Everyone is facing a difficult time at the moment. I don’t need to tell you all that (or how to stay motivated, wfh, and certainly not how to exercise), but I was asked by The Fashion Network if I could give a bit of advice in uncertain times for ecommerce retailers. So with thoughts running through my head at 5am, I thought I’d just write some of these down. If it helps then I’ve done a little bit for someone, if not then I’ve lost sleep over it anyway. There is no case study for this, it’s just opinion.
I’ll address the issues of company mindset: marketing, product, staff, warehousing and how to keep your business running without pressing the panic or the stop button.
Whatever decisions are made now are extremely difficult and it’s important to do the right things for your staff, your customers and your business. We’ve probably all seen some brilliant and strange decisions by businesses, those that are doing great things for society and those that focus solely on themselves. You build and crush loyalty and trust at times of adversity. Stop the crap promotions and intense or desperate marketing and use this time as an opportunity to really assess your business and ensure it has the best chances of recovery and survival long term. Very few businesses have real unique selling points anymore. Brand, reputation and customer relationships are essential in a world of almost identical products and services.
You need to assess what is right for your business and it’s impossible to give a generic answer that suits everyone. However, what I do know is that you will likely have a website that can function short term without you or with seriously reduced effort. Everyday probably 50% of your orders come after 5pm when your staff are finishing for the day. Weekends often run without any office staff, and Sunday evening is probably one of your best periods. Someone isn’t required to turn the switch on, put money in the metre or pedal really fast. So that problem is solved, you can leave your online shop open with the lights on and the customers have the keys to your shop to browse or to buy anything they want that is currently in stock. One of the incredible things about a website is that it knows how to count down to zero. Many businesses have forgotten to trust this and need people to intervene, stock accuracies aren’t going to be perfect but try and be confident in them, they will certainly be 95%+ and you are unlikely to sell out of everything anyway. Remember you can always find ways of delighting a customer afterwards if a few products are out of stock, the marketing department and customer services will be fresh and ready to go.
Putting the general day to day trading aside, it’s important to keep the store operating in some capacity because your businesses are in a race to the bottom and unfortunately some will go bust. The government is helping people out at the moment, but it’s the decisions that you make now that will put yourself in the best position for recovery. It’s easier to pick up speed from a jog than a standing start. Even harder when you are caught sleeping and not even ready to join the race.
A few thoughts on what you could be doing:
It’s easy to turn off most of your marketing, whether it’s a panic or sensible, it will save costs short term and lots of retailers have done this or shut down their online operation completely. I believe this could be the wrong approach for a number of reasons. I’m not in favour of profiteering or taking advantage of customers in these times, but you shouldn’t feel guilty that people will be visiting your website and wanting to browse and shop. Shopping is a hobby for many people, they like to browse, there may be no intent to buy, but we know we all do this when we are bored, on our lunch, travelling to work, during the adverts etc. Now more than ever, we need to find comforting ways to keep ourselves stimulated with the things we enjoy and are a regular part of our lives. Even if we are only browsing for when things return to normal, we may buy now, we may buy later, we may even buy now and pay later using the payment options available on site. We are hoping for that holiday, our next big night out, going back to the gym or when sport returns and Liverpool finally win the league. Everyone has something to look forward to and that shouldn’t stop now. This is the same as your marketing in the past, on average it may take 7 visits to buy and that’s why conversions are around 2-5%. As the retailer you don’t need to make that choice for the customer, just continue to operate as normal. We always believe the customer lives in the present, buying for the weekend, not for the future. Whilst loungewear will be popular this week, consumer mindset will change as they become more optimistic about returning to normality.
As businesses, strong gut decision making has been replaced by the need to test absolutely everything, now it’s time for leaders to lead. We hopefully won’t get this scenario again, and we certainly don’t know the answers or can read a case study.
Most of your marketing channels can operate as normal. AdWords and Shopping should take care of themselves, whilst volume may drop, if there is intent to search then there will be intent to buy now or in the future. Don’t destroy your campaigns, it will be much harder to return to normal. Google’s algorithms will adjust to your goals or ROAS targets anyway. Costs will naturally drop as search volume drops and others become more cautious. You should certainly be monitoring and adjusting the campaigns accordingly but make a note of the changes. I would just strongly recommend don’t turn it off as you could be resetting everything you’ve worked hard to optimise.
Affiliates and referrals will be what they will be. Don’t worry too much on this, seed some offers or content but respect that it’s not business as usual for everyone and they will contact you if needs be.
Keep email going but you don’t need to desperate with it. 1 or 2 maximum per customer per week. There should be automated email campaign already setup within your business anyway. Consider how you want to look at abandoned bags after this is all over, your usual timeframes will certainly differ, may be worth adding in a new email flow for in a few weeks’ time. If you are going to turn off your site (and I’m strongly advising this is the last resort), then make sure you consult an SEO agency on how to do this properly. Simply sticking up a holding page for that length of time without taking the necessary actions, could have irreparable implications for your business. It could take you months and a lot of money and effort to recovery your existing rankings.
Keeping your paid social campaigns live would make sense. Don’t destroy things that are working well for your business to cut short terms costs, when you don’t know if that’s the right thing to do without looking at the data and working with the people that manage this on a day to day basis. Now more than ever, there will be the time to reflect on performance and use data and insight to make decisions. Your retargeting campaigns will help when customers feel ready to purchase again. The timeframes for this may need to be adjusted. There will have been many times where you will have discussed top of the funnel, bottom of the funnel etc. There is a blockage at the moment but it will start to gush if you at least allow it to fill up.
There will be a lot better people than me to advise on your social media strategy and whether you need to create a TikTok account and what content you need etc. What I do know is that social media is essential for your brand. Forget the hard sell, have fun with it, show your personality, make people laugh. It’s very rare that clothes go viral, unless you can’t tell what colour it is. Engage with your existing audience, people have a lot of time on their hands, ask them to create the content and ideas, they probably know the brand and product better than some of your staff. How many memes, videos, best/worst lists have you received. What can you do that reaches out to new audiences and makes your existing customers love your best qualities even more? You don’t have to be in Sell mode. Have FUN with it, build a relationship.
The key in this time I believe is to unleash the power of your marketing team, they are always on the treadmill of producing the next email, homepage, social post etc. We already know what the worst that can happen is, so get creative and have fun and enjoy your marketing. There are brilliant examples from many brands, you only need to scroll through a few more posts on LinkedIn to see examples of social distancing and stay at home campaigns.
There will be unnecessary marketing spend or you could redirect one pot to another channel. You’ll have to make these decisions. Just don’t turn everything off, your existing customers still see your marketing and they won’t necessarily come direct without a reminder to do so. A simple rule is to look at your yearly or monthly revenue and then the number of visitors. You’ll get a ratio, and this will show everything you have ever done as a business up until this point has contributed this amount of revenue. It may be for example: 1 visit contributes £1 in revenue for simplicity. Therefore you could then say you are willing to spend a maximum of 25p per visit to get a ROAS of 4:1. If you then have some targets and measures in place you could be a bit more ruthless with none essential marketing but keep the good stuff working.
PRODUCT & MERCHANDISING So at this point you’ve hopefully kept the shop open and the marketing going. You’ve still got quite a few more challenges, the day to day operation of the business. These decisions will have to made on a case by case basis. My advice would be to put off the launch of all new product if possible, this is one of the biggest challenges and resource intense pieces, and in reality you aren’t going to sell them as well now as you would ordinarily. Sell what you’ve got already, it may be seasonal and as we cross over from winter to spring it’s important to get rid of these ‘perishable’ goods. 80% of your sales will likely come from 20% of your product range. Set your homepage to feature the top categories, products, trends and brands with the expectation that you will leave it like this for several weeks with minimal changes. Your merchandising rules on the site should hopefully take care of itself, pushing the most relevant and best-selling products. As you aren’t focusing on newness, you shouldn’t have to worry too much.
STAFF & FULFILMENT Now you have the ability to drive good traffic to your site and take orders. The most critical decision now is what do you do about fulfilment. There should be concerns about the warehouse staff’s health and whether you remain open or not. If you are to close then I would recommend to still take the orders but make it very clear on the website that the orders will be despatched when business returns to usual. At least you will have some revenue coming in and selling some older stock. If possible and margins allow it, offer free delivery on everything. There will be lower expectations from the customer about speed of delivery.
If you are remaining open, then one recommendation could be to offer a saver delivery (Free on all orders or over a certain amount) and this could take up to 7 days to get it. This will give you some headspace and can operate on smaller shifts making it safer to work. You would then only need to prioritise the next day orders. This should help with planning and keeping a safe distance apart with fewer staff walking around.
Another thought on the delivery is that like the NHS, the fulfilment networks are putting their health at risk for the general public. Whilst fashion is not an essential like food and medicine, it’s still using the same networks. Perhaps you could build in a donation to your staff/NHS/your delivery services etc. where you, the customer or both add a small amount to every order e.g. £1 - £3. This will quickly stack up and become a sizeable bonus when everyone will be in much needed boost of moral and income.
If you’ve managed to keep things ticking along, and acted in the best interests of your staff, customers and business. Then you’ll be hoping that we return to work as quickly as possible. This could be weeks or months, but the expectations should be it’s going to be a very long time. Better to think worst case scenario and be pleasantly surprised, rather than set the wrong expectations or not have contingency plans in place.
GOING FORWARD Your business is likely going to experience huge issues with the supply chain. Unrealistic or unfair expectations should not be put on other businesses and people at this time. That’s why it’s important not to decimate your stock now with big discounts on everything, focus on the problematic products and release revenue into your business that way. You will need your best sellers in stock over the next few months so don’t sell these off cheaply with a short term view of revenue. You need to make a profit from these products.
If you’ve held back promoting the new products that have come into the business now, then this should hopefully put you in a good place moving forward as it may take some time to return to business as usual. Unless the customer was expecting the product online already, then it shouldn’t really cause you any issues. You can start to tell your stories again, reinvigorate your marketing, content, work with influencers again etc.
As we start to return to a happy place, I think it’s important to set a business goal to strive for. Get the whole business working towards a target. The first days are going to be incredibly surreal for most people, in reality it will be a lot of talking and it will be a difficult adjustment to get back into 100% focus on the task at hand. You need a target date for normality to return in the business. It’s incredible how much energy, planning, coordination, marketing and budget - businesses put into Black Friday, yet they never repeat this scale of teamwork and trading mentality again. My advice would be to draw a line in the sand, perhaps 4 weeks after everyone returns to normality. Give it a name, Green Tuesday, Pink Wednesday or whatever it is that’s relevant you, have a bit of fun with it. Get the business pulling together with one common goal of making sure the business and everyone’s jobs survive going forward. It’s not about the money made, just something to strive towards. Have a party to look forward to, everyone deserves one. If you drink beer make sure you have a bottle of corona as well, no business should have to suffer long term damage on the back of this.
Simply ensure you are putting measures in place to keep things ticking along, without exploiting staff or customers. Hopefully you’ll see what a well-oiled operation is already in place, time to trust technology and prioritise everyone’s health first. We are all in this together. Not everyone has the same motivations or priorities, don’t put unfair expectations on people or exploit them. However remember it’s a race to the bottom if bad or no decisions are made by the leaders in the business now. Press the hibernate not the shutdown button.
Opinion supplied by Alex Green eCommerce Consultant with 20 years experience. If you need any help or advice, feel free to get in touch: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alex-green-07736334/