3 ways Walmart and Home Depot execs think retail will change for good

September 29, 2020, 10:12 PM UTC

Walmart and The Home Depot were fortunate: They were among the retailers that were able to navigate the daily changes and challenges that the new reality of a socially-distanced shopper posed.

From quickly shifting to curbside pickup to staffing up distribution centers, execs at Walmart and Home Depot have witnessed (and pioneered) this new retail landscape, all while adapting to protect their workers and customers alike.

Having witnessed those changes first-hand, Ann-Marie Campbell, the executive vice president of U.S. Stores for The Home Depot, and Judith McKenna, the president and CEO at Walmart International, pointed out a few key ways they think the retail industry will change for good at Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit virtual conference Tuesday.

Omni-channel everything

Having a seamless flow between different channels, be it online or in-store, is not a new trend in retail—but Home Depot and Walmart execs were surprised at how quickly it’s been accelerated by the pandemic.

“When we talked three years ago about investing $10 billion in the business to make sure it was interconnected, we probably were looking a little bit further out,” Home Depot’s Campbell said at the virtual session. Amid the pandemic, that timeline quickly moved up: “You can’t manage or measure your business just thinking about the stores or thinking about online or thinking about marketing separate[ly], or supply chain: it is so interconnected and one influences the other,” she said. “We had to throw all of that out and we’ve been throwing that out.”

That’s also increasingly the case at Walmarts across the globe, as McKenna says the company has seen trends in e-commerce and omni-channel “accelerating two or three years ahead of where we thought things would happen,” which will increasingly be the case moving forward.

An adaptable customer

Just like the retailers themselves, customers have had to adapt to a new environment, too. At Home Depot, that’s meant taking their normally in-store kid’s and DIY workshops and going virtual. Customers are “learning how to adapt” to learn virtually—something Campbell thinks will stick.

But apart from how customers are learning, Campbell says they’re also doing “a lot” more research before buying and are more inclined to substitute if there’s a brand the retailer doesn’t have. “That has implications around assortment and how you narrow the assortment to drive more simplicity and consumer satisfaction,” she said. “Those are some of the things we think are going to stay.”

On a grander scale, Walmart’s McKenna notes the “trend of customers choosing more flexible ways to shop, whether they want to shop in store to look, to browse, to choose; whether they shop online, if they have it delivered, if they actually come to buy it [through] pickup, … the actual shopping experience will change.” But looking forward, she believes companies will “learn to find ways to interact with the customer with interactive commerce going forward as well,” looking at differences in search to buy a product online versus recommendation to buy a product online.

Continued focus on health and safety

While retail behemoths like Walmart and Home Depot had to quickly pivot to keep shopping in-store safe for their customers, McKenna and Campbell don’t think that increased focus on health and wellbeing will be relegated just to pandemic times.

Moving forward, “I think people are going to be more interested in health and wellness than they’ve ever been,” says McKenna, including a heightened focus on trust and trust in the retailer’s products as well.

That resonates with Campbell, too, who has had to implement safety precautions at Home Depot’s more than 2,200 North American stores. “I don’t think that’s going away, we hear that in our stores. The things we have done to create a safer environment, they want us to continue to do that, and we’re going to continue to invest in [those] areas,” she said. “We’ve got to make the environment safe for customers and our associates, and I don’t think that’s going to change, that’s just going to continue to be a part of how we manage and lead our teams.”

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