Sam’s Club COO: What We Learned During The Pandemic’s Lockdowns

What Sam’s Club Learned During Lockdown

The past few months have been an incredibly challenging time for retailers that remained open — and an excellent example of innovation on overdrive.

Lance de la Rosa, chief operating officer and executive vice president at Sam’s Club, told Karen Webster that the business has had to lean on its staff like never before.

“It really has been inspiring to see what they're doing to take care of each other and the stores they work in, and how they just go in and do every day on behalf of their members and others in the community,” he said. “At Sam's Club, we’re really in a test. ... It's really about where the [customers] are and what they are wanting and working with our associates to make sure that they have the tools needed to be successful.”

That process has kicked into high gear as consumers’ shopping preferences radically shifted toward online purchases almost overnight. Sam’s Club has found itself beefing up its multichannel offerings as it attempts to meet customers’ realigned needs.

De la Rosa said that while customers’ ultimate shopping habits remain unknown, Sam’s Club sees them evolving toward multichannel purchases. Early data from the first few weeks of the U.S. economy’s “Great Reopening” show that consumers are returning to in-store shopping for food.

But he said the chain is seeing a strong preference for giving consumers the ability to shop in multiple environments — online, mobile, in store and at a variety of points in between. If Sam’s Club can successfully get ahead of what customers want, it can get a jump on building the services they need — curbside pickup, shipping directly to consumers’ front doors, etc.

“We know the member will continue to ask for these services and expect them,” de la Rosa said. “To move forward in the [future] landscape, we've got to be able to get ahead of the members' needs so that we can ensure our services are relevant and easy to execute.”

Curbside Pickup’s Explosive Growth

The interest in enhancing the consumer experience via curbside order pickup didn’t suddenly originate with COVID-19, de la Rosa noted. Sam’s already hard pilot programs up and running at about 16 U.S. locations and had learned a lot in terms of how to construct curbside pickup to best meet customer needs.

However, the pandemic rapidly dialed up member interest in scheduling curbside pickup of online orders, which in turn pushed Sam’s to rapidly speed up its timetable for expanding the service. De la Rosa noted that curbside pickup service will be available at all Sam's Club locations nationwide by June 23.

“We’re still early in our conversation about this, but if you look at our club pickup business and utilization across the U.S., members are definitely using it and are expecting it to get better as we launch more curbside,” he said. “I do feel that convenience is critical, and really offering it is actually about being where the member is at.”

He said curbside pickup is just one of many changes coming soon to Sam’s Club to enhance the shopping experience as consumers emerge into a brave, new retail world.

May The Cleanest Store Win

Consumers who’ve been shut in for months are going to want to re-emerge safely. De la Rosa said retailers that succeed in drawing them back will be the ones that create secure shopping destinations.

But doing that won’t involve just one silver bullet addition, de la Rosa said. Instead, it will require a lot of changes big and small to help consumers feel they’re safe and in control.

“As you walk into Sam's Club, you'll see visible efforts to sanitize and keep the club clean,” de la Rosa said. “Our associates are wearing masks and gloves, [and] we have plexiglass where we have points of contact with members when they're paying. However they want to shop, we want to include them. So, if they would like to come in early morning or late afternoon, they can schedule a pickup.”

The Bottom Line

De la Rosa said the retail experience will be different in the future than it was in the past. After all, consumers’ concerns have shifted, their level of digitization has grown, and their expectations for seamless service have grown no matter what channels they use.

The great lesson of the past few months has been that the pandemic has clarified what questions retailers must ask themselves as they formulate plans to move forward.

“The last 14 weeks for us really have been about the resilience of our teams in the face of incredibly rapid change,” de la Rosa said. “What we've been continuously thinking through is: ‘How do we keep our team safe and members safe while keeping them engaged in parts of our shopping club community?’ And it's been amazing to see across all the club visits and conversations I've had with our associates the speed in which we’ve been able to set about impacting the business — and making the business better with those questions in mind.”



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