Retail and the consumer post-pandemic with Qurate Retail, Inc.’s Mike George

This is part two in a two-part Q&A series. Find part one here

After leading QVC, Inc. for 12 years, Mike George took on an expanded role in 2018 as president and CEO of Qurate Retail, Inc. In this role, George leads a select group of retail brands — QVC, HSN, Zulily, Ballard Designs, Frontgate, Garnet Hill, Grandin Road and Ryllace — combining retail, media and social platforms to curate exceptional products, experiences and communities for consumers. George, also chairman of the NRF Board of Directors, has many years of experience in the retail industry, developing new ways to engage customers over television, ecommerce, mobile and social platforms.

We sat down with George to talk about the impact of the health crisis on Qurate Retail and the retail industry, and what post-pandemic retail and consumer behavior will look like. This is part two in a two-part Q&A series.

Mike George, CEO, Qurate

As a multiplatform digital retailer, Qurate Retail is well positioned to provide social shopping experiences for consumers at home. How have you modified your social experience? And how are customers/viewers responding?

During this time of social distancing, we have unique opportunities to help our customers stay connected. As our customers continue to remind us, our programming is a welcome respite from the challenges they are facing right now. They appreciate the changes we’ve made to help keep our hosts and guests safe on air — and are enjoying new ways of engaging with us on our social channels. We’re thankful for the power of social media to extend the conversation and help us be there for our customers with engaging experiences and conversation.

We quickly expanded our programming on social when the crisis first began. For our #HostsAtHome campaign on Facebook and Instagram, our QVC and HSN hosts are producing live and pre-recorded shows from the safety of their homes. They’re sharing recipes, beauty tutorials and DIY projects, hosting virtual playdates and workout sessions, and generally giving customers a more personal view of their lives during these unusual times.

In March, for example, QVC Host and resident foodie David Venable began inviting customers to join him live on his Facebook page for a morning cup of coffee. These free-flowing “Coffee Talks” are achieving upward of 20,000 engagements per post — the highest engagement for any posts across QVC’s 40+ Facebook pages this year.

Both QVC and HSN are also encouraging our social followers to share their special moments with us and with each other — whether it's a new hobby, an amusing pet or tonight’s dinner menu — using #HomeWithQ and #HomeWithHSN. For #NationalPetDay, we asked our fans to show us their new “four-legged co-workers” and received over 200 submissions.

More about Qurate Retail's Covid-19 response

Our teams at Zulily and our Cornerstone brands are also finding new ways to produce and edit creative content from their homes, so we can keep these customers connected and engaged as well. Our Grandin Road brand, a leading retailer for seasonal home furnishings, is encouraging every household in America to spread happiness and cheer by decorating their front door and sharing it on social media using #makeyourdoorhappy.

As our country spends more time at home to flatten the curve of COVID-19, social media and especially live social video are increasingly important tools in staying connected with customers and filling entertainment and engagement gaps created by social distancing measures.

QVC and HSN both run mainstay “deal of the day” programs. Have you altered plans for Today’s Special Values or Today’s Specials based on the current environment?

Our unique retail model allows us to quickly modify our product offerings based on the changes we’re seeing in customer preferences. In particular, we’re constantly reviewing and adjusting Today’s Special Value on QVC and Today’s Special on HSN.

This has proven to be a real strength for the team during this crisis. The teams, in partnership with our incredible vendor community, have modified the program to be able provide the items most important to our customers right now like food items, beauty, crafting, garden and more.

Over the past four weeks, QVC TSVs featuring Rastelli ribeye steaks, Heartland Fresh chicken, a GP66 cleaner and degreaser, and a philosophy facial cleanser have all sold out, while HSN has had sellouts with TSs on an EcoFlow mobile power station, an Apple MacBook, a Bissell carpet cleaner and a Dyson air purifier and fan.

What can retailers do to get through this difficult time and help consumers and the economy bounce back on the other side?

It’s difficult to provide a blanket answer. There are many different approaches to retail, so each retailer is facing its own set of challenges and has its own array of options for supporting its customers and communities. At Qurate Retail, I’ve challenged my team to envision ourselves a year from now and ask, “How will our customers, our suppliers, our investors and our communities look back at our actions during this extraordinary time? Will they say that we did the best we could, that we acted with humanity and dignity, even as we made hard choices? Or will they say that we took short cuts, treated our team and our partners unfairly, incurred unnecessary risks?” With these questions in mind, we’ve been able to frame strategies that we believe best support our team members, customers and communities during this unprecedented period. And we’re evolving these strategies every day.

Like many retailers, we spent much of last year laying out thoughtful plans to accelerate our businesses in an already changing retail and media landscape. We’re now considering which of these plans we can accelerate, which to reshape, and whether any should be deprioritized.

What will consumer behavior look like after the pandemic?

We simply can’t predict today what the customer’s mindset will be in our new post-pandemic world. Will they be comfortable going back to physical stores? Will their financial situation be better or worse? Will they be eager to get back to buying fashion or remain hesitant? How promotional will the competitive environment be? While at that point, the pandemic may be “over,” the world will be changed. I anticipate that consumers will embrace a digital lifestyle more fully as some remain hesitant to gather in public places, and the need for engaging experiences — both in person and digitally — will be a differentiator for many brands. I am encouraged by the rallying we are seeing behind supporting small businesses, so I think we’ll see consumers gravitating toward businesses in their local communities, as well as seeking out entrepreneurial brands with a great story and storyteller behind them. 

What steps are you taking at QRG to plan for this post-pandemic world?

With so much uncertainty, we need to plan for a balanced approach that will allow us to nimbly respond to what our customers are telling us at the time. That includes adapting our merchandising and messaging to what they value in the moment, carefully managing inventory levels while chasing critical categories, and engaging our current customers while introducing new ones to our brand.

On a personal level, I look forward to harnessing the innovative spirit and energy unleashed across our company over the past weeks. In the midst of this disaster, I am so proud of the incredible response from our teams to be agile and innovative during this time. Later, we’ll look at the adjustments we’ve made to how we work together and how we serve the customer, and determine which should be preserved, enhanced or replaced moving forward.

What’s something you’ve learned in the last few weeks since COVID-19 disrupted our world? What encourages you in these difficult times?

Over the past weeks, I have been struck by how small and intimate the world suddenly feels, united against a common threat, and by the unwavering determination proven by retailers worldwide to navigate this crisis. Though this tragedy has been and will continue to be extremely difficult, I am inspired by the extraordinary opportunities we all have to be of service to our customers in their time of need — including many who have not previously experienced our brands — to invent new ways of working, to make a lasting difference in our communities, and to connect with old and new family and friends, even at a distance.

Personally, I am especially encouraged by and forever grateful to my 25,000 colleagues at Qurate Retail for rising to the challenges in front of us. I am especially thankful for our fulfillment center, contact center, studio and support teams, who are working on-site during this critical time. I am also grateful for our retail peers coming together through organizations like NRF to support one another and our communities through this crisis.

Read more of NRF's conversation with George in part one of this interview.

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