There is no question that the global pandemic has wreaked havoc in the business world within every facet of the supply chain. Retailers had it especially tough, particularly as many were forced into closure for a time based on governmental lockdowns. Unfortunately, the pandemic spelled the end for some retailers. Those who were fortunate enough to survive reopened to several changes: some businesses reduced hours, others had no choice but to lay off staff, and most implemented safety protocols, such as plexiglass, mask requirements for employees and customers, hand sanitizer stations, and limiting the number of customers in the store at any given time.
Though retailers may feel as if they are facing an uncertain future, particularly because stay-at-home advisories are being reimplemented as the pandemic surges again in the winter months, the good news is that the traditional, in-person shopping experience is still valued by the majority of consumers. Although online shopping is certainly convenient, there is very little that replicates the experience of browsing in a store, having interactions with people, of engaging all the senses, marveling at creative displays, and the joy of finding just the right item on a shelf in a cute little shop. Even in an increasingly uncertain world, brick and mortar shops are here to stay because they offer shoppers something that they cannot get online: a personalized experience.
You can search the internet for hours, but there is no substitute for wandering through a store, gazing at appealing merchandise, and stumbling upon a gem in a charming gift shop replete with treasures from around the neighborhood or world.
Beth Rich Brown owns Mix It Up, a 2,700-square-foot store located in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Brown feels fortunate to live in a tourist town that is busy three seasons out of the year, and her prime location in the heart of the main shopping district of town is a boon. Brown carries accessories, jewelry, pillows, local art, and has a wedding section and a kids’ section and much more. The way to keep customers coming in to the store is by consistently offering quality, unique merchandise that is more difficult to find online or in a chain store. Brown said the key is to “…think outside the box with regard to your merchandise. You want to be unique. I shop the world over to make sure when you’re in our store, you’re finding things you’re not finding in a traditional store,” she said.
Gather is a 3,200-square-foot, two-story boutique in Sewickley, an upscale community outside of Pittsburgh. The home décor gift store is located in the center of Sewickley’s charming shopping village. “At any one time I might have 20+ local artisans represented as well as handmade goods from around the country. We also do carry national brands, but we try and stick to unique items, gifts and home décor you won’t find in a big box store or Amazon,” said owner, Denise Shirley.
Customer service is something that cannot be replicated when making an online purchase. Sure, a customer service representative can help you over the phone or via email if you have an issue with an item, but nothing beats that in-person, where-everybody-knows-your-name feeling.
Coeur d’Alene is a resort town, and while Mix It Up is well known by locals and regular vacationers, it is also a delightful discovery for those visiting the area for the first time.
Even though the store closed for five weeks at the outset of the pandemic last spring, Brown kept in touch with her customers. “We know our customers by name. I have a very, very loyal local customer base that we cherish and treat really well, and they support us all year long, which is just wonderful,” said Brown.
It’s the extra touches that go a long way. For example, Brown provides complimentary gift wrap and places custom orders for customers when requested. She’s also planning on implementing a rewards/frequent shopper system.
Shirley and her staff at Gather, have a policy to greet and personally welcome every customer that walks in the door, in keeping with her philosophy that you have to know who your customer is. “You have to remember details about your customer. You have to remember what candle scent they like. The size sweater their college-age daughter wears. You have to be an extension of your home. When someone comes into your store, they have to be getting an experience that they aren’t going to find in the mall.
They have to feel welcome and recognized and acknowledged. It all comes down to connection and relationships,” she said.
Shirley also went the extra mile for her customers while her store was closed for sixty days this past spring, offering curbside pickup and free delivery within the zip code. In the days leading up to Christmas, she also offered a private shopping experience option for customers who wanted to come in to the store without any other customers around. Another edge that smaller retailers have over both big box and online retailers is the ability to host in-person customer events, which is a good way to demonstrate gratitude to customers.
In a pre-Covid time, Jessica (Bud) Neiswender, co-owner of Inspirit Crystals, was also able to draw people to the store with a daily, in-person tarot reader, but she is unable to do that presently because space is too small. She did switch to a Skype and Zoom format, but sales are down for that as the group experience is what really sells it. “We’re currently working to set up a new scheduling online software, which will make it a lot easier for people to book an appointment.”
Inspirit Crystals is based in Northampton, Massachusetts, an old mill town with an old-fashioned main street. The store, which is packed floor to ceiling with about 2,700 items, carries a large variety of sage and incense, though the store’s main component is hundreds of varieties of crystals. Neiswender said that the store also carries books, tarot decks, and statuary from many faiths around the world.
Inspirit Crystals was closed for four and a half months. Even when the governor lifted restrictions, the store was behind because of backorders on merchandise and a long wait for plexiglass shields. They’ve also had a huge reduction in hours, staff, and they are only allowing six customers in at a time. “It is a very different experience for people, but we’ve still seen a great response from customers,” Neiswender said, adding that many of them reached out via email and letters to show their support.
Some retailers began to offer or ramp up e-commerce options while their own stores were closed. At the beginning of 2020, Brown switched to using Shopify. “The beauty of Shopify is that once you have your images and inventory in their system it actually allows you to ‘build’ your online shopping website right from the Shopify platform. There is no need to know how to design a website and/or hire someone to do it. We had the in-store system in place in January and then when we got shut down, we had the time to do some fine tuning and get the storefront online,” she said.
Still, the majority of sales are in-person. In fact, Brown said that despite the pandemic, she is on track to supersede the 2020 sales goal that she set before the pandemic by more than 20 percent.
Inspirit Crystals maintains a webstore created a few years ago, but it has not been the majority of how they do business. “Our online sales are nothing compared to the sales we do in person. Because a lot of people are coming in for crystals, they really like to select them themselves, hold them, spend time with them. We do sell crystals online and do a great job of selecting them for people, but it’s not the same,” said Neiswender.
“We always had an online shop, but it was never extensive. We did update it and actually completely changed the website after the pandemic. Since then, we had a photographer come in to take product photos, and our goal was by Thanksgiving to have close to 50-100 items online,” said Shirley.
Shirley said that while she has seen an uptick in her e-commerce sales, her store is viewed mainly as a local brick and mortar shop in the heart of a village. “That’s not why people come to us. They come to us for the personal attention and the connection we have with them,” she said.
Still, e-commerce will appeal to a segment of the population. “I think there are customers for whom the in-person attention, knowing about them, knowing what they like and what they don’t like matters, and then there’s a contingency of shoppers who are looking for a deal and looking for convenience and for them, it’s a little less important,” said Shirley. “As store owner, it is imperative that you create a shopping experience that is memorable and targeted, and that the customer is going to desire that over the convenience of sitting on their couch and pushing a button.”
While e-commerce may have an edge over in-person shopping because of the click-of-a-button convenience, it cannot compete with the satisfaction and fun of a day out with friends, drifting in and out of stores. Shirley said that many people in Sewickley make a day out of shopping, combining it with lunch at one of the village’s many eateries.
Marilyn Park owns Zazu Gifts in Ashburn, Virginia and sells a little bit of everything in her 2,500-square-foot store. Before Covid, she had a website presence but did not have e-commerce, though it had been on her ‘to do’ list. “Once Covid came, we put it on the fast track to get it up and running within a few weeks. It definitely was instrumental when we were in the beginning stages of the pandemic. We had a number of customers who would purchase online and do curbside pickup, or we would deliver or ship to them. Once we opened our doors back up, our e-commerce has continued to grow and we still have customers who will order online and come in to pick up their order. We are continuing to ship locally and nationwide,” she said, adding that the website is still a work in progress, and she is continually refining it and adding products to it regularly.
Park feels that retailers can embrace an e-commerce platform as part of their business without sacrificing in-person traffic. “I feel it’s important to have an e-commerce presence in today’s market. We have obtained new customers, outside of Virginia, with our e-commerce site. They have found us from searching for a particular product and it’s led them to our website. We also have customers who have moved away and still love to shop at Zazu, and it’s enabled them to do that even though they are not close by. It also has allowed our local customers a way to browse,” she said. However, she said that customers expressed that they were very happy to be back shopping in person once the restrictions eased.
Though the pandemic will still be with us into 2021, hope for a return to normalcy is on the horizon. Until that time is here, there are a few things that retailers can do in order to stay competitive.
Brown suggests making use of social media to the fullest extent possible. “Facebook and Instagram are free. We’re all struggling to make ends meet; you need to have your customers following you on those social media platforms, and you need to communicate with them and let them know what you have in the store,” she said.
Brown also said she is lucky to live in a town with a Chamber of Commerce that makes sure Coeur d’Alene is on the map. She also belongs to an arts and cultural alliance. The main message is to connect. “If there is an event you can participate in, participate. Get out there. Let people know that you’re there. Do what you need to do to be able to touch people as often as you can,” she said.
Neiswender believes the brick-and-mortar shopping experience is alive and well, particularly for a niche store like hers. For one thing, it is a full experience that engages the senses. “The store smells wonderful and is visually amazing, packed with unexpected things you didn’t know you needed. A little store like ours really draws people who are excited to come with kids, or girlfriends or someone getting alone time to shop,” she said.
Plus, it is supported by other businesses and restaurants in town, where an ecosystem of sorts is created. “You can spend a whole afternoon or weekend in my town and enjoy every bit of it. We survive not only by our own strengths, but we survive by having the support of other people around us,” said Neiswender. She advised connecting with other businesses in town to give customers more than one reason to come out shopping. “Have a cup of coffee coupon with a shopping coupon or some other little business in town, like a yoga studio or music store, to create a dual experience.”
Because of the isolation of 2020, people are craving human contact and interaction, and brick and mortar stores can provide that. Shirley said, “You don’t find that in the mall, and you don’t find that on Amazon. I think that locally-owned independent shops right now have a window of opportunity, if they can ride out the pandemic, to grab back the customer for whom convenience was the overriding factor and once again convince them that the special, unique experience you get at a locally-owned shop is a better experience.”