COVID-19 and the Travel Goods Business, Part I
An Industry Wellness Check, Best Practices and Strategies
Everything, about every business, has changed since we were at The Travel Goods Show the first week in March. And with travel and hospitality among the hardest-hit sectors in this era of COVID-19, things have been especially disruptive in the travel goods space. But after months of lockdown we’re seeing localized reopening in parts of the country.
We did some research (from a socially safe distance) – call it an industry temperature check – to see how manufacturers and retailers alike are coping with the ever-evolving new normal. And what we found is it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s challenging, to be sure, but people have found inventive ways to get on the comeback trail. And, in some cases, be of direct help in their communities or the industry at large.
We discovered there’s a lot going on, at the retail level and manufacturing side as well, giving rise to this multi-part series on the state of the industry under COVID-19.
Parts of the country are permitting phased retail reopening, and as stores begin unlocking their doors after a 2- or 3-month hiatus they’re adapting to the new consumer space with product pivots and fresh marketing practices.
On the manufacturing side, additions and changes to product lineups and creative solutions to supply-side delays in China are helping stoke signs of life and provide some forward movement.
Read on to discover what’s happening at the retailer and manufacturer level, and how many have adapted with new ways of doing business.
Part II of this story shares how retailers across the nation are working to keep those cash registers ringing and their doors open; as well as how manufacturers are developing new products and focusing on in-house operations.
Vernon Hills, IL
The first time we called Irv’s Luggage for this story, owner Renee Silverman couldn’t take the call because her floor register was down and she had customers, a situation she was actually happy about. “It’s funny, it’s not what I would be hoping to do but I’ll take business any way I can.”
“I’m not selling luggage, I’m selling masks right now, I’ll take anyone going to my site and purchasing. That makes it a win,” she declares. “I’d recently posted over the weekend a new mask we got in and directed people to order it on the website and I can’t keep up with it.”
“This whole mask thing is interesting. People see them on our social media and go, ‘I want one!’ I told them when the masks come in I’ll fill backorders first, and astonishingly most people did that, and it got them to my website.”
It’s a welcome change from early March. “Everything was shut down after The Travel Goods Show, probably March 16? In my area the grocery stores were open, that was really it.”
“As of June 1, our open date, it coincided with a lot of attention in media with George Floyd. That whole first week we were open we were preparing for the worst, keeping the store dark. The whole first week was a wash. Now we’re in our third week. The second week was slightly better, but we haven’t brought our staff back yet. It’s just my husband and I, we don’t have enough traffic right now. We did curbside pickup and free next-day delivery within 10 miles of our store – we did it, either Pete or I would do it.”
Silverman and her husband Pete, who owns the store with her, have an inside view of the pandemic’s local progress: All three of their daughters are nurses, with two of them working in COVID ICUs. “We’ve been going through this journey with them, the worry over them. I’m gauging my pulse on the whole situation with that,” says Silverman. “They’re doing well. At the beginning it was absolutely crazy for them, but they’re on the back side of it now.” In fact, Chicago announced it was proceeding with Phase 4 of reopening as this story was being written.
One thing Silverman has going for her is e-commerce experience. “When we started this company in 2018, e-commerce is the opposite of what I wanted to be. I feel the future of retail is our relationships with our customers and trust with our communities. But when a former e-commerce person looks at what to do, they go to the web,” she jokes. “I didn’t want to do that, but there’s no option.”
The Irv’s Luggage site is a WordPress site, and Silverman manages it herself. For her, one of the platform’s strengths is the huge ecosystem of available plug-ins. “The first thing I did was I added a component for gift certificates online. We always had it in the store but never online. I advertised it, put some banners up, and sold some gift certificates.”
“My background is marketing. If people don’t know what you’re doing it has no impact. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google My Business. They’re all slightly different, I don’t always vary my message but Instagram is definitely a younger audience.”
Social media in general has gained an audience during the pandemic as people are shuttered in and scrolling on their screens. “We definitely had an uptick in traffic and followers on Instagram. Even LinkedIn, which generally doesn’t get much response. It hasn’t translated into the kind of revenue we’d have if the store had been open, but it wasn’t nothing either. I had a presence, and some people found out about me, we got some orders in.”
“A lot of success in marketing is reading the tone that’s out there and being receptive to that tone,” notes Silverman, who posted a 5-question travel survey to her site to gauge customer mood.
“Briggs & Riley made drop ship available at no charge, so I took advantage. I loaded some product to the site that was drop shippable. I installed live chat on the site so I can create a connection. If you can have an exchange with a customer there’s value to that. I can go from ‘What’s the best time to bring luggage in for repair?’ to ‘What do you have available?’”
“I created a category on the website called Travel Health, under accessories, with a banner to call it out. And there’s a table for it in the store, what I consider travel health items: sanitation kits, sanitizing masks. On Facebook I talk about what we’re doing to keep people safe. I want people to know if they come in they’ll be safe.”
It’s…In The Bag!
Palm Desert, CA
Chuck Weisbart of It’s…In The Bag! has always insisted he’s not a luggage store, but a travel outfitter. And with years of experience outfitting clients for travel in undeveloped areas, he’s uniquely positioned to help locals navigate through the pandemic.
“We closed down about March 15, but came back up under the radar in mid-May,” Weisbart says, about opening earlier than officially allowed. “We opened early because we sell a lot of benzalkonium chloride wipes, which kill more than alcohol will. We’ve been selling them for years for tray tables, doorknobs, faucets. We also brought in hand sanitizers, masks. And we’re selling a lot of face shields. I’m getting them domestically, selling them for $10.99. It’s 10 times better than wearing a mask, better protection, and you can read facial expressions.”
“We put a little A-frame sign out front saying ‘Masks, Sanitizers, Face Shields.’ We already had masks, for people on the plane, but we sourced some more because they’re a reason for people to come in.” And the sign works. “That sign brought people in here who’d never been in here, they said ‘I had no idea this store was like this.’”
It’s…In The Bag! is as much an outdoors shop as it is a luggage purveyor. “Thank god we’re in the outdoor business. We sell a lot of outdoor stuff, people want to get out and go hiking,” Weisbart notes, commenting on people’s isolation fatigue and eagerness for activity.
“We also need business cases people can go home and come back with, there’s going to be a lot of work at home for a while. We’re going to have to try a lot of things. Briggs & Riley’s running a summer sale and they’ve never done it, they’re trying to save our bacon at the same time; I think they’re going out of their way to do it.”
The store is open seven days, but closing earlier than usual. “No one is allowed in without a mask,” Weisbart insists. “I don’t want to endanger my people or their families.”
The shop has lost half its employees, dropping down from 10 souls on the payroll to five, and everyone is on reduced hours. “The biggest problem is landlords won’t do anything for us,” Weisbart says of retailers in general. “Doors had to be locked, and we had to pay full rent.”
“If I can make it through the next few months I’ll be good. It’s not pleasant, it’s not fun, but that’s the way it is,” says Weisbart.
As an online-only entity with a nationwide, if not global, footprint, New Jersey-based Portmantos has a unique perspective on the pandemic’s retail impact. “We do not have stores, so we did not have to close any location or shut down our business like so many since we run our business solely online,” said Portmantos President Moses Berger, whose company also owns and operates LuggageOnline.
Although the storefront has remained open throughout, the office itself was shuttered and is currently open just two days a week.
“In the last few weeks we have been seeing consistent week-over-week increases as states have begun to open up their businesses and travel has become something people are looking to do, if locally.”
Like others have noted in this story, there seems to be a push for outdoor activities. “While there has been more of a sporadic demand for luggage we have seen a shift within our outdoor/adventure categories. There has been an increase in the demand for this category which include items such as technical backpacks, kid carriers, tents, lanterns, etc.”
Portmantos found early success with its online store by playing up the romance of travel, like a special offer pop-up on the home page styled to resemble a travel postcard. “We have continued to send out e-blasts and keep relaying optimistic travel articles and such through social media posts on Facebook and Instagram to keep engagement up,” Berger says.
Canoga Park, CA
“We were closed, but people could always reach us,” says Mark Stern of H. Savinar Luggage, in the San Fernando Valley spawl northwest of Los Angeles. The store’s phones were forwarded to Stern’s cell phone so they could do curbside pickup even while closed.
“What’s going on is very few luggage sales, I would say. Those are always fun to get,” Stern relates. “We’re open, but not sure the customers know that.”
For now, it’s quiet at the store, which traces its roots in L.A. to 1916. “So many people cancelled their flights, their cruises.” But Stern is optimistically guarded. “I think they’re going to come up with some very good deals and things will pick up, but people are also worried about the second wave.”
Large areas of California are reopening, although the governor also recently issued a statewide mandate for masks to be worn in public. In many ways, it’s a glass is half-empty/half-full environment, and people choose to see what they want to see.
“We have a sign, ‘No Shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.’ We’re selling masks, a few other items, the antibacterial lotions. If we have the masks, hopefully we have a chance to sell some luggage when people come in.”
One bright spot for Savinar: a Paycheck Protection Program loan. “I was able to get a PPP loan,” Stern recounts. “It wasn’t easy. We were smart, but I wish we didn’t get it until July. It’s only for paychecks and rent, but we just don’t have enough business yet. PPP is paying employee salaries but nothing’s happening yet. But it’s a help.”
Briggs & Riley
Briggs & Riley enjoys tremendous loyalty and esteem among brick and mortar retailers, and the company showed why when it was one of the first companies to issue a COVID-19 statement on March 13, with an expanded follow-up March 24. The family-run business noted its #1 priority of ensuring employee and customer well-being, and backed it up with concrete items such as a 50% reduction on freight thresholds and giving retailers flexibility to adjust 2020 product orders before their ship dates.
In an email interview mid-June, CEO Richard Krulik said “Mid-March was like a light switch. Everything stopped in its tracks. April was somewhat the same and May showed some signs of improvement. While we’re doing better than the TSA numbers, that is a reasonable barometer of what specialty and department store retailers are experiencing.”
Notably, Briggs & Riley has been able to keep all its employees, and at full salaries. “Clearly this event is unprecedented for all of us including even for the most seasoned leaders. For years we’ve been transitioning all staff computers from desktops to laptops to allow more flexibility including for things such as snowstorms, hurricanes, etc. When shutting the office looked possible, we mobilized everyone to begin preparing to work from home and had video capability in place. An executive COVID committee was created and we have a daily video huddle to make certain we’re keeping everyone safe, first and foremost, and also productive.”
The company has delayed some product launches, and engaged with NLDA to learn how it could best support its specialty retailers. “Stopping overseas shipments was a big priority and our team in Asia did a great job with that,” Krulik said. “The biggest obstacle is simply consumers regaining the appetite to travel.”
When asked for a prognostication of what’s to come, Krulik said “It’s hard to say but my hope is that we will come back to 2019 levels by the end of 2022.” It’s a cautious outlook, but the company is also doing what it can to speed things along. “As stores are opening and the economy is starting to move forward, we recently launched our Back-to-Travel campaign. The hope is that it will draw traffic into stores and create sales for retailers. This is an unprecedented promotion for us to do at this time of year but we need to help our retailers create sales and cash flow.”
“We’re doing what we feel is right for the employees,” says Ken White, it luggage vice president and director.
The company had to make some tough decisions, including furloughing some staff. “We tried to keep all our essential, highly trained personnel, and in so doing we as management all took a 20% pay cut,” White shares. “The owners actually are taking no pay.”
it luggage managed to secure a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which has helped it retain personnel. “We can participate in the government PPP program. So far it’s worked out, but we haven’t been able to go to the office.”
The company actually found itself uncomfortably close to the action, during the pandemic’s early days just prior to The Travel Goods Show. “We’re 90 minutes from Wuhan,” White says, referring to its offices in China, “and we have a major factory in Wuhan. We had to cancel our participation at The Show, our people couldn’t leave China; and we couldn’t send our [U.S.] people down there to New Orleans, with a lot of people in one small area. We made the decision on the behalf of the employees.”
“One thing we’ve learned from the pandemic is we’re able to operate as a corporation on a remote basis, with the help of our IT people, to make sure we all have the same information.”
“Right now there are no goods moving. Retail customers are trying to reopen their doors,” White says. “Until they do that, and find out what their business is going to be, we’re trying to support them.” The company currently operates its Indiana warehouse on a skeleton crew: “up to four people per day, but in different quadrants of the warehouse for essential work; they still have to wear masks, we have hand sanitizers.”
It’s too early for it luggage to make predictions on what’s to come, but despite being unable to speak to a timeline White is optimistic. “We’re in touch with all the retailers right now. They’re trying to find out from their current stock what they really need. But right now there’s nothing I can tell you about what the future holds. We expect when we open back up all the essential trained personnel, every one of them we expect to have back.” And that’s a start.
“We’re continuing to grow and push out, all systems go,” says Matador’s Tamara Keller, the Boulder, CO, company’s director of sales. “What sets us apart, not being a corporate entity but a tiny-but-mighty crew, is we do everything in house. Videos, pictures, writing, product design, product development, it’s all done in house which allows us to be more nimble and a lot quicker.”
“Chris has just been amazing,” Keller says of company founder Chris Clearman. “He’s holding the whole team together, kept this moving along. We’re not a corporation so we’re able to keep doing what we do, just make incredible products.”
The company debuted two new series at this year’s Travel Goods Show – the SEG42 Segmented Travel Pack and its On-Grid Series – and has proceeded with their launch. “The SEG42 is our most expensive bag to date,” notes Keller. “Only one or two retailers have it from preorders, we’re seeing 97% of all sales from our website but we’ve been selling two or three a day of an almost-$200 bag. That’s pretty huge for us.”
The On-Grid series of technical urban bags – a more urban-oriented backpack, tote, duffle and hip pack – launches this month. “We’re not stopping, we’re moving forward, pressing the button on production. They’re made in Vietnam, it’s a completely different product for us; a thicker fabric, 100D nylon versus 30D Cordura, which speaks to a different audience.”
Keller is optimistic about the immediate future. “Things are definitely starting to open up. It hasn’t really popped yet, but I definitely feel folks are eager. What’s happening in Colorado, especially in the last two weeks, people are everywhere. It’s just packed outdoors. I feel people, for whatever reason, because it’s not crowded, or the prices, they just want to get out and live life again and it’s definitely starting to happen.”
Sedro Woolley, WA
It’s probably not surprising that a company that won the 2018 TGA Community Service Award would rush to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. But YaY Novelty Founder Sunchea Phou isn’t just motivated – she might be the perfect person to design a better, more comfortable mask.
Phou is an expert on technical fabrics and performance fit, a former high-performance apparel designer for Nike who outfitted Super Bowl championship-winning football teams. What’s more, technical garments she created are deployed on the International Space Station to monitor astronauts’ vital signs, with production versions recently FDA approved for clinical use.
Scant weeks after The 2020 Travel Goods Show Phou designed, and began producing, face masks sewn from performance fabric with a supremely comfortable shape and breathability. Unfortunately, using off-the-shelf materials meant the lightweight, ultra-comfortable technical fabric bore multicolored stripes more suitable for yoga pants. And the fabric’s price of $20/yard meant masks were considerably more expensive than those sewn from plain cotton, which has a material cost of just $1-$2/yard.
The masks, which retail for $5, have been a tough sell. “When you sell a more expensive mask people assume you’re taking advantage of the pandemic situation, but the fabric is expensive and not easy to sew; it takes more time,” she shares.
“There are so many cotton masks on the market, including cheap imports from overseas, the market is saturated and people just don’t know what to choose,” says Phou. “My feeling is my masks will be in the last wave, after people have tried uncomfortable, cheap masks.”
She notes that she is starting to get requests, especially from restaurants, where the hot, humid kitchen environment quickly makes ordinary masks extremely uncomfortable over the short term, much less a full restaurant shift. “Because people have an obligation to wear it, they will start to search. Restaurant owners are asking for cooler, more breathable masks.”
And Phou is forging ahead with an even more comfortable mask, for $15. Plus a premium mask with a triple layer, water repellent finish (to repel droplets) and a suede texture which improves filtration performance since the fibers are more enmeshed. She’s tooling up to offer custom, sublimated prints. “People will want something that is attractive; retailers want the prints, to have a selection for their customers.”