Innovating through COVID-19 – what can businesses learn from China?

Innovating through COVID-19: what can UK businesses learn from China?

By Edd Ashworth on March 25, 2020

A spectre is haunting the UK retail industry at the moment – the spectre of COVID-19. As Europe’s major powers take action to eradicate the continued spread of coronavirus, UK businesses – particularly those in retail – may find themselves needing to reinvent themselves to protect their long-term futures.

I feel that there are a number of interesting lessons that can be learned from businesses in China who have embraced innovation in order to survive in the current climate, with a recent article in the Harvard Business Review explaining how Chinese enterprise retailers have responded to coronavirus. Here are some of the key points that caught my eye…

Continuous innovation

Crises like the current COVID-19 pandemic require a constant reframing and analysis of current businesses practices. China’s entrepreneurs are continuously innovating in an attempt to create radically successful businesses in these challenging times. For example, restaurants, hotels and cinemas with large amounts of free workforce have been willing to temporarily “share” these employees with other more in-demand digital online enterprises.

Switch up sales

Chinese enterprises are switching from a traditional bricks and mortar approach to embrace new digital opportunities in the online B2C and B2B marketplace. For example, Lin Qingxuan – a Chinese cosmetics company – repositioned its 100+ in-store beauty advisors as social media influencers to help drive online sales. As a result, the company’s sales in Wuhan grew 200% compared to the previous year.

Look for opportunities

Not everybody is losing because of COVID-19, and businesses should take steps to seek new opportunities or changes in direction that they could benefit from. Demand in specific digital industries has increased, such as B2C and B2B e-commerce and remote working services. The key thing for retailers, in response to the current crisis, is to ensure they continue to best serve their customers and meet their needs – even if that means adapting to the new landscape. For example, even China’s insurance companies are now offering free coronavirus-related coverage across their products.

Prepare for the recovery

China is now reporting fewer cases each day, and is slowly making a transition back to normality. Some forward-thinking Chinese businesses have used this time in crisis to improve internal digital systems, products, services and even dedicate time to upskilling their staff – so that they’re as prepared as possible for when the turnaround is complete.

It’s also worth preparing for a somewhat bumpy recovery. In South Korea, for instance, most stores are now open – but they have implemented strict social distancing rules which limit the number of customers who can visit at any one time.

Use social media in smarter ways

To combat new remote working policies and complex coordination challenges, many Chinese companies turned to social media to better coordinate their employees and partners. As an example, Cosmo Lady – which is China’s largest underwear and lingerie company – initiated a new programme that was aimed at increasing sales through platforms such as WeChat. It enlisted employees to promote their own social circles, and created a “sales ranking” – which included the chairman and CEO! – to help motivate the rest of the staff to participate in the initiative.

In summary, it’s time for UK retailers to get creative, just like many Chinese companies have been forced to. A survey of over 2,200 marketers (by Econsultancy and Marketing Week) found that 71% of UK marketers predicted that there will be a significant increase in e-commerce during the ongoing pandemic. Hence there’s a need for businesses to bring forward their digital transformation plans. Simply put, this is going to be crucial if they are to give themselves the best chance of competing in the current “new normal.”


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