If there was one word to sum up the experience and ongoing goals of brick and mortar-based retailers in the new business normal, it would be this one. It’s difficult to think of a sector of our economy that hasn’t been impacted by the global COVID-19 crisis, but the challenge presented to owners of smaller retail shops previously reliant on foot traffic for the bulk of their sales has been staggering.
Now back to that pivot.
In this first part of our series on small business pivoting, we’ll take some of the overwhelm out of the process by exploring the ways that traditional retailers can make the transition to not only selling their products online, but communicating that new availability to their target audience to generate market awareness.
In subsequent articles, we’ll cover topics addressing product delivery and service fulfillment for sustained profitability throughout the crisis and beyond.
Step 1: Find Your Purpose
The first step to making the pivot from in-person to online is to decide which offerings you’ll be focusing your online sales efforts on.
Are you a boutique coffee shop? Perhaps you’ll offer limited curbside pickup for specialty coffees, but choose to place the bulk of your efforts on selling coffee beans, mugs, coffee grinders, tea, and other related products online.
Some of your current items may be more adaptable to online sales than others. Now is the time to evaluate your product offerings, make any needed inventory adjustments, and think of them in terms of how your customers will interact with them online.
Take our coffee shop owner, for example. Customers visiting her shop can smell the coffee beans—maybe even have a sample of the final product to see if they like the flavor before purchasing.
To pivot to online sales, the owner will need to consider photographing each product to its best advantage, staging pictures in a way that invites and engages the customer. In photographing a product, keep in mind that customers can’t pick it up and turn it around in their hands, so consider offering a few views—possibly a picture of the beans in the bag, one with the bag opened and a coffee scoop inside, and another of a person enjoying a cup of coffee from the freshly ground beans.
Remember as well that you will need text to accompany your product photos. Start to work on product descriptions that help the customer feel like they are there. Tap into as many senses as possible, from the aroma to the sight and taste.
Finally, keep your branding in mind as you make these decisions. Being true to your brand in tone and look is part of knowing your purpose, and the consistency will help your loyal customers feel at home despite the change of venue for their shopping experience with you.
Step 2: Find Your Platform
There are many different platforms for managing online sales, and which is best for you depends on a number of factors.
Here are some of the main types of online shopping platforms you can research:
Social Media: Social Media venues like Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest provide shopping functionality for businesses. If you already have a strong social media presence, you can, for example, set up a Facebook Store which enables you to sell products directly to your customers from your company’s Facebook page.
Marketplace: Though there are several general marketplaces for digital sales, Amazon and Etsy are among the most recognizable. While Amazon tends to be more of an all-purpose marketplace, Etsy caters to the hand-crafted and unique. Both have fees for selling, and you should consider which best fits your audience and brand.
Auction: In the world of online auction marketplaces, eBay reigns supreme, though other venues do exist. Utilizing an auction website can carry risk—you can set a minimum starting bid, but you are not necessarily assured the price you want, and sales tend to take longer as they go through the auction process. However, if you sell products which are in high demand and know how to navigate the auction system, this can be a profitable option.
Your own e-Commerce site: Don’t want to sell through a third party? Your own e-Commerce site may be the on-brand solution you are looking for. It has the advantage of being completely controlled by you, so there is no risk of your product being lost in the competition with products from dozens of other companies, or your branding being swallowed up by the brand identity of a large digital sales channel.
Step 3: Find Your People
Once you know what you are selling, where you are selling it, and how to position your products online with engaging, on-brand imagery and product descriptions, it’s time to tell your ideal audience that you are open for online business.
Start with your established customers. Leverage your email list, use the customer data from your POS, reach out to the people who already follow you on Facebook, Instagram, or Pinterest. Communicate with your existing customer base, and be excited about it. People are experiencing stress, anxiety, upheaval, and worry. Talk to them about how you want to support them in this time.
Be genuine. Yes, it’s about selling, but selling and caring are not mutually exclusive.
Then, get creative. Start thinking of your products not in terms of what the product itself is but in terms of what interests it fulfills, then build a presence on sites, Facebook groups, and online communities that cater to these interests.
Our coffee shop owner may want to find an online group for coffee lovers and start posting recipes (using the coffee beans she sells, of course!) or video tutorials on the right way to brew with a French press (also available for purchase).
Pivoting isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do, but it can be a way to not only survive, but thrive in difficult times. Beyond that, the innovation and new marketing platforms and strategies embraced now may spur growth in ways traditional retailers had never envisioned for themselves, but will be glad to carry forward even after the dust has settled.
Now is the time to start the conversation with key advisors like your CPA to determine which options are most feasible for you and most aligned with your long-term business goals.