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Adapting Your Retail Business to Survive COVID-19 & Completely New Buying Habits

By Greg Hatch

| Updated on September 2022

The year 2020 is not off to a great start! We’ve been hit with not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also a heavy hit to the oil & gas market, public schools (and childcare) closing their doors, and concerns with unemployment rates.

For many retailers this will cripple business, but if you’re willing to get creative, this is an opportunity to adapt, thrive and pick up the slack where others have let it go.

Where does that leave you, and how can your business (not only) survive this economic downturn but come out on top?

If you haven’t started pivoting your business already, here’s where we’d recommend you start.

Social Isolation = Online Reliance

If you had talked to us in the latter part of 2019 (or anytime, really), we would have told you how important it is to have a strong online presence. 

Well, the same is still true and even more crucial. As you’re forced to work remotely, close your shop, or are worried about staff and customers — develop your business online! 

If you offer a service 

  • Update your business hours and contact information on your website and Google MyBusiness — make sure people know you’re still open!
  • Include a banner on your home page that links to an article explaining how you’ve adapted service to meet the pandemic and support your customers
  • Ensure your online chat plugin is up-to-date and being monitored
    • If you don’t already have one, this is the best possible time to start using this feature
    • Most of all, mandate fast response times with your staff
  • Reconfirm your in-person consultations and move them to online video meetings

Some companies are seeing more online conversions in the form of phone calls instead of online submissions, and in some cases over 30% of these calls go unanswered.

– WordStream

If you offer goods

  • You need to showcase your products — all of them. Even if you don’t have an online store, you need to at least have a gallery that shows what’s available.
    • Progressively improve your functionality here.
      • Your goal for week one could simply be that you take the photos on your iPhone and take orders over the phone; don’t worry about taking a month to make it perfect if you need revenue this week.
      • After you have the gallery live you can upgrade to an eCommerce store, take high-quality photos and improve your quality/results.
    • If you’re able to offer an eCommerce store, make sure it’s up-to-date and includes your current stock availability. If you don’t show it, you can’t sell it!
  • Get your online payments working and ensure it’s been tested recently!
    • Credit cards over the phone or through e-transfers are great in a pinch, but the easier you make the purchase, the more sales you’ll have.
  • Just like in-store service, an online chat function will improve sales.
    • Taking this a step further, supporting this with video (see above) can help too. We worked with one clothing retailer which provided video-fittings to consult on sizing.

Getting Your Products to Your Customers

When your customers can’t get to your store (even if you’re open) consider how you’ll get your products to your customers. 

  • Thinking simply, you can:
    • Use a courier service (consider local providers, so you can help support other businesses)
    • Use Canada Post to mail your items
    • Consider apps like Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats, Doordash, Amazon, etc… that will fulfill your orders for you 
  • Getting creative and taking things a step further, you can:
    • Have one of your staff members deliver items
      • Turn this into a way to “share the love!”
        • Capture a video for social media – show your staff honk their horn, pull out the hand sanitizer before touching the package, then wave to the customer as they leave it on the step. Have fun with this!
    • Offer a “click and collect” service for your boutique shop or “pick up at the door” and “mobile ordering” service.
    • Most of all, the more creative you get, the more you can (and SHOULD BE) sharing online — make sure people know you’re open for business!

There has been a drastic increase in the online demand for content over the past weeks. Mo Willems (a children’s author) decided to create daily drawing tutorials for kids and parents since everyone’s stuck at home.

After 3 days his very first episode has 1.8 million views!

Start thinking in terms of what your customer wants instead of what you used to sell. There’s a massive online market that literally just exploded. Your best business will be one that can meet that demand.

Staying in Front of Your Customer Without Relying on Foot Traffic

This can be one of the toughest parts of businesses that have traditionally relied on foot traffic for drumming up sales. However, if you can make your wares accessible online, you’ll also want to move to online modes of exposure. 

First look at reallocating your marketing budget to focus on online efforts, so you can attract your buyer where they’re shopping. This means they don’t need to be driving by in order to see the sale you’re having next week.

If you’re new to the online world you might be thinking, “why would I spend more money on marketing when people are only buying groceries?” 

Because your competitors are feeling the pinch too, and your customers still want your products — they’ve just lost access to them. Many shops will throw in the towel over the next four months, but those that make drastic changes and develop new service models have the opportunity to survive and grow. This also gives you an opportunity to show up and capture a larger segment of the market that old competitors never adapted to. 

Advertising Online 

There’s a lot of ways to advertise online, so (just to get your feet wet) here’s a little summary. At the same time, if you’re looking at strategy, we’d love to help.

  • Search ads
    • After typing a search into Google, these are those top four listings that say “ad” beside them. They lead right to the website page you choose and you only pay if the user clicks to see your website!
  • Display Ads 
    • These are the image ads which show up on sidebars, or halfway down that blog article. They’re designed to build awareness for your business and they target users who are interested in similar products and services. You can even target people who have visited similar websites as your own.
  • Social Media Advertising
    • Depending on your demographic, advertising on social media can be a perfect solution. You can target by demographic and interest areas across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and others.
  • Video Ads 
    • These can be used on social media and Google’s Ad Network (thousands of websites), which includes YouTube. 
    • They can be incredibly valuable when you want to demonstrate how a product is used or simply to provide free advice and showcase services — building trust with your potential buyers.
    • Starting off in this area is as simple as grabbing some inspiration from apps like Instagram and pulling out your iPhone, but we also can recommend local videographers for help with creating and editing your video (for a more professional look).

According to WordStream, if your business falls into one of the following categories, you’re likely to see higher conversion rates from online advertising with the current climate

  • Health and medical
  • Business management
  • Finance
  • Beauty and personal care (#HandSanitizer)
  • On-demand media
  • Real estate (realtors, moving)
  • Home furniture
  • Jobs and education (like e-learning)
  • Legal services

Social Media and SEO? Maybe Not…

We are big believers in the power of good social media strategies and an SEO presence for your business. If you already have these tactics running, kudos to you, and you should push them even harder right now.

If you don’t, we actually recommend delaying these tactics until you have time to properly build them up. SEO and Social Media take months to build up and start seeing ROI for your business, so if you’re looking at surviving the next two months, we recommend paid online advertising as the fastest ROI.

Once you have a stable base, then you should consider Social Media and SEO to get in front of your customer for the long term (after you have the time and budget to allocate to it).

A New Way Forward

These are just a few tips and guidelines to keep your business afloat during these challenging times. More important than any of these is paying attention to your customers and how their buying habits have changed. Pivot your business to match their needs (not common convention) and don’t be afraid to get creative! Your business is already at risk, so you have more on the line if you don’t adapt than if you do.

  1. Think of ways your business can explore customer service online and remotely
  2. Reach your customers through online channels and move beyond foot traffic
  3. Adjust your strategy to your timelines. Cover off the next two weeks, THEN the next six weeks, THEN the next six months. Be willing to pivot along the way and get creative with how you operate.

As always, our team here at True Market is here to answer your questions and help guide you through these times. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team.


About the Author

Greg Hatch, owner of True Market and Fire Flower Apps

Greg Hatch

Greg Hatch is the co-owner of True Market, Fire Flower Apps and Amplify Community, serving as Brand Strategist, CMO, and Director (respectively). While his primary passion is for people and the world we create, he is an expert in marketing theory, SEO, brand identity, website strategy and loves chatting business.

Outside of work, Greg volunteers for his church and is on the board of Helping Families Handle Cancer. He has two amazing daughters, a beautiful wife, and two fluffy bunnies. If he ever finds free time, you’ll probably see him on the Disc Golf course.