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It’s like reinventing the wheel . . . while driving

Almost every day I hear from someone who observes that changes under way since the pre-COVID days, which would have taken five years to evolve, are now being executed in five months or less.

Whether it’s e-commerce, buyer-seller interaction, work flow, global supply or even product introduction cadence, almost no aspect of the business today is immune from examination and reinvention. The just-concluded summer market season offered ample evidence of this as myriad companies across the industry utilized virtual tours in conjunction with, or as a replacement for, in-person exhibition of new products.

Those changes will also be in evidence this month and heading into next month’s High Point Market. September’s Premarket, historically a case-goods-centric event and almost exclusively utilized by furniture manufacturers, saw more than 260 exhibitors on hand, including accent, décor, wall art and lighting suppliers. By comparison last fall’s Premarket drew about 100 exhibitors, virtually all of them furniture companies.

This dramatic increase at Premarket reflects two important developments. The first is the lengths people will go to get in front of retail customers in person. The second is the recognition that many retailers are still reticent to travel and attend what they perceive as potentially crowded venues.

There are a growing number of exhibitors, particularly on the furniture side of the business, that have announced plans to open their showrooms by appointment outside traditional market windows; even on a year-round basis. Whether or not this trend will continue once the worst of the pandemic recedes and a vaccine is widely available remains to be seen. But for the foreseeable future (an admittedly short period these days), it appears that product introduction strategies are being reinvented almost daily.

The same is true on the retail side of the business as stores, closed down this spring while their e-commerce competitors were permitted to remain open, are trying to play catch up as quickly as they can. Whether it’s quickly trying to streamline everything from initial interaction to final transaction or adding minimum-contact shopping options like BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store), growing numbers of retailers are trying to reinvent their operations to accommodate rapidly evolving consumer shopping behaviors.

Buyer-seller relationships are likewise undergoing a rapid realignment as manufacturers, many facing broken supply lines and product shortages, are being forced to make difficult decisions around order fulfillment. The result is some smaller retailers, particularly those that have opted to spread their buying across a broad supplier base, may now find themselves without leverage as scarce goods are directed toward larger accounts.

Conversely, smaller suppliers who lack the ability in the current environment to meet the needs of key retail accounts may find themselves replaced as those retailers look to maximize their own importance with their most critical suppliers.

All of these changes, any one of which would be significant in and of itself, are occurring within the context of the largest and most explosive spike in consumer demand to come along this generation. As a result, companies are being challenged to reinvent myriad segments of their business, in some cases reinvent their entire business model, while at the same time keeping that business moving forward.

I’ve heard people jokingly refer to situations like this as changing a tire while the car is moving. In today’s business climate it’s more like reinventing the wheel while driving.

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