Jason Parkin is Founder, President and Chief Creative Officer of Compose[d], a digital and creative services agency.
There’s no question that retail was already in tough shape before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — Macy’s had closed 125 stores in February of this year, laying off an estimated 2,000 employees; Barney’s had already filed for bankruptcy, prompting fashion aficionados, influencers and street style stars across NYC to pay their final tributes on Instagram. Other physical stores were following suit, and then the populations of most major metropolitan areas were told to stay inside.
Since then, Macy’s has furloughed a majority of its 125,000 employees. Neiman Marcus and J.Crew have both filed for Chapter 11. Nordstrom has permanently closed 19 stores, and Lord & Taylor relieved its entire executive team. Now that areas of the economy are starting to reopen, the question is: Will the crowds come back? And I believe the answer is they probably will not, especially if there’s another wave of the virus on the horizon.
In this ever-evolving new reality, brands need to adapt faster than ever. And without the promise of a vaccine likely until sometime into 2021, new consumer shopping habits will be well ingrained by the time we’re “ready” to optimize for the new normal. I think it’s safe to say that we’re never going back to a pre-pandemic world when it comes to retail, so for brands, the time to act is now. Contactless encounters and transactions are now expected. Some retailers have been forward-thinking enough to set up the infrastructure to turn their brick-and-mortar locations into mini-warehouses for online order pickup. Stores such as Walmart, Best Buy and Home Depot are ahead of the curve. On the beauty front, retail giant Ulta has already introduced curbside pickup at select locations, and it’s only a matter of time before others follow suit.
Of course, the key to any delivery or curbside pickup is the e-commerce transaction that precedes it. By some accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated e-commerce sales — a 49% increase in April alone, according to Adobe research. Given that consumers are spending more time online, this particular moment presents an opportunity for brands to deepen their connections with consumers. User-generated content has also risen exponentially, and much of the engagement across social media is with shoppable content.
Admittedly, the downside to e-commerce is the high cost of acquisition per customer, but this new reality presents an opportunity for forward-thinking leaders who can react quickly and strategize for the long game. A decade ago, when TV advertising dollars were replaced by digital pennies, those dollars never came back. Companies that understood that are much better off today. Now the same is likely true for retailers: There needs to be an accepted higher cost to acquire a new customer — you’re either going to pay the new premium or lose your base. If your brand has decided to wait and see, it’s an approach you’ll likely regret.
The opportunity for brands to step in and step up is now. Continued genuine engagement with audiences will correlate to sales at the end of the day. Make this new normal easy on users with your voice, promotions and relevant content through regular digital communication via email, social and other relevant channels. Instill every piece of marketing material with a voice that’s authentic to your brand, but in a way that conveys empathy for those struggling, whether at home or on the front lines, during this global crisis. This new way of communicating will look different for each brand depending on its original identity. It’s important to note that brands shouldn’t change their tone or personality in an effort to convey compassion — they can all do it in their own special way. The basics of marketing shouldn’t change either; consider “What value am I offering my consumer?” but just add “with the pandemic in mind.” Once that’s established, timing product promotions and knowing what products to promote and the core message will come more naturally.
So what does all of this mean if your brand sells in a major retailer or has its own physical stores? First and foremost, your omnichannel approach needs to prioritize e-commerce and invest in the marketing needed to support it. For larger brands, this may mean adjusting budgets to support a heavier digital spend, while smaller and midsize brands may have to revise their marketing strategies entirely. Regardless of size, all brands should focus on one-to-one engagement with current and potential customers, accelerating their CRM strategies and prioritizing relevant messaging on social channels with social shopping opportunities.
As screen times rise, brand visibility and engagement on digital devices need to as well. This will mean extra attention to content across the board — both on the consumer and creator side. It’s always the right time to tell strong, authentic stories that users can connect and engage with, and convert those relationships into transactions that customers can feel good about — now, with a slightly nuanced tone. Done correctly, brands that adapt as quickly as shoppers do will find themselves ahead of the curve and positioned for stronger growth and success in the coming years, wherever transactions occur.