As the shutters came down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, brick and mortar stores were left with a difficult choice: shut up shop and prepare for the worst or deploy eCommerce and try to sell exclusively online.
Transitioning to online-only sales was fairly painless for brands with established eCommerce websites. Not all stores were fortunate enough to be in this position, however.
That wasn’t enough to stop many brick-and-mortar-first brands from jumping head-first into eCommerce, though. Here are five of our favorite stories from stores that used the pandemic to change the way they do business.
Carriage House Style
Carriage House Style sells locally produced home decor, furniture and gifts from a store Lebanon, Pennsylvania. The pandemic pushed store owner Jane Yorty into selling online, which had been a business goal for some time.
“In order to succeed in this new environment, you have to be open to different approaches and different ways of changing your model slightly, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Yorty.
It wasn’t as simple as creating the website and uploading a catalog of products, however. Everything in Yorty’s store is unique, with 40 local artists designing products. This means each product would have to be photographed, cataloged and uploaded.
Uploading inventory this way obviously wasn’t feasible. Instead, Yorty created online videos to showcase her products to customers as if they were browsing the store themselves. She has even run video-based sales live on Facebook, letting customers comment on the items they want to buy.
Yorty then processes payments through the website or private message and ships to anywhere in the country. Local customers can take advantage of curbside pickup too.
UK-based Toast Ale usually fights food waste by brewing beer from leftover bread. During the pandemic, it has used eCommerce to fight for its own survival and help feed the hungry.
The coronavirus hit Toast Ale with a one-two punch. The brand had two main sales channels prior to the pandemic: retail supermarkets and trade businesses. In-store purchases have become infrequent during the pandemic while sales to bars, pubs and restaurants have completely dried up.
The brewery had to look online to survive. Despite having a solid online presence before the lockdown, the brand never saw their website as a sales channel. This quickly changed, and Toast relaunched their eCommerce store — a move that Toast Ale CEO Rob Wilson says has “transformed the business and helped us survive.”
In order to encourage online spending, Louisa Ziane, COO of Toast Ale, says the company removed all delivery charges. “It’s expensive for us to remove the charge, but we hope that many people ordering from us now will continue to be loyal customers in the future.”
Increased online sales have allowed Toast, a registered B Corporation, to run a program that donates a free meal for every beer sold.
“We’ve created a Meal Deal for our online shop – every beer purchased funds a meal for someone in need,” explains Ziane in an interview with Xero. “Most of the meals use surplus food (often from suppliers to restaurants) so we’re feeding people and preventing food waste. We’ve already raised enough funds to feed over 15,000 people.”
Mark Buschhaus and Steven Barnes, the founders of Toy Barnhaus, were thinking of adding online sales in 2018. When the pandemic hit, they furloughed 80 employees and accelerated their move to selling online.
They didn’t rush to build a website, however. Unlike the other businesses discussed here, Toy Barnhaus chose to sell through a third-party marketplace to test the viability of selling online without having to invest significantly upfront.
They needn’t have worried. The duo initially expected to send around a dozen parcels, but the first weekend saw them ship 150 orders — all without the help of a third-party fulfillment partner.
Sales have been strong enough to keep the entire business afloat, says Buschhaus in an interview with eBay. He describes eCommerce as “the lifeline we needed for our business due to the lockdown,” and a key part of the business going forward.
Sales have only gone up following that first manic weekend. Speaking to The Daily Mail, Buschhaus says that since launching, their eBay store has generated the same amount of revenue as three brick and mortar stores over a three-month period. They now average 300 parcels every day, while still packing all of the orders themselves.
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, owned and operated by Gary Fisch, has four stores in New Jersey and one in Napa Valley. It also has an existing eCommerce app that customers rarely used, much to Fisch’s frustration.
The coronavirus soon changed that, however. Even though Fisch’s stores were classified as essential businesses and allowed to remain open, he decided to close them for health and safety reasons following huge, panic-buying-fuelled crowds.
Despite the elimination of foot traffic, Fisch says he was able to keep revenue stable by converting all of their in-store traffic into delivery and pickup orders in the first few weeks of lockdown, by way of the app and a new website.
“Since this change, our team successfully converted 100% of our in-store foot traffic to local delivery and curbside pickup orders that are placed through our mobile app and a new temporary website, www.garyslocal.com,” says Fisch. “Since March 12, we have had over 6,000 new downloads of our mobile app, which offers our guests a seamless curbside pickup and local delivery experience. We intend to continue to engage with these new digital customers through push notification campaigns, high quality content and exclusive mobile app promotions.”
Fisch says he has always been a big believer in eCommerce. While he’s keen to reopen his stores, he also thinks that the pandemic will change shopping habits for good.
It’s not just mom and pop stores that are upgrading their eCommerce experience in the wake of COVID-19. Italian denim giant Diesel has spent the pandemic revolutionizing its online experience. In March and April, the brand took over full control of its previously-outsourced web applications. In May, the brand launched its omnichannel shopping platform, Moon.
Previously disparate applications have been integrated into a single dashboard that provides a near-seamless experience, writes Internet Retailing’s Alex Sword. Consumers can access Diesel’s global stock supply, order products in advance and take advantage of a wealth of fulfillment options, including in-store pick-up, same-day delivery and in-store returns.
The platform also allows for a highly personalized shopping experience in the future, writes Kristopher Fraser at Fashion United. The user-facing interface tailors itself to consumers the more they purchase.
Moon gives Diesel greater control of back-office operations like inventory management and logistics, writes Sourcing Journal’s Liz Warren. It came just in time, too. eCommerce accounted for just 12% of the brand’s total sales in 2019, but online sales have spiked “significantly” in the wake of the pandemic.
Follow The Lead of These Brands to Survive Post-Pandemic
There’s every chance that brick and mortar sales will never return to pre-coronavirus levels. The pandemic has further squeezed a retail sector that was already under pressure from eCommerce, says Jeff Lambert Development Services Director for the City of Oxnard in California.
“The people who were maybe resistant to online shopping — maybe the older population that just wasn’t comfortable with that — have been forced to do that over the last couple of months and maybe now they’re more used to it, putting more pressure on brick-and-mortars.”
Blake Morgan, author of “The Customer Of The Future,” says that eCommerce will continue to grow after the pandemic now that online shopping is part of many customers’ retail routines. That means retailers will need to balance out the digital and in-store experience.
The function of brick and mortar stores will change, writes Doug Stephens, Founder of management consulting firm Retail Prophet. They won’t be so much distribution channels as another media arm of an omnichannel sales strategy.
“With digital media costs bound to rise and retailers flood the market, and commercial real estate prices falling, rent will actually become a more economical form of customer acquisition,” he explains.
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