COVID-19 Retail Survival Guide

Editorial Team

9 min read
Woman in clothing boutique

During the COVID-19 crisis, small business retailers have faced unprecedented financial distress. One analyst estimates that coronavirus could lead to 15,000 permanent retail store closures in 2020. Most customers are simply not shopping due to concerns over health and safety as well as the economy.

We know how hard it is for retailers trying to stay in business. Many smaller merchants are learning the ropes of e-commerce for the first time. We’re here to help: this guide will take you through both short- and long-term steps to build your e-commerce site, stay in touch with consumers, and manage your expenses.

Take time to strategize

In this crisis, the news changes minute to minute. It’s tempting to constantly refresh your Twitter feed or watch for Google Alerts, but try to resist letting time-consuming distractions fill up your precious time. Analysts predict that it will take the US economy between one and ten years to recover completely, and at least three months for businesses to start opening to customers again, depending on which state you’re in.

What’s needed to get through this is to shift your mindset. People need to change the way they think on a dime when faced with a sudden conflict or survival situation. In this crisis, however, we have time to adjust and adapt. Make sure you take the time to think about your long-term plan. Many of us feel the urge to respond to the crisis quickly, but thinking more strategically about survival over the next six months can serve you better in the long run.

Rethink your inventory

In the short term, customers are prioritizing the essentials: toilet paper has suddenly gone virally important, as have bottled water, pantry staples like rice, flour, and legumes, and cleaning supplies. Identify what products from your supply are considered essential, and make it easy for customers to get them. Communicate proactively when you run out of stock on a particular item. And when that happens, set up an email list to let a customer know when something is back in store or on its way. Alternately, you can upsell a similar product that’s still available: for instance, salon-caliber haircare supplies instead of a cheaper brand.

In addition, you may need to adjust your inventory ordering schedule. Plan to reevaluate your demand forecast based on these four factors identified by Retail Touchpoints:

  • Timing: as a global pandemic, COVID-19 is impacting shipping and warehouse operations around the world. You may face some delays in your supply chain.
  • Magnitude: this is a measure of worst-case and best-case scenarios. Can you add some flexibility into your ordering schedule for an unexpectedly early or late lift of the lockdown period?
  • Channels: how will the way you sell your product—e.g., through e-commerce rather than at a brick-and-mortar location—impact demand and delivery?
  • Product mix: What goods do you predict will become more valuable as lockdowns continue? What will consumers rush to order when the lockdowns are lifted? For the products that are deemed “essential,” what do you expect the reorder frequency to be?

It might be helpful to use data from your website traffic, historic sales, and market trend reports to inform your schedule for restocking your inventory. Try a site like Mintel or Nielsen for research-based market analysis.

Double-down on e-commerce

Most shopping is taking place virtually for the near future. As one analyst put it, “There’s no reason to be opening stores that people can’t go to.” Of course, different states are enacting and relaxing safety measures at different times and in different ways. Take time to do the math to see when it’s more profitable to save on overhead expenses and keep your store closed as restrictions begin to ease.

Many retailers already have an e-commerce presence, but now is a good time to take your landing page beyond a basic storefront. What can you add to your site that contributes to the overall customer experience? Consider how you can replicate your in-store experience virtually.

Try adding elements such as:

  • A way to review a product within your page: for instance, customers who purchased a sweater can provide feedback that it fits “true to size” or “runs large” to help customers find the right fit and cut down on returned items.
  • A widget that suggests other “products you may like” based on a customer’s browsing history.
  • A tick box for automatic refills at checkout to encourage regular repeat purchases.
  • An option customers can select for curbside pickup, if allowed in your area.

We also recommend building out an FAQ page with customer support contact information. Include things like your store availability (are you online only or still open at your brick-and-mortar location?), safety and health measures, and shipping & return policies. Make it easy for customers to get in touch with you via email or through your website.

Find ways to engage your customers

Marketing during a global disaster is tricky. “Marketing is all about enticing us to buy things, and right now that’s inappropriate. First of all, we’re not in the mood for it; second, it’s hard because everything’s closed; and third, it’s not the time because it’s a hard time,” said Neil Saunders, GlobalData Retail Managing Director, told RetailDive.

Instead of selling, focus on engaging. Get creative with your content to keep customers quarantined at home entertained. Launch a blog or video series on Instagram Live, Facebook Live, or YouTube. Post educational but fun videos that feature your products: salons can show customers how to do a smokey eye at home, hardware stores can provide tutorials on how to fix a leaky toilet, while garden centers can share tips for starting an at-home vegetable garden.

Another option is to host giveaways on your social media pages to drive sharing and raise brand awareness. Glossier, for instance, decided to proceed with the launch of their new hand cream by giving it to 10,000 healthcare workers first. Tools such as Gleam or Woobox allow you to embed giveaways on a landing page or blog post.

Along with adjusting your marketing strategy, look for ways to make your products feel fresh and exciting. Here are some ideas to get you inspired:

  • Offer subscriptions of curated boxes. Many consumers are holed up at home and craving some curated fun and inspiration. What items can you package and offer to customers on a subscription basis to bring your store into their living room? Can you partner with other small businesses to curate boxes of complementary ingredients? Subscription boxes are a great way to help customers discover new products. Look to brands like Birchbox, KiwiCo, and Rent the Runway for inspiration. Learn how to get started building a subscription box with this guide.
  • Sell gift cards. A study by First Data* found that 72% of gift card shoppers spend more than the value of the gift card when they redeem their purchase. Run a marketing campaign that encourages friends and family to send gift cards to each other as a way to connect from afar. Gift cards can then be redeemed at your online store or in person when stores re-open. Here’s how to get started with gift cards from Clover.
  • Offer bulk sales or donate slow-moving inventory/deadstock to hospitals, teachers, care centers, and other places that need extra assistance during this time. You may be able to write off a large donation on your taxes.

Communication is key

Customers are wary of any shopping activities that might be causing unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. To manage risk, explore some of these ways to keep your sales safe and sanitary. Put your customers’ minds at ease with special sanitation stations at store entrances and employees who hand out wipes and clean carts and baskets for customers.

Contactless payment is another easy way to lower the risk of spreading the virus while shopping. All of Clover’s POS devices, including Flex, our mobile POS, have contactless payment built in. Contactless payments offer a fast, secure, and hygienic way for your customers to pay with a debit card, credit card, or mobile device. Simply tap and go—a great option for curbside pickup.

Beyond letting customers know the logistics of your approach, give them a way to stay connected. Providing good customer service is still a critical business priority during a pandemic. Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, so let people know how they can support you, ways you’re giving back, and when you need a little extra help.

Payment systems

More than likely, your business is already accepting credit and debit cards for customer orders, and possibly even contactless payments. But what about your payroll, hourly contractors, and vendors? If you’re still using paper checks to pay your people, consider this:

  • Paper checks use up natural resources (i.e., trees)
  • Paper checks run the risk of loss, delay, or identity theft
  • The time & labor of sending paper checks cost you over $7 per check (according to the Aberdeen Group)
  • The jury’s still out on the risk of the virus surviving on paper surfaces. Better play it safe.

Just as you appreciate receiving prompt payment for an order, so too do your people and your suppliers. Consider going completely paperless for payroll and all your accounts payable. Options include Gusto for payroll, Payable for contractors, and for electronic payments, check out, Zelle, and ACH transfers or direct deposits through your bank.

Get some relief

Everyone needs a boost right now. As you cut costs and seek out new avenues to support your sales, get some assistance from federal and private funding resources available for retailers. Here are some places to start:

  • Visit Clover’s own financial resources page, updated regularly.
  • Hello Alice is partnering with Verizon to offer emergency grants of up to $10,000.
  • Facebook is offering $100M in cash grants and ad credits for up to 30,000 small businesses in more than 30 countries.
  • Verizon is teaming up with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to distribute grants to small businesses.
  • Check out the US Chamber of Commerce state-by-state guide to financial assistance.
  • Salesforce Care is offering Small Business Grants of $10,000.

For more on federal aid options, keep an eye on this guide from the US Chamber of Commerce that is updated regularly as Congress works on authorizing future funding.

COVID-19 is hitting businesses around the country hard, but we’re committed to doing everything we can to help you through this crisis. We know it’s difficult to imagine business returning to usual, but the more adaptable you are to changing circumstances, the better your chances of survival. While you’re taking all of these steps to protect your business and your team, do your best to stay connected to the passion that led you to open up in the first place.

Check out these web pages on financial relief, business preparedness, and our general merchant resources.

* Clover is owned by Fiserv and First Data.

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