How to Operate During Coronavirus Retail Challenges
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 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+ 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 the stuff that makes us fearful behind. And that goes for Twitter, the news, and the well-meaning but energy-draining vampire friend. Right?
And remember, I am here to help you do that.
So if you're looking for how to deal with anxiety, I offer you 30 tips.
If you're looking for how to be optimistic about retail after Covid-19, click for 10 reasons why you can be.
If you're looking for examples of retailers dealing with the pandemic, I've got those for you too.
And with that in mind, this blog 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 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. This is based on a webinar I gave on March 21, How to Retail in the Time of COVID-19.
How To Survive Now If Your Retail Store Is Open And For Those Who Can Only Do Phone And Online Orders
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.Check out this notice from Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY.
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 pick-ups 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 sell 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.
And even though traffic is 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’s what people need right now.
But you're not going to be as busy with shoppers, obviously...
3. Focus on the future. There is a women’s clothing boutique who 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 will be way down. Sales will 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’re buying toilet paper?
4. 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 app, whatever. Know what curbside pick-up 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, what caught your attention, so you know what you want to fix.
Remember, when this panic eases, you’ll have to sell your way out of this. Might as well start now while you have the time.
3. Communicate with your 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. If you were a bookstore, I can’t think of a better time to be talking to your customers; invite them to share best classics one day, best horror the next on your site. If you’re a toy store or a cookware store, you should know how to do this. 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.
4. Choose pics 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 pics of associates in the store, it wouldn’t hurt to show them wearing gloves as they package orders or washing 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 pick-ups are as sanitary as they can be. Your hands may be washed, but they can’t see that in a picture. You CAN see gloves. Gloves are visual comfort.
In all of your marketing, you have to try to drive any demand to your website. Obviously. How can you deliver some of yourself digitally? Through social media...
Use Social Media To Reach Customers During 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 FB 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.
Here’s a fun clip from Inspired To Sew and how to tell the gender of your sewing machine.
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 rewards them with more views than recorded ones. Consider virtual events like a virtual photo contest or virtual art contest. If you’re a music store, how about online recitals? Consider a virtual paint party or a virtual photo contest.
Those people who can’t 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.
3. Go live in-store to show people you’re there, new arrivals, etc. 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.
4. 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.
Think of anything fun you can do to post online. Be as active as you can. Here's a great post from Hopscotch Toys in McMinnville, OR that says in a humorous way what they are doing and reminding their followers they are open.
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.
What Else Can You Do With Downtime In Your Store In The Time Of Coronavirus Retail?
1. Clean. It sounds obvious, but it goes beyond disinfecting. Clean your carpets, floors, racks, hangers, a/c ducts, fitting rooms, back office... the works.
2. Start renovations early. Depending on your cash flow, now could be the perfect time to get rid of old carpeting, put in laminate flooring, adjust lights, etc. When shoppers return, it will look like a new store.
3. Make visual merchandising improvements. Redo your display windows. Put a sign that says open for curbside delivery only and give your phone number. Look at your displays, do you need them all? What has bugged you about the space? Move racks around to make the space look different and new when people return.
4. Organize back office tasks.
- Perform a physical inventory. Whether you just did one or not, it’s a good barometer of where your business is right now. If you have advanced POS capabilities, match your in-store SKUS with your computer. Anything missing, transfer to store #99 so you know what your shrink is.
- Address delayed orders. Cancel as appropriate. What about automatic re-orders? #nosurprises
- Mine your data. Now is the time to look at those financial and POS reports you’ve neglected because you were too busy. Find your low margin items; do you really need them? Find your duplicate items; are they necessary?
- Make sure your item records are fully updated with images and descriptions for your website. Our Tell Me Something Good About Retail podcast sponsor Springboard Retail POS recommends you get ahead of receiving. The long description is what will sync to your web description and any other custom fields that may not have been added to the original PO or item import. They have more tips here.
5. Train. If you are able to keep staff on, now is the perfect time to train them. Keep their minds busy and thinking forward to when customers will return. Use this time to make sure they are ready to sell as best they can because they will need to make more sales when this passes. Learn and teach new techniques. Role play to practice customer interactions. Consider my online retail sales training as your selling university. LINK
We are adding a new training course on Customer Experience During COVID-19 that breaks down what you can be doing right now to grow sales and make sure every customer feels welcome and safe, even from a distance. It will include how to embrace live videos if you’re new to them, how to provide personalized service virtually, and other relevant information.
If you already have a subscription to SalesRX, you’ll get access to this automatically when it’s ready in about a week... with no extra charge. It will also be added to the new Features and Benefits crash course.
How to Plan and Prepare for After The Virus Panic Passes...And it Will Pass
How will you make up for lost business? It’s worth researching how your products or services might be shifted to meet consumer needs once the pandemic is under control.
If you are approaching the challenge of helping your customers, of being of service, it helps you not to be nervous. If you start with that, if you can just hang on and assist people, the business and the money they bring will come back. You have to believe that and know your numbers.
For now, here are three big takeaways:
- You can no longer put off addressing technology shortfalls with your POS, online store, or WiFi.
- Online will emerge with a bigger share of shopping after the crisis ends.
- Social media will be the main way to talk to your customers
1. Go Over Your Financials. Plan for how you’ll be able to get through the coming months.
- Make a list of all fixed expenses like mortgage, car payments, etc
- List all variable expenses at the bottom
- Go back to fixed expenses and go to each website and search to see if they have a forbearance or postponement clause. This might be mute with new bills being drafted to defer mortgage defaults and credit. Check back at least once a week because things are changing all the time.
- Speak to your accountant and financial planner about all of these important matters. I am not the expert.
2. Maximize your credit so you can live to fight another day. Check balances available on all your credit cards because they can be a tool for survival.
3. Work with, don’t blow off vendors. Call your vendors. Are you getting their best available rate on internet, on janitorial, whatever? They’d rather keep you than have you switch. Don’t blow off the vendors you depend on for merchandise. You are in this together! I know one vendor who says if you are cancelling for the next few months, you will have to reapply to carry their products again.
4. Talk to your landlord about rent concessions. Ask for rent reductions for April and May of 50%. Propose paying over the rest of the year if you have to. No landlord wants an empty store either now or in a couple of months. They would rather get something than nothing.
5. Every day monitor all state, federal, and local programs.
- In the federal bill passed Wed, you can get max of $1500 a week for 6 weeks. Check SBA.gov to see where it goes.
- Check your state. If you have at least 2 employees in Florida, you’re able to get 50k through SBA.
- SBA.gov has a new Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program to provide working capital up to $2 million. Don’t assume you don’t qualify.
6. Understand it will be a jaded consumer who re-emerges. Martin Lindstrom, my podcast guest, shared a story about what happened after the financial meltdown of 2008 with Hyundai. “During the 2008 bailout by the U.S. government, almost every major American car company lowered their prices — with very little effect on sales. Meanwhile, South Korea’s Hyundai decided to investigate the underlying cause of the crisis. Hyundai’s consumer research program made an incredibly valuable discovery.”
“Hyundai found that consumers still had the funds to buy a car, but uncertain whether they could count on their jobs, they were avoiding any unnecessary spending. In response, the company launched Hyundai Assurance. Their ads read, "Right now, buy any new Hyundai, and if in the next year you lose your income, we’ll let you return it.” Sales went up by double digits. And how many cars were returned? Lee Myung-Bak, Hyundai’s new CEO (who joined the group in 2008) told me: ‘Five.’”
I believe we could have the best Christmas in a generation as consumers release pent-up demands and bring on an era of hedonism.
But what about if you have to close, even temporarily, due to government orders...
What Small Business Retailers Have To Do If You Temporarily Must Close
This is for those of you who have to close temporarily and can’t do any form of sales for the time being – not online, not curbside, not delivery...nothing.
You can still do many of the things I’ve mentioned to take advantage of your downtime and do the financial steps above before making the hard decision of shutting things down completely. All of those things will also help you prepare for re-opening and making future sales.
There are extra things to consider before turning off the lights and closing the door for a while.
1. People. If your store is closed, you might have to lay people off. No one wants to do that but at least those employees can collect unemployment with the idea you would rehire them when things get better. Some feel unemployment will be in the double-digits soon; the government is trying to keep people employed.
You only want to lay associates off as a last resort. Finding quality people is hard and you want to do everything in your power to keep your people who make a good team.
Ask for the shared burden, temporarily reduce hours, go to rotating weeks off, etc.
Keep your staff informed of your decisions; have empathy for what they will mean, but don’t promise anything if you know you might not be able to deliver.
Jim Scheinberg with North Pier Search Consulting said recently,“It is highly likely that we will challenge the nearly 7 million in continuing claims that we saw at the peak of the financial crisis. However, it needs to be noted that almost all of these jobs will be rehired by these essential industries as soon as the quarantines are lifted, and the virus is arrested. Whereas it took five years for unemployment to return to pre-financial crisis levels, a large portion of these jobs would return in just six short months once the virus is behind us.”
2. Security and Deliveries. Security is a top concern whenever locking up your store and this is no different.
- Address facility security systems, not just alarm systems, but cameras, recording, and motion detectors. Fire alarms and sprinkler systems all need to be tested and in good working order. Consult with local police, fire, etc. about any changes to their recommendations.
- Get keys back from employees for the short-term.
- Deal with service companies. Notify all deliveries: mail, trash pick-up, supplies like paper goods, bottled water, copy paper, and so forth of your plans.
If You Feel You Have to Close Permanently
There is a small handful of you who feel you may need to close permanently, and this may be the case depending on how your business was operating prior to this situation.
Before being hard-set on closing for good, think of other means of gathering collateral.
- You can borrow against Term Life Insurance, or your 401K
- Check with your local bank for a line of credit to sustain your business without income so you can meet all your personal expenses.
That said, if my suggestions are not enough, you may have to declare bankruptcy, just like the big boys. If you have to do it as a last resort, then speak to your lawyer and financial planner about how your business can use existing laws to reset. I am not a financial advisor, and I’m not telling you what will work for you. Please consult an expert who can review your individual case and provide expert counsel.
For All Retailers, Your Weapon To Win This Struggle Is A Focused Mindset
“Don’t give all your energy to where you are right now; give most of your energy to where you’re going.” - Bishop TD Jakes
How each of us contributes to the fear and panic will determine what happens to our economy. It is a time for pulling away from pundits and doing the hard job of rebalancing our minds.
For some people, starting a grateful journal is helpful. Finding gratitude, wherever it comes from, is the first step in discovering hope within.
In hope, I am fearless.
Seek out stories of people helping other people. Of retailers putting their employees ahead of themselves. Of customers being nice to employees.
Stop sleeping with your phone by your bedside or checking it before or after you go to bed. There’s little hope coming from that device right now.
Since the financial meltdown when I lost four of my biggest clients in one week, I discovered what I call the 5-5-5 method.
Here’s how the 5-5-5 method works to bring you to a positive state…
Each night after you’ve crawled into bed and the lights are out, count 5 things you were grateful for that day. It could be you met a friend virtually, you made the best chicken salad, you saw a Bald Eagle – you choose. I count them on one hand so I keep track. 5.
Next, before you fall asleep, think of 5 things you are looking forward to the next day. Again, your choice.
When you wake up the next morning, but before your feet hit the floor, count 5 things you are looking forward to doing that day. It can and will be different than what you counted the prior night.
That 5-5-5 technique will reset your entire attitude over time as you look for ways to be grateful.
I’m a big believer in meditation after I have breakfast. Meditation helps me to silence those What if moments. I recommend Oprah and Deepak Chopra’s 21-day meditation, How to find Hope in Uncertain Times. I do not get a kickback from it but have found the lessons have helped me develop a strong core of resilience.
Limit your news to 15 minutes a day. Make no mistake, panic sells and the more notifications you allow for news alerts, the more anxious you will be.
See also, Retailers: How To Deal With Coronavirus
Do the work, whatever needs to be done, making sure to take care of your mental health. Look at your data; anything is more important than going down the wormhole of the news looking for trouble.
What I would do next:
- Check SBA.gov or your country’s equivalent for ongoing and new programs of relief.
- Plan for re-opening. It will come – believe it, know it, and show it.
- Brainstorm how to stay in front of customers
Look at what’s happening right now in China. There’s evidence the recovery, when it comes, might well be a strong one.
But right now, it’s the biggest storm any of us have ever experienced. Your workplace will not be the same afterwards. It could be better.
What will shoppers do after self-isolation?
I don’t know but I want to be there to find out.
In hope I am fearless.