Without initiative, the step from advantage to disadvantage is short

In brief
The fortuitous interaction between pandemic and large-scale distribution has accelerated the digital evolution to consumption, in terms and volumes unthinkable at the beginning of the year. The radical change in distribution scenarios requires immediate investment to avoid loss of appeal and credibility for clients and, of course, the progressive reduction in market share in favour of real innovators.

The interaction between the pandemic and large retailers has created a state of need and opportunities almost unique in the history of our retail distribution.

According to Mediobanca’s Study Centre, the distribution sector, along with the pharmaceutical one, is the major world beneficiary of the economic crisis induced by COVID-19.

According to Nielsen data, confirmed moreover to a similar extent by other research institutes, the sharp rise in sales by large retail chains reached its peak in Italy (+ 28%) in March.

A result that could not fail to attract the attention of other market players. The consumers’ organisation Federconsumatori has clearly posed the problem of the rising prices over the last 20 days, in the wake of the antitrust investigation on 3800 sales outlets in Italy, of the most diverse brands.


The pandemic has accelerated the digital evolution of consumptions in terms of speed and volumes outright unthinkable at the beginning of the year. According to Netcomm estimates, the lockdown has tripled the number of domestic online consumers, bringing their total to 2 million compared to 700 thousand just a year ago.

Data by Nielsen show that in the week going from 20 to 26 April, the volume of online sales by large retail chains has even reached a three-digit peak (+ 305%), before stabilising in the following days at + 150%. Put differently, the digital commercial relationship with customers has gone from option to necessity.

Not just that, but the growth in volumes was accompanied by the so-called channel shift, highlighting how today’s consumer can easily move from one sales channel to another. Channel shifting seems to have involved more than one-fifth of Italians (21%), who turned to brands other than the usual ones, and this figure is even higher when looking at consumers who, in the same period, tried products of different brands other than their main ones.


Consumption trends in large-scale retailing are often counter-cyclical. Research has shown that past crises (not least that of 2008) have always rewarded those brands who were the fastest and most flexible in intercepting the changes with significant growth in revenues.

In times of change, especially if sudden, it is the most capable, reactive retailing chain that will be able to move forward and maximise its impact on the shopping cart and on the orientations of those who buy.

Expectations and spending patterns have changed, leading to a strong acceleration of the processes already in place. This new state of affairs will reward only those who have believed and invested accordingly, and within short times.


Despite the exceptional nature of the crisis, there is a startling lack of commitment to innovation projects and plans for addressing the effect of the emergency seems to be limited, for the most part, to a mere overhaul  of the brand’s image linked to the obvious concepts of solidarity and recovery.

Invoking as a justification for prudence and non-investment the uncertainty about future prospects is potentially a serious mistake. Undoubtedly, Italy will face a serious slowdown and most likely a sizable increase in unemployment, making necessary to rethink much of the physical retail space to allow for social distancing and cautions previously unnecessary, but this should not be a justification for immobility.

The radical change in distribution scenarios leads to the need of maintaining, strengthening or restoring positions. The only useful tool for competition is the innovation of front-end and service processes.

Digital evolution is irreversible and how to manage it in the best and most profitable way is the order of the day. It will be necessary to redefine the store processes and spaces (one such example are the ‘self’ technologies) in order to make them better, safer and more efficient.

The primary goal is, therefore, to invest in the radical reform of the store with digital technologies based in the continuity of relationship with the online customer. The less hesitant and more rapid retailers will be rewarded with bigger market shares and customer loyalty. For those who hesitate to control — rather than submit to — the change, the inevitable downside will be the loss of appeal and credibility towards customers as well as the obvious progressive loss of market shares in favour of real innovators.

Delayed action and prudence by large retail chains are now handicaps in all respects. This can be seen by just looking at the innovation initiatives undertaken by one of the six most affected segments to protect its future from the emergency, the restaurant sector.


For large retail chains, the new omnichannel reality must be built on the basis of relationship and loyalty with the customer before and after the sale, using the most current and appropriate technologies and services available. In other words, we are talking about a determined approach towards self-equipment, from the shelf to the cash desk, and of advanced analytics systems and loyalty programs, in addition to digital commerce consistent with physical sales, electronic payments, advanced communication, home delivery services and pick-up collection points.

Waiting is an alternative to growth or maintaining a position. Brands must focus on an admittedly complex consumers’ relationship that builds on the extraordinary experience of these last months. There are technologies and skills to do it, the only inadmissible option is hesitation: the consequences and the discontinuities would most probably be devastating.