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RETAIL: The Landscape of Changes

Normalcy is out the window in 2020. While some scientists may have called it, most people did not expect to be dealing with a global pandemic this year. Apart from the devastating virus affecting millions, it also wreaked havoc with the American economy, particularly as non-essential retailers were ordered to shutter their doors during several months of quarantine.

Even though those quarantine orders gradually began to lift, the short and long-term effects of the forced closures upon retailers are still unraveling. Retailers agree that the key to surviving is to roll with the changes and be as flexible – and creative – as possible. The following are accounts of how some businesses dealt with the challenge. The lessons they learned may help you too!

Connecting with Customers

 Shopping in person provides a face-to-face experience that cannot be replicated online. Some customers become regulars, and even friends, but when that is not possible, retailers have to find a way to stay connected.

Apropos is a one-stop-shop for all gift-giving, located in suburban Pittsburgh. The store was fully closed for two months, but during that time, owner Jan Osterholm found ways to maintain connections with her customers, via personal phone calls and texts, email marketing, and social media.

With two locations in Florida, The Mystical Moon, which carries such items as sage, candles, incense, crystals, tarot cards, and the like, also offers readings and classes. During closure, owner Laurie Barraco made sure to stay connected with customers via a newsletter and by starting a Facebook group called “Laurie Barraco’s Astral Lounge.” “In this private, free group, I offered encouragement, streamed live with messages of support, spiritual guidance, and offered free classes on different topics such as meditating and space clearing,” she said.

Denise Welling is co-owner of Body Mind & Soul in Houston, a store carrying candles, jewelry, and crystals along with many other products. Traditionally, Welling often conducted Facebook Live videos but had no time during the height of the pandemic to do so. However, she did continue to conduct her regular classes, such as psychic skills or a chakra balancing workshop, via Zoom. That continuity was important for maintaining contact with her regular customer base.

Business During the Closure

 Osterholm offered phone orders, online orders, curbside pickup, and shipping and delivery while the store was closed, though online shopping had been activated prior to the pandemic. As an incentive, she offered several sales and deals for free shipping. While she did have some digital growth, sales were down from previous years.

To keep business flowing, Barraco offered discounts, promotions, and fresh content to assist customers. While sales were down a bit overall, she reported that online sales increased significantly in April.

Though Body Mind & Soul already had an online ordering system, it really took off during the store’s physical closure. “I stayed 10 hours a day, seven days a week shipping orders. They kept coming in,” she said. Welling continued to send out regular marketing emails to customers. As an incentive, she did lower her free shipping threshold to $30. The closure also gave the store more time to work on the website. They added more products based on what people were requesting.

Giordano’s Gift, Garden & Design in Sea Cliff, NY is a combination garden center, landscape center, and gift center. They also provide landscape design services. Because of its status as a home improvement company, it was never closed, as it was considered to be an essential service. “We are fortunate that 90% of what we sell is outdoors,” said owner Paul Giordano. Though the gift shop is located indoors, the store placed some popular merchandise for sale online and took limited phone orders for curbside pickup. They even utilized FaceTime to allow customers to purchase gift shop items.

Not Quite Business as Usual

Coinciding with the first day of the county entering the ‘yellow phase,’ Apropos opened its doors again on May 16. However, customers were not lining up immediately. “Opening days seemed somewhat quiet with few customers. People were excited to hear we were open but hesitant to come right away,” said Osterholm. She still has limited hours and will keep those for the foreseeable future. She is continuing to offer online shopping and curbside pickup, even though the doors are back open.

Barraco also has limited hours and like Osterholm, noted that traffic was light during opening days, though over time it increased. “By the end of May, the business picked up speed significantly,” she said. She limits the amount of traffic up to 12 people and sanitizes several times a day. Although she has left mask-wearing up to the individual, she may modify these limitations if COVID cases spike in her area.

Osterholm said she has been having issues with deliveries from suppliers since she has been open. “Shipments are not being processed as quickly since some manufacturers have cut their hours and staff. Also, the shipping companies are saying they are bombarded, and some days can't get to us during our business hours,” she said.

Barraco also has had a few issues with delayed deliveries or limitations on supplies, such as the plastic bottles she uses for her aromatherapy line, but said that her suppliers are doing their best to fulfill demands.

Welling said that when her store opened back up, there was a line outside the door, but she is only allowing six customers in the door at a time. It was not long before she pivoted to an appointment-only model, but if the store is not busy, she will allow in additional people, even without appointments. As the COVID situation is so fluid, so is her plan for her store, but that is the key—to be flexible. “We require masks, and customers have to sanitize upon walking in. As Texas has gotten worse, we now take temperatures,” she said.

Though restrictions have eased, Giordano’s still restricts people from coming indoors where the gift shop is located. “Since the beginning of June, we moved half the inventory of the gift shop to the outside where we have protection from the sun and rain, so you can shop a portion of our gift inventory outside. We still do not allow people inside the premises, and we won’t until there is a vaccine,” he said.

They also require a mask for outdoor shopping. “We were handing them out at one point, but we can’t afford to do it any longer. We keep them available for the help,” said Giordano. He is continuing to encourage online ordering and is still offering curbside pickup.

 

Consumer Mindset

Some shop owners felt that the consumer mindset has shifted a bit during the pandemic. Osterholm said she is seeing less impulse buying. “When it comes to clothing, the consumer is looking for comfort. With household goods, they are looking for practical,” she said.

Barraco said that as more people are spending time at home and want their homes to be a peaceful sanctuary, she’s noticed an increase in demand for the type of products she sells. She added that people are being mindful of budgets and taking advantage of discounts and coupons. As for sales, she said, “I do think these changes will remain for a long time, and I believe more and more people will continue shopping online rather than venturing out.”

Welling has not seen much of a difference in terms of what people are spending. “My shoppers that buy big are still buying big,” she said.

 

Future Outlook

Whether retailers will continue to welcome shoppers inside their brick and mortar stores or have to revert back to a digital-only platform, shop owners will have to find ways to keep customers interested.

I will continue to seek new lines and new ways to engage customers and keep Apropos an exciting place to shop,” said Osterholm.

Barraco believes that the changes brought about by COVID will remain for a long time, as more people continue shopping online versus venturing out. “I believe my business will continue to thrive as an e-commerce business, and I am hopeful that the brick and mortars will continue to thrive as a place where customers feel comfortable coming in for their conscious living supplies and spiritual support,” she said.

Giordano said that he does not feel that the pandemic-related changes in the retail landscape are permanent. “Business is returning to normal now in terms of volume; I think that will give suppliers a chance to catch up,” he said. However, he said is concerned about the fall months.

“I truly expect we’re going to have to take extreme precautions at that time because we will not have the luxury of being totally outdoors, and I think at that time we’ll have to curtail operations to deal with what I believe will be a possible second surge in the virus. We are already making a contingency plan” he said. “Long term—as long as a vaccine is available and enough people take advantage of that---business will return to its normal state,”  he added.

 

“The gift shop retailers who survive will be the ones who….

…listen to their customers’ needs and get creative with their marketing strategies.”

                                                                        Laurie Barraco, The Mystical Moon

 

…are dynamic and who listen to their customers. The ones who make a plan, but aren’t afraid to drop it and completely transform at any given moment.”

                                                                        Jan Osterholm, Apropos

 

...concentrate on the areas where the demand actually is and products to sell to compensate for the loss of sales in the gift shop, so the gift shop, when it's appropriate, can return to normal function.”                 

                                                                        Paul Giordano, Giordano’s Gift, Garden & Design

 

...persevere. We ask ourselves every day how we can serve our clients better.”

                                                         Denise Welling, Body, Mind & Soul

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Hilary Daninhirsch

Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. She has written features and business profiles for dozens of trade and lifestyle publications. Hilary can be reached at https://hilarydaninhirsch.journoportfolio.com.