyond its borders. She thrives on challenge and as a Business Director at Orange Ink, her responsibilities include strategic business development for the agency and its client portfolio.

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