To win back business, try a little tenderness

Ralphs grocery store is putting in place social distancing.
The Harvard Business Review says struggling retailers need to show customers they care. Above, a worker at a Ralphs grocery store in Westchester makes sure shoppers practice social distancing.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

I’m Business columnist David Lazarus with a look today at how retailers can win back our business once the pandemic passes.

Recent weeks have been brutal for the retail industry. Stay-at-home orders in California and across the country resulted in an 8.7% drop in retail sales last month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the biggest monthly decline ever recorded.

“March was a month that started out with many stores still open, but far more are closed now,” observed Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation. “Don’t be surprised if the data going forward shows a worsening situation.”

He added: “Even if the economy begins to reopen in May, consumer behavior may take a long time to adjust. The road to recovery could be long and slow.”


I came to the same conclusion last week after speaking with a number of experts on consumer behavior. The consensus was that once the country reopens for business (whenever that may be), the subsequent economic recovery will be a lengthy and gradual process, not the “rocket ship” promised by President Trump.

What can retailers do to help turn things around? A recent paper in the Harvard Business Review offers some tips.

“Let customers know if your business is operating and how you are keeping them and your employees safe,” it suggests.

“Delivering food? How are you ensuring you are not spreading the virus and what tangible actions can you take to communicate this to your customers? Gloves and masks are clear signals, but don’t forget to add your own special touch to the encounter.”

The paper cites the example of a restaurant in Durham, N.C., that took to handing out bars of soap from a local store “to remind people to wash their hands and to show it is supporting other area merchants.”

That’s just smart. People have told me repeatedly in recent weeks that they’ll be loyal to businesses that showed they cared during the worst of the pandemic.


Along those same lines, the Harvard paper encourages retailers to waive fees where appropriate and bend over backward to create a positive experience for customers.

It says businesses should be actively engaging people on social media, especially if normal operations are disrupted. “If that is where your customers are, that is where you want to be.”

Be creative. The paper advises running contests and asking customers to share online how they’re using products while stuck at home.

“These acts engage your bored customers, but another important benefit is that they will keep your employees busy and focused on brand-building during these rough weeks. This means your company can surface post-crisis with stronger customer and employee engagement.”

Perhaps most important, businesses need to demonstrate that they get it, that they recognize the difference between having a long-term commitment to society and a short-term desire to make a buck.

“Marketers who just push products in this environment will be met with a backlash,” the paper says. “They need to express empathy and communicate social initiatives too.”

We’ve seen examples of this — hotels making rooms available to healthcare workers and the homeless, for instance, or streaming-video services offering free or discounted access to movies and TV shows.

On the flip side, insurance companies did themselves no favors by having to be forced into providing temporary rate reductions on vehicle coverage because nobody’s driving. Similarly, airlines and cruise-ship operators made it as difficult as they could for people to get refunds for canceled trips.

“This is a moment of peril for retail marketers, but one that also contains a kernel of opportunity to come to the other side of these choppy waters with a more loyal customer base and stronger business model,” the paper concludes.

“We recommend that you jump in, learn fast and think long-term even as you focus on survival these next few months.”

The alternative: Roadkill. Not a wise choice.

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Now then, here are a couple of recent stories from our pages worth highlighting:

Charitable giving: There’s one sector of society that’s busier than ever: philanthropy. The charitable acts have come in all shapes and sizes. Small checks to food pantries, foundations issuing emergency grants to desperate nonprofits and, most conspicuously, billionaires doling out big-dollar gifts with all the attendant publicity.

Theme parks: Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced Disneyland and other theme parks to close in mid-March, park enthusiasts have been asking the same question: When will my favorite theme park reopen and under what circumstances? The quick answer is that no one knows for sure, but industry experts are working on it.


Subaru is recalling more than 200,000 cars and SUVs in the U.S. and Canada because fuel pumps can fail and cause engines to stall. The recall covers certain 2019 Impreza, Outback, Legacy and Ascent vehicles.

Before you do any yardwork, make sure you’re not using a 25cc Troy-Bilt or Craftsman trimmer or Remington polesaw. “The head of the trimmers and polesaws can continue to rotate when the throttle is released, posing a laceration hazard,” says the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Spare change

The Harvard Business Review made some good points above, but this isn’t rocket science. Treating customers fairly, respectfully and thoughtfully is the key to maintaining their business. For some examples of how not to do things, here are Jerry Seinfeld, Ben Stiller and Mad TV. And one more from Seinfeld on the dos and don’ts of ordering soup. Stay healthy.

Stay in touch

Let me know what you think of the newsletter. My email is, or you can find me on Twitter @Davidlaz. Also, tell all your pals to join the party.

Until next time, see you in the Business section.