Businesses can’t passively accept a ‘new normal’ – they must define it

The most overused, inappropriate and meaningless term of the moment has to be ‘the new normal’.

Not just because it assumes that a normal state of play currently exists, but, dangerously, because it assumes a passive acceptance of the situation businesses have to ‘fit in with’. ‘Normal’ suggests some level of equilibrium. There isn’t one: it’s a moving feast.

Nothing is typical, nothing is usual, nothing is conforming to a standard. No time has passed for a usual, expected or standard to emerge. On every level there is uncertainty. Normal ultimately will require satisfaction, and right now, there is only tolerance.

Consumers and shoppers don’t just decide things on their own, they are led. They may perhaps give indications of frustration with the status quo in market research or guess at intentions in surveys, but this only leads to tweaking the current rather than true change. Real innovation which delights the user can only do so by providing something they had not thought of. Stacker crisps from Doritos is not innovation in my books: you see my point?

A Barclaycard surveys says 74% of users of online shopping now say they want to stay online after the pandemic, but that’s what they think they’ll do, not what they’ll actually do. In a different Shopmium survey, interestingly exactly the same number – 74% – say they are more nervous about going into a supermarket than at the beginning of lockdown – that could be your reason right there.

The reality is that there is uncertainty on every level, even in the short-term future. Two metres? Masks? School lunches? Don’t know. Will in-store baskets get bigger due to shopping for more people or will the rush to exit keep them small? Don’t know either. Online grocery shopping to stay at the doubled level of 13%? We just don’t know.

Take the last point. As of today the online substitutions like organic to non-organic versions of what was ordered, or total lack of delivery slot flexibility, is being tolerated – and that won’t last long. Time spent online shopping is up 48% (IAB UK), but that’s not necessarily a positive experience when virtual queues and lack of availability are part of the cause.

Businesses who try to understand how to win right now will lose. Passive acceptance of a mythical ‘new normal’ is suicide. The dynamic set of frustrated unknowns is simply a perfect battleground for competitive businesses who want to drive the definition of the true new – it will be different, and it will be defined by positive action.

Thirty-one per cent of in-store shoppers have switched store for their regular big shop: that points to a retail tug of war. And even amongst suppliers, those who were hit negatively through no fault of their own will need to fight to reverse the share loss – it will not just ‘bounce back’, as those businesses who had the associated windfall will be desperately clinging onto the current version of reality.

It’s time to compete, not accept. Time to innovate, not tweak. And it’s time to define the new normal – not let it define you.

Sentinel Management Consultants deliver sales, negotiation, planning and finance training courses for our clients worldwide.