CSA Q&A: U.S. Polo Assn. weathers pandemic with digital commerce

Dan Berthiaume
Senior Editor, Technology
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The official brand of the United States Polo Association is strengthening online commerce and distribution, as well as corporate communications.

Chain Store Age recently spoke with J. Michael Prince, president & CEO, USPA Global Licensing, the company that manages the global brand U.S. Polo Assn, about how U.S. Polo Assn has successfully managed omnichannel operations during COVID-19. U.S. Polo Assn. offers apparel for men, women and children, as well as accessories, footwear, travel and home goods. 

What challenges did COVID-19 pose to US Polo Assn.'s retail business? 
U.S. Polo Assn. has 1,100 mono-brand stores and sells merchandise in 180 countries. We had record growth in 2018 and 2019, and in Q1 2020. Then, at the height of the pandemic, 85-90% of our stores were closed. Particularly high-tourist traffic areas continue to struggle. 

We had to divert resources to accelerate our digital strategy that was already in progress. Supply chain was also an issue. We were unable to launch new product in a timely manner and existing product sat for long periods of time. Essentially, every aspect of our global retail and operational business was challenged.

How has U.S. Polo Assn. been overcoming these challenges? 
Constant communication became a priority across the board, internally and externally. From our leadership team to our staff/associates to our partners and vendors, we provided regular updates through virtual town halls and other meetings and messaging. We have also been constantly providing reassurance and guidance to our global partners – making sure they know that we are with them, support them and will do all we can to help their businesses get through these trying times. 

From a financial perspective, we have reprioritized projects, initiatives and investment to maximize the best opportunities. Externally speaking, the pandemic brought new urgency to the global deployment of our e-commerce sites in regions that didn’t yet have them. We moved up e-commerce launches in Mexico, Panama, Guatemala and other Latin American regions as well as in the U.K., Germany and Italy, to address changing needs and expectations. For markets that already had e-commerce, like the U.S. and Turkey, we strengthened the strategy and refocused marketing to online. We became highly focused on expanding distribution channels and making the online experience better for our customers around the world.

How is retail different today than it was pre-COVID-19? 
Great brands are available across many channels of distribution and delivered to consumers how and where they want them, with each channel supporting the other. We must go to where the customer is and accept that it’s ‘anywhere commerce,’ even more so now than ever before. 

“In addition, less money is being spent on traditional advertising, with more being spent on digital/social. Finally, we have all seen a behavioral shift back to basics and comfort. Brands like U.S. Polo Assn. that are approachable, comfortable and classic have a great opportunity to appeal to consumers through this time.

Looking ahead to post-vaccination, what can retailers do in-store and online to meet the needs of the ‘new normal’? 
Prior to the pandemic, U.S. Polo Assn. had been moving toward experiential in-store shopping with our high-tech ‘High Energy U.S. Polo Assn. Store,’ and now we know we must offer experiential shopping both in store and online, alongside excellent customer service through the customer lifecycle. We know that consumers have a choice, and we must all work to exceed their expectations across the board. 

The metrics of the efforts we have taken include our global e-commerce business nearly doubling; maintaining some 1,100 stores globally; opening new doors in what we project to be better markets despite closing some other doors; and growing social media followers more than 20% in 2020, passing 5 million followers across multiple platforms.