Just as retailers recover from catastrophic losses caused by protests, some of which turned violent in 140 U.S.cities after the death of George Floyd, they are getting ready for another potential wave after the election. But unlike the May and June protests sparked by a black swan event, retailers across the country now have time to prepare for a repeat.
With civil unrest still simmering below the surface in some communities, these tensions are being exacerbated in the lead up to this most contentious of elections. Regardless of which candidate wins, the polls show that at least half of the country will be mighty unhappy about the result.
We don’t know what might set off round two of protests, but we do know it won’t take much to spark it.
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and retailers can ill afford any more disruption after the pandemic closings followed by the protests.
Axios estimates the monetary cost for recovery from the late spring riots will tally between $1 billion to $2 billion in insurance claims. But the human costs of lost businesses, lost jobs and lost peace of mind can’t be calculated.
Hope for the best, plan for the worst
“No matter who wins, there could be riots, protests and social unrest like we have never seen before – similar (if not worse) to what happened in June,” says Tom Buiocchi, CEO of ServiceChannel.
His company provides a software application that connects facility and building managers with commercial contractors to manage work orders and workflow. ServiceChannel doesn’t do the work, but sees that the work gets done in a timely and professional manner and that contractors get paid.
ServiceChannel is the company that brands like Nike, Louis Vuitton and CVS rely on to keep their stores pristine and protected from damage, including both the natural kind, like hurricanes and wildfires, or the human kind, like they just experienced with graffiti, broken windows and fires.
Buiocchi says that as early as July, he started getting calls from clients about how to get prepared for the next wave of social protests expected around the election.
“Our customers are talking about how to get ready. What started as informal talks have turned into more formal task forces at some of our largest customers to start planning,” he says.
Small retailers and large national chains have complicated decisions to make about when to take the first steps to board up shop and how to best do it.
“Nobody wants to be the first mover to board up because it telegraphs something about your trust in the community,” he shares. “You have to balance protecting the your store with the value of your brand image. It all feeds into very complicated and risky decisions for retailers.”
It is best when these decisions are made on the individual store level alongside that of its neighbors.
“We have seen different decisions across various verticals and in different communities,” he says. “If you are a luxury retailer with more to lose, you might proactively board up in certain areas. Or like the Target store in Minneapolis, they said if it’s going to happen, we have insurance to cover it. They wanted to be supportive of the community,” and he adds that Target is not a ServiceChannel client.
Once a decision is made to protect the store, retailers have to be sure the plywood and other supplies are available and that a reliable contractor is on call at a moment’s notice to get the work done.
Wait too late and contractors may not be able to get their trucks into the area to do the work. But do it too early and it may invite protesters to your store first.
“Retailers in communities want to do it in unity, so they are sharing best practices and sometimes sharing contractors too. They want to reserve that capacity and buy it forward just so they aren’t in a position where there is no one around to help,” he says.
While retailers can’t predict where or when it might happen, they are watching closely at what might trigger the next catastrophic event and start the clock ticking.
“Their goal now is to have the supplies and have the contracting capacity on hand so that they can act fast,” he continues.
Unfortunate but necessary expertise
Like how all business decision are made today, retailers need data to help them plan. ServiceChannel has become a repository of data around best practices for managing through the disruptions that 2020 have brought.
“I have probably learned more about board ups this year than I learned about any topic, other than disinfecting,” Buiocchi quips.
In all seriousness, ServiceChannel has compiled over 8,000 work orders and over $20 million in invoices tagged to civil unrest labels so far this year, including glass, door and general repairs and disaster recovery. And Buiocchi believes these costs are just the tip of the iceberg related to all the many expenses related to protecting resources.
The costs can vary widely, ranging from a modest $125 to as high as $31,000 to board up a location. To save money for the next round, many retailers have held onto plywood from earlier this year in anticipation.
“We have become a valuable source of data on responding to civil unrest,” he says. “We have data about who does board ups, why they do them by segment, what the costs are and the vandalism experienced.”
Cleanliness is next to godliness
In addition, ServiceChannel has compiled data about the relentless movement of the virus across the country and how retailers in affected areas have responded to its spread.
“The single largest increase we’ve seen is in cleaning and disinfecting servicess this year. It’s up 100% from last year on our platform,” he notes.
Asked if he has seen any slow down in that business as retailers have adjusted to the new normal of working around enhanced cleaning protocols, he responds to the contrary.
“Two things are happening. One is calls for cleaning and disinfecting incidents are happening more frequently. And the second is more visibility of it,” he shares.
“Historically all that cleaning work was done after hours when the janitorial staff could come in and clean invisible to the customer. Now we are seeing more of it done in the daylight,” he explains.
“Retailers want to demonstrate their commitment to cleaning, so you see a lot more people wiping things down and cleaning on a more frequent basis. It demonstrates to the customer that the retailer is serious about cleanliness and protecting them and their employees,” he continues.
Buiocchi concludes by sharing that the events of 2020 have put a huge strain on retailers who have had to elevate the role of facilities management and the contractor network, which had to layoff people when the nationwide business shutdown occurred earlier this year.
“We all hope there’s no further disruption, but everybody has to plan. It takes a huge amount of it to be able to protect your brand, your buildings, your assets and your merchandise. It’s not trivial,” he concludes. “This has been a year like no other. Nobody has ever had to think about all these things like they have had to this year.”