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GUEST COMMENT What comes next for the retail industry?

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The theory of black swan is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The theory was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book, The Black Swan. COVID-19 has proven to be a black swan event.

Shortly after the black swan event immobilised France, my company, Mirakl, focussed its efforts on the launch of the site, a nonprofit platform created to provide protective equipment and material to doctors, nurses and essential workers. The site was built in just 48 hours. This efficiency was possible thanks to a collective effort dedicated to this project. An organisation of four teams made up of 60 people, working in rotation, supervised and oversaw every aspect of the platform. Less than two months later, 1m litres of hand sanitising gel, 12m units of goggles, hair nets, blouses and more than 20m masks have been distributed through the platform.

Stop and consider these numbers for a moment. Twenty million masks that have been used to help men and women on the front lines protect themselves, their patients and their customers against this unforgiving virus. This alone makes all the work worth it.

But we didn’t do it alone. We had help from the French government, who assisted us by removing red tape to speed up the process. We also worked with companies like Arkema and Shiseido, which have produced hydroalcoholic gels. Our team worked quickly through any technical challenges that were faced; and they had the drive and passion to make it happen fast because lives were on the line. 

No matter the situation, nothing lasts forever. This period of lockdown won’t either. So we need to think about what comes next and how to work together to prepare for the future. As chief executive of Mirakl, it is my responsibility to ensure that when my employees come back to the workplace, they are protected, and that they have access to hand-sanitising gel and masks. As well as this, we will need to ensure that staff practice social distancing. This is important for our community as a whole, to keep this virus at bay. Many companies will deal with the same reality and will need to develop new strategies and to set up real measures to successfully allow teams to return to their workplaces.

This crisis has also shown the true power of technology. Remote working tools, ecommerce platforms and the incredible power of AI are all examples of technology that has allowed us to continue our lives, our studies and our jobs despite being in lockdown. This crisis has shown that we can not only endure, but we can be smarter, more efficient and more effective by leveraging these technologies. And many of the changes we have made have improved our lives. We cannot simply go back to the way things used to be. 

Business leaders who do not understand that retail is so much more than a physical shop, or that food purchasing cannot and must not be restricted to a supermarket or restaurant, will disappear. The consequential unemployment will be the responsibility of those chief executives who were not nimble and did not transform their business when they needed to. It will be the responsibility of those who ignored the clear message from the market and society as a whole. Covid-19 will not be responsible for that.

Soon, lockdown will be eased and life will return to some form of normality. The invisible hand of history will push us forward towards new challenges and new victories. Covid-19 will remain nothing but a blemish in our collective memory. Yet during this unprecedented and difficult period, we were reminded of our interconnectedness. What happens in a wet-market in China can change our lives in Paris, Sao Paulo or Los Angeles. Let’s not forget that either. 

We’ve also seen the power of communities working together with scientists from China, America and Europe all sharing information. All of us working together, despite our nationalities, to preserve humanity and fight a common enemy. Our world has shrunk, and in the face of a health crisis, our world has become a village. We are all responsible for what happens in every corner of this village, and we must continue to work together to preserve and improve our way of life. 

What happens to a single person on the other side of the world is of our common concern. I don’t believe in the end of globalisation, as some economists have been predicting. I think it will be the opposite with a rising need for stronger global governance. An interconnection that will help us communicate, understand and tackle shared challenges. A better life is possible for all of us, and only together will we be truly prepared to fight and beat the next global black swan.

Philippe Corrot is chief executive of Mirakl

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