Retail powers our modern world. The bars, the shops, the gyms, the post offices, the coffee shops, the estate agents, the bookies, the car showrooms, the petrol stations, the pharmacists. Everything. You take away retail, who pays for the lawyers, the accountants, the factories, the offices, the transport networks, the advertising, the doctors? We power the world.

And we are amid the largest ever natural experiment to befall retail, by an order of magnitude. The changes we see short term, some will fade, some will be permanent. The recovery of our economy depends on us all helping those who make the huge decisions in retail get it right. Real estate is the largest reservoir of wealth in the world. We all know how one wrong decision can cost tens of millions for one asset, or a company’s existence at the network level. We will all be influencing many more of these decisions in the next year than we may have made in our careers to date.

Let us resolve to learn as much as we can from this natural experiment. What happened to clothes shopping when there were no clothes shops? How did the loss of shopping from work affect our stores? What happened to the money that would have been spent in bars? How did the people who cancelled their gym membership differ from those who didn’t? What happened to our petrol station volumes by site? How did our cash-to-card ratio evolve? How has behaviour varied by region and country and customer? And when we slowly, tentatively emerge from our different lockdowns. Which bars and restaurants boomed, and which fizzled? Will the new localism persist post-lockdown? Do our formats need to change, and if so how and where? Do the new work-from-home patterns persist? Does cross-retailer co-operation continue via shared logistics? Which brands are irrevocably damaged? Which shopping centres are fatally wounded? Does the world become more open to global solutions, or retreat to seemingly safe but stunted nationalism? How do we citizens deal with the emerging tracking and data harvesting? Sadly, many retailers will not survive in their current form. Some will go bust, some will merge, new and perhaps unusual combinations will appear. We will see a bigger corporate shakeout than at any time since the Second World War. We network planners must, repeat must, stay sharp.

Over the last week we have been chatting to many of you across the world. We are struck by your calmness, resilience and good humour. Many of you are already looking to the future, planning, thinking, deciding. The world needs us all, more than ever before. Change is dangerous, thrilling and demanding. We all, by a lucky quirk of fate, possess the skills and business chops to help the world recover. Make no mistake the economic hit is mighty. As with a huge strike to a hundred ton bell the economy will continue to ring long after the clapper has struck.

I have left our corporate condolences to the second last paragraph. I know we are lucky, preternaturally so. We all have friends in terribly straightened circumstances. Fearful, unsure and adrift. Some already unemployed, many in industries that will not recover quickly if at all, and many in companies that, through no fault of their own, are unlikely to make it. This is horrible.

To end, our personal condolences. If you have lost, or fear you will lose someone close, please accept our impersonal but heart-felt sympathy. This event is a collection of thousands of broken hearts. Just yesterday four of us shared stories of planting our spring seeds. “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”.

1By retail I mean businesses that sell products and services often purchased outside of the home.

Blair Freebairn, GEOLYTIX

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash