#21interviews: Lessons from an unprecedented year in retail

by Jonathan Hurvitz. An agile mindset is useful; an agile operating model is mandatory.

by Jonathan Hurvitz. ‘Unexpected’, ‘interesting’ and ‘tough’ are arguably among the most apt terms to describe the year 2020. But as we head to the end of it, we should also reflect on the lessons the COVID-19 pandemic brought us and allow them to inform our strategic thinking around the way forward.

A number of business lessons have emerged, among them the importance of regularly evaluating the value proposition to ensure it aligns to customer needs and market trends. Equally significant is the understanding that online businesses are the way of the now and of the future.

Uncertainty is the only certainty

Uncertainty is probably the only certainty in business, especially in retail; but the uncertainty around the COVID-19 lockdown was particularly challenging. A good business plan always allows for contingencies and ways to mitigate the unexpected – but nobody would have planned for a global pandemic. But business uncertainty also creates opportunity, which is how we chose to view the challenge.

At first it was difficult to adjust our thinking, but we went back to the purpose of our business – the value to our customers – and directed our efforts accordingly. Because nobody can rely on a “business as usual” approach to operating. We can’t just plan for the unexpected but should assume it will happen at some point. An agile mindset is useful; an agile operating model is mandatory.

An illustrative example from the business I lead: we know that consumers have been taking great financial strain in the current market but that it doesn’t mean that new desires don’t arise. Thus, our value proposition to customers is a means of allowing for financial flexibility while still providing access to basic and aspirational household appliances, furniture, etc., without the burden of high-interest debt. The rent-to-own value proposition is essentially a way of providing access to a lifestyle that consumers want, as consumers are able to acquire the things they want and need through a financially flexible solution. Times of uncertainty call for dedicated efforts to highlight the brand value proposition.

Positivity in the time of a pandemic

The pandemic also proved the value and importance of a team effort in business. There is no one person that can ensure things go right – it’s rather the consistent effort of each team member doing their part that helps to keep the shop afloat – literally, in the case of retailers.

As an online retailer we’ve been lucky in many ways because we don’t rely on the traditional ‘foot traffic’. It has meant that we have needed to be even more strategic and tenacious in our online marketing efforts to ensure our customers (both existing and potential) can find us at the exact moment they need us, and on the platform or channel of their choice.

Future focussed

In 2020, home became the epicentre of our lives and is likely to remain so for a while still. This has meant that consumers are increasingly interested in things that make being at home, working from home, and teaching kids from home, more comfortable. For many retailers, the pandemic has expanded our definition of what we offer – it’s not about the product or service per se, but about how that product or service addresses a need. That’s where the real brand value is.

This year has also highlighted why it is important that plans are flexible and strategies dynamic. The effects of the pandemic emphasised that customer value needs to inform all plans and all strategies, because without the customer there is no business. Yes, there are operational considerations that need to be taken into account, but they all function to serve the customer. As retailers we need to ensure that our customer value proposition is well-defined, relevant and measurable, now and firmly into the future.


For more insights for retail and brand leaders in the #21interviews series publishing 1-21 December 2020, ahead of 2021:


#21interviews LAUNCH: 2021 comes with a disclaimer, by Louise Burgers, Publisher & Editor, RetailingAfrica.com.

#21interviews: Brands need to get brave, says Bozoma Saint John, Global Chief Marketing Officer, Netflix.

#21interviews: The power of being purpose-led will drive brand value, by Karin Du Chenne, Chief Growth Officer Africa and the Middle East, Kantar.

#21interviews: Plan for growth in 2021, says Herman Botha, Group General Manager, PNA Group.

#21interviews: Next year will be all about authentic visual immersion, by Craig Bellingham, founder & CEO, Studio[K]irmack.

#21interviews: Covid has created a brand vulnerability, says Elouise Brink, senior marketing manager, Country Road, Woolworths Holdings.

#21interviews: Reimagining a better world without the inequality of ‘normal’, with economist and author of the post-pandemic book, FutureNEXT, Dr Iraj Abedian, talking to Retailing Africa Publisher & Editor, Louise Burgers.

#21interviews: Embrace technology at all levels, says Thabani Maluleka, business development director for Rogerwilco.

#21interviews: It will not be business as usual, by Dave Nemeth, trend forecaster & founder of at Trend Forward.



Jonathan Hurvitz is the Group CEO of online retailer Teljoy and  a registered Chartered Accountant in South Africa.


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