How to Retail During COVID-19

By Bob Phibbs

Mazo Hardware & Rental in Mazomanie, Wis., used a Facebook post to reassure customers they are keeping the store open and sanitized.
Mazo Hardware & Rental in Mazomanie, Wis., used a Facebook post to reassure customers they are keeping the store open and sanitized.»

I know I have a range of business owners with their own perspectives about the coronavirus also known as COVID-19. Some are scoffing at all the fuss, while others see it as the end of days. And there’s a range of people, attitudes and emotions between the two.

I’m here to be the voice of reason for you. I’m not going to be Pollyanna, but not Voldemort either.

We have to be able to hold both the good and bad in our heads right now. Embrace the awkward, the ambiguity, the possibilities.

If you’re still smarting from the drop in business the past weeks and asking why me? I invite you to see another side. I remember when I was dating someone, and they cheated on me. I thought the adult thing to do was for both of us to go to counseling. 

As I started talking, the therapist asked me, “How long do you want to feel bad about this?” He made sure then—30-plus years ago—that it was a choice I had to make. Either I wanted to move forward or I wanted to wallow. 

Now is not the time to be wallowing. We have to do what is important now!

And we have to leave behind the stuff that makes us fearful. And that goes for Twitter, the news and the well-meaning but energy-draining vampire friend. Right?

Remember, I am here to help you do that. 

With that in mind, this article is how to survive now if you are able to stay open and for those who can only do phone and online orders, but it is also for those who have to close temporarily or even permanently. I will finish with the most important part—your mindset in the coming months.

Burt’s Lumber & Building Supply in Perry, N.Y., reminds customers to practice social distancing.
Burt’s Lumber & Building Supply in Perry, N.Y., reminds customers to practice social distancing.»

How To Survive Now If Your Retail Store Is Able To Stay Open

  1. Tell your customers if you are open. Use social media, post on your front door, send an email, anything to let them know how you are operating in this crisis. Don’t assume anything.
  2. Know you will have to sell your way out of this. Just cutting costs to get by is not going to cut it.

If you are able to stay open, that means you are doing curbside pickups or delivery, taking orders online and on the phone, or you have a limited number of people in your store at a time.

People are still buying things, and they are buying things for two reasons right now:

  • To get them through their day, so they are shopping for the things they need to make life work for them right now.
  • To help them escape from their day, so they are shopping for pleasures and fun things that will bring them joy and keep them busy.

Don’t think that because you also sell a lot of nonessential items that no one will buy them from you right now. One of my customers had the highest ever boat sales this past Saturday—boats. Not really bread and butter. People need more ways than ever to entertain their kids; games and toys are being ordered like crazy. People are ordering flower deliveries just to make them happy and beautify their space at home.

So, people are buying all sorts of things and by selling them in an accessible way, you are brightening their days. You are helping them out. If you have anything right now to sell that can make someone’s stressful life better, sell it. Market it. I want to make sure you don’t hide in your stores and feel guilty for selling right now.

Even though traffic might be down, you need to be sensitive to their needs, not yours. You are not taking advantage of a crisis situation by operating your business. You are meeting a need and a desire. Sell your merchandise as best you can and be a positive force in the world. That is what people need right now.

  1. Focus on the future. There is a women’s clothing boutique that is set on keeping everyone on staff and doing everything they’ve been putting off for a really long time, like organizing inventory, reorganizing the store, cleaning, working on their website, all while doing curbside pickup and blasting as much social media content as possible. They are doing it all with a smile and wearing fuzzy house slippers to work because they can, and it makes them feel good. Their attitudes are amazing.

You need to be like them, still going and doing, just changing to make things work in this situation. Yes, traffic might be way down. Sales might be down. It’s not going to be easy, but being successful in retail hardly ever is. Customers have always liked to shop, because it gives them a sense of control. Why do you think they are buying toilet paper?

  1. Be the smart retailer. Limit the number of people in your store, practice social distancing but make both hand washing and customer service a priority.

There are still things you must be doing right now to bring in the most sales you can and meet the needs of your customers. Marketing will help you do that.

Marketing Your Store In The Time of COVID-19

This is the time to build trust to gain leads for the future.

  1. Be of service and don’t stop marketing. Make sure people know how they can order from you by phone, by website, by text or app, whatever. Know what curbside pickup looks like for your business and how to promote it.
  2. Review your website. Is it compelling? Does a stranger know what you want them to do? Click here, read this, download that? If not, start researching competitors in either stealth mode or private depending on your browser. Write down what you like and what caught your attention, so you know what you want to fix.

Remember, when this panic eases, you will have to sell your way out of this. You might as well start now while you have the time.

  1. Communicate with a newsletter. Create a compelling subject line, “What to do when you’re working from home” or “It’s too early for wine, what can you do to lighten your mood now?” Suggest something they can do without buying your products, but if they want to, how to do so. Hardware stores should promote a honey-do list and how to get it done. Garden centers, how to get the garden ready for hope and growth.
  2. Choose pictures wisely. Don’t show a picnic, a large party of people cheering, people hugging, holding hands, large crowds, eating in a restaurant or bar; be conscious when choosing images of people to go with advertisements and other emails.

If you post pictures of associates in the store, it wouldn’t hurt to show them wearing gloves as they stock shelves or wash their hands really well or other visual signs to show that people can trust you and that it is safe to buy from you right now. Post images of what you are doing to make sure deliveries and pickups are as sanitary as they can be. Your hands may be washed, but customers cannot see that in a picture. They can see gloves. Gloves are visual comfort.

Use Social Media To Reach Customers In The Time Of Covid-19

  1. Use social media like crazy. Don’t fear that you are putting too much content out there. People are craving online content more than ever, so there is never too much.
  2. Go live in-store or even from your home. You can use live videos on Facebook or Instagram to feature a product someone can use to alleviate boredom, a project they can do, a puzzle they can put together. Make sure everything you feature is relevant to right now. Be creative but sensitive to the fact some people who don’t have security in their paycheck won’t bite no matter how much you promote.

Think of your content as a form of entertainment for your customers. Get your name out there in a positive way; make people laugh or smile or relieve their boredom and sense of isolation with a live video. Facebook algorithms prefer Live videos and reward them with more views than recorded ones.

Those people who cannot buy from you now need to see you and your products, so they know to buy from you later. This is a perfect time to focus on building up your online audience as a way to convert customers in the future.

  1. Go live in-store to show people you’re there. Showcase merchandise you’re preparing to deliver and activity in your store. Again, let people know you are open. They might assume you are not.
  2. Talk about cleanliness, social distancing, the works. Let them know what you are doing to make sure everything is sanitary and safe; they need to trust you.

It’s ok to say it is lonely there, but keep your main goal to say we’re in this together. You have to be positive. Don’t beg people to buy from you to keep you in business; that is not the message you want to put out there.

Remember, you’re going to have to sell your way out of this hole we are all in.

What shouldn’t you be doing in your marketing and social media?

Don’t have panic sales as a way to drive traffic to your website. By having a coronavirus sale, you are just associating your business with a virus. The reason people are not coming in is because of public health issues, not your prices.

Bob Phibbs is the Retail Doctor; a speaker, author of three books and retail sales expert of choice for some of the most legendary retail brands including, LEGO, Omega and Yamaha. With over 30 years’ experience, beginning in the trenches of luxury retail and extending to senior management positions, he has been a corporate officer, franchisor and entrepreneur. He and his work have appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He is one of the top retail influencers in the world. To register for a free set of 8 lessons on how to retail during time of COVID-19, click here.

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