Online Outreach in the Age of COVID-19

You have to be where your customers are. And with the ongoing pandemic they’re not going out much or shopping in physical stores, but spending most waking hours at home and work. Or online.

Social media engagement ballooned across all platforms (the lone exception being LinkedIn) more than 20% in the immediate aftermath of shelter-in-place in March and April. Traffic is still high now even as reopening takes place. People are housebound, surfing online.

Now more than ever, it’s critical to have an Open for Business sign planted on the Internet with an electronic shopping presence to help make up for the lack of physical walk-in traffic.

The good news is it’s never been easier to open an electronic storefront. Being active online won’t be enough to make up for the loss of physical customers, but it’s a step in the right direction. And there’s a good chance the new business you build will still be there once physical shopping starts up again, so it’s an investment in future sales that will continue to pay off when normal life resumes.

Connect, Engage and Sell

In the pandemic age, it pays to keep an active social life – online. Conventional retail operations revolve around one thing: Traffic. And right now, foot traffic has been displaced by finger traffic – fingers swiping on screens and tickling keyboards. Awesome shopfront displays have been replaced by social media click bait.

The downside is you can’t build a social media presence overnight. The plus side is the Internet is like the world’s most democratic Main Street – there’s room for everyone’s store window. And with stores being quiet right now, there’s more time to devote to building a social media presence.

Luggage Shop of Lubbock
Different social media platforms draw different demographics, so it pays to double-post with language and presentation aimed at that particular audience, as Luggage Shop of Lubbock does here with its 20% off back-to-school backpack promotion on Instagram and Facebook.
Amber Workman, manager of Luggage Shop of Lubbock, gets right out in front of the camera in the store’s social media posts, such as this umbrella promo on Facebook: “Howdy Lubbock! Let’s make a deal! If it rains this week everyone gets 10% off one umbrella in store! Pray for rain!”

“I’m posting, right now, four times a week,” says Amber Workman, manager at the Luggage Shop of Lubbock, in Lubbock, TX, which maintains social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram. “You can almost draw a line through the age groups, who is on what,” she notes. “If they’re 22-23 and younger, they’ll be on Instagram all day long. A little bit over that and they’ll be Facebookers.” Workman posts the same products to both platforms, but advises tailoring the posts for those ages.

Different social media platforms draw different demographics, so it pays to double-post with language and presentation aimed at that particular audience, as Luggage Shop of Lubbock does here with its 20% off back-to-school backpack promotion on Instagram and Facebook.

“Right now, staying in touch is absolutely the most important thing,” says Workman, whose store closed down around the middle of March and is currently operating on very reduced hours. “I figured out how I could work from home, but that only lasted a couple days,” she laughs. “I’d come in a couple days and work in my office, I was here with the door closed for several weeks.” Workman spent her time working on social media connections and posting products to the store’s just-launched e-commerce site.

Workman has the store phones forwarded to her cell, so she never misses a call. “If a customer calls on the phone I’ll figure it out, ship it or they can call me from the parking lot and I’ll run it out to them.” There’s still very little foot traffic in the store, so Workman makes the most of every call. “They can call me on the phone and say ‘I need a gift,’ and we’ll shop together. We’ve done a lot of FaceTime, it lets them ask a lot of questions and I can show them, ‘Here are the color options, the gift wrap options.’”

For Satbir Hundal, at San Rafael Luggage in San Rafael, CA, the ability to modify store hours has allowed him to take advantage of local activity. “My downtown area, we used to have a farmers market during the summer every Thursday. This year, with the virus, they don’t want the farmers market but they close the streets after five o’clock, and restaurants bring their tables into the road. They do pretty good business and it became so popular they increased to Thursday and Friday, so on those two days I will come and open the store until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.

“We make very small sales, but this is an investment right now. They’ll remember us, and will come back when they travel,” says Hundal. “Right now we’re focused on duffel bags and backpacks, ladies’ bags like Baggallini.” Herschel, Jansport and Fjällräven are other brands that are doing well for Hundal, as they’re products with everyday utility.

On the manufacturer side, some companies are working hard to support retailers with drop ship. Briggs & Riley did a nationwide summer sale and offered drop ship. Dan Scully, at Scully Leather, said their drop-ship volume has come up a lot since March. “We were already drop-ship capable before, but realized a lot of our accounts weren’t taking advantage. We walked some through the process if they weren’t as savvy, tech-wise. It’s taken time. Some of them picked up on it and appreciated it. It helped us out so it’s a win-win for everybody.”

For many manufacturers, the pandemic situation has accelerated the trend to go consumer direct, which can be delicate if you don’t want to lose your hard-earned retailer base. But delicate doesn’t have to be difficult.

“It’s not really that hard,” says Matador’s Chris Clearman. “You make a MAP policy and you follow your MAP policy. Our website’s primary job is to tell the marketing story. We know certain people come to our site to do the research, then pop over to the other site to make the purchase. There are a lot of retailers our customers might prefer to buy from, they don’t need quick shipping and they might prefer to order from someone they’ve ordered from in the past.”

Stores Versus Malls

With more than $60 billion in sales last year, Shopify took in more money online than any platform except Amazon (eBay, the next-closest competitor, brought in less than $11 billion). Yet most people haven’t heard of it. That’s because the company isn’t a consumer website, but a back-end ecosystem that helps retailers run online stores. Many of its customers are household brands: Crabtree & Evelyn, Hasbro, Heinz, Nescafe, Pepsi, Red Bull and Unilever all run online stores powered by Shopify.

Shopify Checkout Options
Configuring Shopify modules like the checkout system is simple and intuitive, thanks to easily understood menu options.

It’s super easy to sell online through Amazon, eBay and Etsy, but these are portals to digital stores in the way a mall is the gatekeeper for its retail tenants. Shopify runs in the background, and lets its customers be the destination store – a huge difference. Like a mall shop, being part of the Amazon or eBay ecosystem provides potential exposure to a larger audience, but there’s a literal price to be paid in commissions and fees; and there’s no shortage of competitors trying to undercut your price.

The other problem with these online malls: They own the customer experience. It’s impossible to build a real identity within the ironclad confines of Amazon, eBay and Etsy’s design templates. You might make the sale, but the customer loyalty you’re building belongs to the landlord, who also controls most – if not all – of the customer data and communication.

If you don’t want to lose out on that audience that prefers to shop on Amazon then you have to be there. But you’re better served if you can engage that consumer directly. “We’ve always had select products on there and do good revenue, but we price 5% higher than MSRP,” says Clearman of Matador, who cites this strategy as a way to capture people who use Amazon for product research, or are Amazon-only shoppers.

Shopify is catching on partly because retailers are wising up to the importance of building their own brands. But the other part of Shopify’s appeal is its powerful flexibility and user-friendly build. Shopify makes money when you make money, so it makes it easy to sell across multiple platforms, even social media like Instagram and Facebook.

Simpler Than Microsoft Word

Katie Lentine, manager/owner at Groskopf’s Fine Luggage and Gifts, switched to Shopify 2-3 years ago which allowed her to administrate its e-commerce site in-house. “It’s actually very easy to do and we’ve been very happy with the change.”

“Running a Shopify site is just as easy – even easier – than Microsoft Word,” says Katie Lentine, manager/owner of Groskopf’s Fine Luggage and Gifts in Grand Rapids, MI. “We’ve been on Shopify two years, maybe three. We had e-commerce before that, but it’s a lot easier to manage on our own, and the fees are low compared to others.”

As Chris Clearman of Matador explains, “We chose Shopify because it was the only really capable e-commerce platform where you didn’t need a coder to build a website. You can build the site to do most anything you want to do, no custom coding work.” Clearman, who’s obviously very tech savvy, goes on to note that Matador has “thousands and thousands of lines of custom code, 28 apps running in the background and the site still works 100% of the time.”

Amber Workman sits at the opposite end of the technology spectrum. “I’m not at all computer literate,” she admits. That said, her store went from no e-commerce capability when COVID-19 shutdowns began, to launching a well-populated Shopify site on May 1.

Luggage Shop of Lubbock went from no e-commerce presence pre-pandemic, to opening a Shopify-powered store on May 1, with approximately 300 items. “Yes yes yes yes yes!” says owner Tiffany Zarfas Williams, when asked if they’d do this again. “I think Shopify has made it so easy to give a small retailer the opportunity to have a website.”

“It’s very user friendly. I would just explore, clicking around to find the right button, and about 80% of the time I would find it. I wasn’t scared,” Workman recounts.

“Shopify has made it so easy to give a small retailer the opportunity to have a website,” says Luggage Shop of Lubbock owner Tiffany Zarfas Williams. “We had an informational website before, and we’d used a local agency in Lubbock to put that up for us. They did what was needed on the back end to have some e-commerce in the future, and their recommendation was Shopify.”

Workman says, “Our webmaster did the first three items for us. We were supposed to launch with 100, I had about 300 – about a third of our active items.” Workman, who did the majority of the site uploads while the store was officially closed for shelter-in-place contends Shopify’s interface is very quick and intuitive. “It’s super easy. A single item, like a luggage tag, I could add to the store in one minute. A suitcase with three colors and different sizes, it might take 5-10 minutes.”

And Shopify is accessible, with user-friendly how-to articles like: How to Start an Online Store.

Powerful Integrations

A big part of Shopify’s versatility is its ecosystem of plug-in modules and available templates which makes it easy for retailers to customize a web page for consumers – and themselves.

Matador’s Chris Clearman’s experience includes working with WordPress and Squarespace, among other e-commerce engines. And to him there’s simply nothing else that compares with Shopify for building an e-commerce site.

Shopify Sales Channels
Besides your own website – which may or may not be built on Shopify – Shopify can integrate inventory and data across multiple sales channels.
Shopify Smart Search
Shopify’s own search engine is extremely helpful and can quickly lead back-end store admins to solutions.

“WordPress, in comparison, is a nightmare. It’s cheaper but man do you pay for it,” he says, referring to the thousands of WordPress plug-ins that are ostensibly free, but then require hours of coding to implement. “To get these things to actually integrate and work properly, you have to be a web developer. You’re not going to build a complex WordPress site without web development.”

Clearman adds, “I can create a Shopify site using a template and modules, from scratch, and in 3-4 hours I can have it better than 90% of the websites out there.” Clearman isn’t alone in this contention, as he points out the majority of software developers working on e-commerce modules all develop their Shopify plug-ins first, because this is the platform with the momentum.

And those Shopify plug-ins are powerful, easy to use and bake into your site.

One of the most useful plug-ins is TaxJar. TaxJar tracks, and automatically updates, state sales tax rates – including variables such as which states charge sales tax on shipping charges, or which states are origin- or destination-based sales tax states. “It’s amazing,” says Clearman, who cites an example where businesses along a bus route are subject to additional sales tax, a situation that would be impossible to manage without TaxJar.

Shopify TaxJar
TaxJar simplifies one of the most daunting aspects of interstate e-commerce: sales tax.

Another terrific example of Shopify’s flexibility is shipping integration. It will calculate shipping, even generating customs forms for international shipments, and includes real-time rates from USPS, UPS, DHL and Canada Post. Shopify Shipping provides access to discounted rates and allows users to pay for postage, print shipping labels, and track shipments.”

“We were already a UPS customer, and Shopify offers really great USPS options as well,” says Workman, of Luggage Shop of Lubbock. “I didn’t have any training, I just got my first sale and it just went through, it was the easiest thing. You can see rates for USPS and UPS, pick the one you want, it prints the label and I drop it at the post office on my way home. UPS will come pick it up.”

Shopify even integrates with most POS and inventory systems.

Shopify’s level of sophistication is such that you can easily build a seamless shopping experience without being technically sophisticated yourself. Customers can receive automated shipping updates, opt in to your marketing email list, even receive abandoned shopping cart follow-up messages. Doing this takes little more than checking boxes and manipulating drop-downs.

And because Shopify is not a portal trying to keep your customers for itself, it’s incredibly flexible when it comes to sales channels. It integrates with POS systems (including inventory), and enables sales through Facebook Shop and product tags on Instagram. And you can embed Buy buttons on other web pages, so you can add a Shopify store to an existing website without tearing up what you already have.

“We did a ‘Travel Safe’ digital flyer recently,” says Katie Lentine at Groskopf’s, “and we can add the links right into Shopify.”

Follow the Traffic

There is no magic bullet to getting through the pandemic economy, there’s no one process or platform that will bring back sales. But if you can be where your customers are at online, you can stay connected with your existing base and build new customer relationships for the future.

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