8 retail strategies to combat the impact of COVID-19

May 8, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world, and the retail industry has not remained impervious to this crisis. In China, where the virus originated, retail sales dropped by 20.5% after the coronavirus hit, causing retailers worldwide to anticipate a negative sales impact. A study by NuORDER—a Los Angeles-based wholesale e-commerce platform—revealed that if the pandemic persists for the next six months, revenue losses for retailers may be as high as 50%. 

To minimize the impact of the global pandemic on their business, retailers are accelerating digital transformation and finally embracing ecommerce. In fact, ecommerce sales in Italy grew by 81% since the end of February. Long-term strategies that were parked for a later date or written off are being implemented with gusto.

China ecommerce expert—Michael Zakkour—says that the future of the retail industry lies in adopting holistic strategies that align with customer interaction across the entire retail ecosystem. He suggests,

“We should be thinking about unified commerce where all your consumer touchpoints hold equal weight in creating bigger and better commerce.” 

 Here are some strategies retailers should consider when they take their retail business online.

8 retail strategies you can adopt to survive the coronavirus crisis

1. Incentivize consumers to shop from home

To incentivize customers to buy online from the comfort of their homes, you can offer coupons. You could even run promotional campaigns. A classic example is Nike. The sporting goods retailer sent a 25% sitewide discount via email. However, there are two predictable downsides to this approach.

  • Demand weak environment: There is growing economic uncertainty, which means people are into a saving mode. Only a handful of consumers will be looking for shoes right now.
  • Ineffective communication channel: These emails with discount codes often land in the “promotional” tab and are often forgotten or left unchecked.

Retailers should instead choose to incentivize “active” shoppers or warm leads, so to speak. This can be done in a couple of ways—you could share a pop-up banner on your website or share the discount code in the welcome message in your live chat

2. Redirect in-store sales staff to provide online assistance

chatbot escalates to human agent_Heyday

Instead of relying entirely on your e-store, you should also try and leverage your in-store workforce online. How? By connecting online shoppers to sales staff. This feature is readily available with leading chatbots that dispatch incoming customer queries to the right agent based on skill, language, department etc. If you’re worried that this might be complex or require technical support, you couldn’t be further off from the truth. 

For example, our client TA Appliance, a family-owned business that sells home and kitchen appliances, has successfully implemented this strategy to connect online shoppers to in-store staff via an advanced live chat. Now they harvest 477 leads/month escalated from the online store to the in-store sales staff. 

Adopting this strategy is especially valuable f0r merchants who sell big-ticket items or know that their customers need assistance before they make a purchase decision.

3. Enable customers to book virtual appointments or consultations

If your agents don’t work around the clock or are too busy for new customers, you can always streamline workflow with scheduled appointments. 

For example, a customer looking for a foundation may want to consult a beauty advisor before they buy a workwear foundation that is suitable for acne-prone, combination skin. You can effectively schedule personalized 1:1 meetings between your sales team and the customer to replicate the in-store experience to the T. 

This strategy can also be effectively implemented by luxury and designer brands to serve their clientele during this time. In fact, experiential luxury retail could be the way forward.

4. Adapt your shipping and return policy to encourage online shopping

Some stores in Toronto are offering free shipping with a minimum order to keep the purchases coming. 

However, Eyles—the owner of a small gift boutique—offered free shipping to encourage customers to shop online and support her small business. She says,

“It's also a way to give people something to keep them busy and hopefully bring some joy in a socially distanced way.”

After she added free shipping on her website, she saw a spike in orders. 

“We had 20 orders in one day,” Eyles said. “It was very hopeful seeing the community come together.”

More prominent retailers are also not shying away from implementing these strategies to get their online business going. Sephora—a leader in beauty and personal care—extended its return policy for online purchases to 60 days.

5. Improve product catalogue tagging and description 

To make each product listing unique, a combination of tags is used to describe its features and characteristics. Product tagging details could range from usage to material, colour, durability, texture etc. Tagging products also allows you to group similar or complementary products and display a wider choice to shoppers. For example, if a shopper is looking for a cotton button-down dress in pink, you could also show the footwear that best pairs up with that dress.

Especially in the case of large product catalogues, tagging and structuring the product catalogue can lead to an optimal NLP-powered search performance. With proper tagging, platforms like AdeptMind and Heyday can increase conversion with AI-guided product discovery.

On the other hand, product tagging has a different meaning and purpose on social channels like Facebook and Instagram. Product tagging on social media is a business account feature that allows you to tag products in posts and link them to your website so users can make purchases with just a few clicks. With 62% of smartphone users make purchases via mobile devices, product tagging on social channels is bridging the gap between product discovery and purchase.

Social commerce example_Heyday

6. Send product restock or price drop alerts

Price drop notification_Heyday

This is especially relevant for “essential” retailers, providing “essential” goods like food and household goods. 

With waves of panic buying and over-burdened supply chains, stock in most brick-and-mortar and online stores is depleting quickly. In such cases, you can ask customers to opt-in for Facebook Messenger notifications and send product restock notifications in real-time. 

Facebook Messenger notifications are more instant and personalized, as compared to emails that are often buried in the inbox and easily missed by the recipient.For instance, DAVIDsTEA is a specialty tea and tea accessory retailer with over 230 stores across Canada and the US that ran marketing campaigns to get more customers to opt-in for Messenger notifications. As a result, 68% of customers opted-in to receive promotional notifications inside Messenger. In-messenger notifications can also be activated for price-drop alerts to keep potential shoppers in the loop.

7. Support your support team with FAQ automation

Support teams worldwide are battling a flurry of questions from anxious customers who want to know shipping guidelines, product information or return policies. With retailers struggling to retain existing staff, hiring new support agents is out of the question. The result? Your existing agents are likely to be tired, frustrated and overworked. 

Here are some ways you can offer support to your support team by streamlining your FAQ response

FAQ automaton_Heyday
  • Set up a page on your website that answers all the questions shoppers are asking your brand at this time.
  • Ensure your FAQ page is easy to navigate to from your homepage
  • Set the right expectations by setting your business hours and/or agent availability
  • Ask for email addresses and queries outside of your business hours so your agents can respond when they are available
  • Include the link to the FAQ page in your live chat welcome message
  • Set up a virtual assistant on your website to automate response to the majority of FAQs
  • Revise IVR messaging (phone calls) or automated email responses to direct customers to your virtual assistant and deflect routine FAQ tickets

By adopting some of these methods, you should be able to drastically reduce the number of incoming queries and support your agents.

8. Show that you care 

Now is the time you and your brand can stand for more than what you sell. You can become a brand that cares. By adding value and transparency to your interactions with your customers, you can amplify brand affinity and the lifetime value of your customers. 

Be vocal about your initiatives at this time and going over and beyond the call of duty. For example, if you are a grocery store retailer, you could generate and publish content on

  • sanitation guidelines you follow in your store
  • initiatives you have taken to protect your staff and customers
  • how customers should sanitize their shopped goods etc.

Walmart, the big box retailer is being lauded for the community-first approach it has adopted at this time. It is leading the way, showing that the fight against COVID-19 cannot be won as customers, employees or employers but as a community. Recently the retailer sent out an email to its customers which featured this how-to video on grocery shopping. This is starkly different from other players in the market who are pushing discounts, ingredients for Easter dinner or at-home fitness equipment.

Here are some other inspiring examples of how retailers are giving back to the community at the time of this crisis.

It’s time to reboot retail and reimagine the future

For several years, pundits have been predicting the downfall of retail. With store closures and uncertainty regarding the future, compounded by the dark cloud of a recession looming on most economies, the coronavirus pandemic will sound the death knell for several retailers. 

However, that is not to say that retail will phase out. If anything, experiential retail will remain relevant, and people will continue to visit stores, embracing human contact. That said, intrinsic customer behaviour would have evolved and altered shopping habits.

Chris Walton, an omnichannel retail expert and influencer, shares that the pandemic will force the hand of retailers who have shied away from change and innovation in the past. Chris writes, 

“One by one, new innovations will take hold until retail’s future looks quite different from the world everyone knew as recently as last Valentine's Day. Some of the impacts are already taking shape, while others are still years away.”

In the next couple of years, we will witness the accelerated adoption of unified commerce—where consumers will be able to seamlessly segue between retail and digital platforms without friction or loss of data. 

Michael also opines that the future is not a choice between retail or e-commerce, but the seamless integration of both. Most successful businesses like Walmart, Target and Decathlon have gone digital, adapting their brick-and-mortar model to unified commerce. 

“They’re (retailers) going to come to that realization that adopting that single basket unified commerce and retail model is really the key to sustainability in 2020.”

The strategies outlined above will not only help you manage the impact of the coronavirus crisis on your business but also help you establish the foundation for retail 2.0. Are you ready to hit refresh?

Note: At Heyday, we value our retail community and have recently launched a “Retail Relief” program to help small and mid-sized local retailers stay afloat during the coronavirus crisis. If you'd like to accelerate digital transformation for your business, please fill out this form.