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Retail leaders offer six steps to success during the COVID-19 era

Thriving in a World of Zero Tolerance Shoppers

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If there were any doubt that the COVID-19 is the great accelerator when it comes to ecommerce, the notion was put to rest by a virtual roomful of retail executives who gathered to compare notes recently in the midst of the month-long pandemic. 

Signifyd brought the nearly a dozen retail leaders together as a way to share camaraderie and ideas — ideas about how to continue to soldier through the biggest business disruption in the lifetime of anyone born since the Great Depression. 

With a group including brands like Quiksilver, Stance, Guitar Center, Toms, Figs, U.S. Auto Parts, Allbirds, JLab Audio, Magnolia and Brilliant Earth, the products that the executives’ enterprises sell, their mix of stores and online and the maturity of their businesses varied. But the COVID-related experiences the retailers shared often sounded similar. 

What you need to know
  • COVID-19 is acting as an accelerator across all industries. Ecommerce is no exception.
  • While the pandemic has been incredibly disruptive and destructive, there are opportunities for retailers to think differently. Rents are more affordable, some advertising channels are a better value, consumers are yearning for “normalcy.”
  • The biggest opportunity lies in the wave of new shoppers and consumers’ new habits, such as an embrace of buy online pick up at the curb.

First there was the online growth, which, on balance, is a good thing. 

“Depending on what data source you look at, certainly across our merchant network, ecommerce volumes are up 50 to 60% relative to pre-crisis levels. Curbside is up more like 350%,” said Signifyd Senior Vice President of Marketing & Alliance Indy Guha, by way of kicking off the executive roundtable. “That is a huge amount of operational stress in a short amount of time. For folks that have a blend of brick-and-mortar and online retail, you basically warped into 2025 on whatever your internal business plan is.“

Indeed, as the conversation went around the room, several attendees described sales increases in the triple-digit percentages. They talked about having to actually back off of promotions and offers of expedited shipping due to challenges with supply chains that simply can’t keep up with demand. 

“If someone told me five years ago that this was going to be my problem,” one executive said, “I would be like, ‘Where do I sign up?’”

Six tips from some of the best in the ecommerce business

But kidding aside, the crush of demand obviously comes with challenges. To help tackle some of them, we offer six takeaways below from a wide-ranging discussion among some of the best retail minds in the business. (To ensure a free flow of ideas, we agreed to forgo attributing comments made during the private gathering.) 

This is a time to lean into the great accelerator and level-up ecommerce. The question ecommerce executives need to be asking themselves as the pandemic reshapes consumer behavior is, “How can we go faster,” one executive said. “Ecommerce is the future. This is going to change shopping behavior.”

Curbside needs to be nothing short of awesome. One omnichannel executive explained that even as brick-and-mortar stores begin to reopen, ecommerce sales remain strong. Curbside has been a big part of that. “The behavior has definitely changed. How long that change is going to last, we’re not sure, but we’re convinced it’s going to last for a long time.” The executive said the enterprise’s curbside offering is already something of a concierge experience at times, with associates waiting while customers examine purchases and ask questions. 

A significant portion of the increased ecommerce business is coming from new shoppers. The old saw about only one chance to make a first impression holds here. Signifyd data shows that shoppers who rarely or never shopped online pre-pandemic have turned to the channel out of necessity. You want them to be aware of your brand.

One attendee suggested crafting messaging around themes that resonate with the COVID lifestyle to attract attention. Think comfort, diversion, health and safety. He explained that his brand backed up messaging by increasing the discount offered on buying the first item from the retailer. A third said that some of the acquisition channels available to share those messages have become decent values. Outdoor display ads, catalogs direct mail and even digital ads have all been dropping in price. “We’re doing TV commercials. A lot of our customers are sitting at home. People are watching a lot more TV than ever.” 

As shoppers’ habits change, re-evaluate your sales channels. Do you have the right mix of wholesale, marketplace and direct-to-consumer, for instance. As new shoppers turn to ecommerce and Amazon’s glow dims because of its early inability to keep up with its promise of endless aisle and nearly instant delivery, it could be time to go all-in on building brand loyalty. Bulking up D-to-C efforts has the added advantage of providing better margins.

Don’t blindly neglect brick-and-mortar expansion. It’s hard to think about doubling down on physical stores in the midst of trying to figure out how to welcome shoppers back in a time of social distancing, face masks and constant hand washing. “Retail is not going anywhere. Volume might be down a bit. But we’re social creatures and people are already flocking back to lifestyle centers and good (shopping) streets,” one executive said. Why not move now, he added, to find good deals, including percentage-based rent deals, and begin to build a store fleet?  

Never stop learning. A year ago, nobody saw this coming. Even four months ago, it was hard to grasp the magnitude of what retailers were staring at. But here they are, making rapid and dramatic changes, sharing ideas and planning for the future with and after COVID-19. “What a time that we’re learning through,” one of the roundtable participants said. “I’ve learned more in the last three months … I didn’t think I could learn this much this late in my career. I’m just soaking it up.” 

“We’re learning every single day,” another chimed in.

And from the sound of the roundtable discussion, the education, as challenging as it may be, is not going to waste. 

Photo by Getty Images


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Mike Cassidy

Mike is lead storyteller at Signifyd. A former journalist and a retail geek, he covers ecommerce and the way technology is transforming digital commerce. Contact him at mike.cassidy@signifyd.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.