Retail Communications post-COVID: A Q&A with Retail Zipline CEO and Co-Founder, Melissa Wong

Retail Communications
June 16, 2020
Zipline Staff Contribution

Melissa Wong is no stranger to change. In her former life as a communications executive at a Fortune 500 retailer, she saw enough strategy shifts, leadership shuffles, and complicated re-brandings over her ten-year tenure to give anybody a good case of whiplash. Every change brought with it new brand standards and expectations that had to be communicated to stores. The process was so overwhelming for stores and communicators alike, that Melissa decided to take matters into her own hands: she left to build her own retail communications solution.

Now, as CEO and Co-Founder of Retail Zipline, Melissa has a unique perspective on how retailers across the country are dealing with perhaps the biggest change of all: COVID-19. We sat down with Melissa to talk about the shifts she’s seeing in communications best practices as retailers adjust to life amidst the pandemic.

As retailers, and specifically Zipline customers, begin to re-open stores, what are some of the new trends you’re seeing in store communication?

Right off the bat, we’re seeing a huge focus on communicating safety procedures, obviously. But with that comes a need to send more visual-based communications: messages with pictures, videos, GIFs, etc. It makes sense, right? Store managers can only absorb so much through like, five pages of written communication. 

Especially as stores began to open, retailers are going to have new hires that have never been with their brand before. And they’re really going to want them to action off of what their expectations are quickly. The easiest way to do that is through videos and pictures.

That’s so true. You guys have this saying at Zipline - “show, don’t tell” - and it’s such a great rule for more effective communication.

Exactly. And the retail business is changing so significantly that “showing” is everything. Especially when it comes to safety procedures. You need to show stores how to do things the right way, because there's so much more at risk now.

It’s actually sort of crushing to me. When I worked at Old Navy we always had this thing we’d say: “It’s okay. We’re just selling jeans and t-shirts.” But now, actually, store teams are stewards of health... which is a little scary, right? Because as an Ops leader you're probably thinking, “We weren't even sure if they were shipping inter-store transfers correctly,” and now these same employees are responsible for making sure that a COVID-19 outbreak doesn't happen in their area. 

Besides more pictures and video in communication, what other trends are you noticing across the industry?

We’re seeing a lot more targeted - almost micro targeted - communications. In the past, people were just sending everything to everyone, maybe using an intranet. But now, with stores opening state by state, you need your communication to be more targeted and more agile. 

And with that, we’re seeing an increase in the need for a feedback loop from stores back up to headquarters. We have a module in Zipline called Groups that works great for this, and we are seeing more and more of our customers use Groups to get a pulse on what’s happening on the ground. They’ll put a few stores they trust into a group, and then ask them to roll up what the different county regulations are - bring your own bags, or don’t bring your own bags; wear a mask, or don’t wear a mask. Headquarters can’t keep track of that information anymore -- It’s changing by the minute. And so the stores are being asked to roll that up instead.

What about the demand for communications software in general? Obviously the need for communication is higher, but at the same time, so many retailers must be cutting costs, right?

COVID is like holiday times 100. We thought we were busy then. That was nothing! Success today requires agility and nimbleness, two things retail isn’t known for. The only way to implement changes and move quickly is through good communication and a feedback loop that keeps the entire team aligned. 

With regards to cost cutting, COVID has made every retailer - even essential retailers who have stayed open through all of this - really examine their expenses and a lot of them are cutting overhead in any way they can. A lot of retailers are thinning their field leadership teams, letting go some of their District Managers, which means, as a result, their DMs now have an increased span of control. 

So the question they’re asking is: how can we keep store execution up without those “boots” on the ground? How can we see what's going on stores, you know, but with less people actually going to stores? They need to keep the same level of standards but with fewer employees supervising. So some of our brands have re-worked roles and responsibilities and now DMs might oversee a wider area or, in some cases, multiple brands. And they need a communications platform so they can get the right information to the right people, and then track task execution and readership too.

What about BYOD (“bring your own device”)? For years, retailers have been reluctant to let their employees bring personal devices to work. Do you think COVID-19 - and a newfound focus on the importance of communicating to the frontlines - will change that?

Some of the brands we work with really struggled when COVID-19 hit and they had to furlough their employees. Most of these employees didn’t have email addresses, which meant there was really no way to get in touch with them, keep them engaged and tell them when it was time to go back to work. I think now these retailers are understanding how important it is to be able to reach every single associate. 

One customer we’ve been working with has relied heavily on Zipline’s chat functionality, and they’ve opened it up to all of their frontline employees to use on their personal devices. For weeks they had to operate without Upper Field leaders - just to save overhead - and they said that using Zipline in that way was really the only way they could manage without that level of management cascading information from HQ. So yeah, I think in some ways it’s helping companies move forward with BYOD. But we do know that there are varying viewpoints and stances, which is why Zipline works on any web-based platform - we’re not changing that.

After all is said and done, do you think there’s actually an upside to all of the tumult that COVID-19 has caused in retail?

That’s a great question. I think, overall, there’s now more appreciation for the role frontline workers play in retail. These guys have an incredibly difficult job - and I don’t think, before COVID-19, that was as apparent. 

One of the big reasons I founded Zipline - and one of the things we’ve committed to as a company - is the mission of “improving the lives of retail workers.” We want to help these workers love their jobs by helping them understand the bigger role they play in the success of their company. They feel more pride when things are going well and take more ownership when things need to improve. And Zipline helps them streamline the work they need to do so they’re able to spend less time following up on work issues and more time with their families.