The coronavirus crisis hit independent retailers hard. Despite government support, having to close their doors for months had a crippling effect on many and forced them to take action to keep afloat.
For Steve Sanderson, founder of the independent menswear retailer Oi Polloi, lockdown pressed fast forward on an already tough situation for small businesses. The company’s store in Manchester has always been at its heart, but it also has a strong online and social presence. “Bricks and mortar operations are really difficult,” he says. “What’s going on at the moment is sort of a super fast wormhole journey into the future.”
Sanderson says that things are going to be particularly tough for fashion stores, with an inevitable drop in footfall, plus the issues of being Covid-19-secure, such as being unable to let customers try on clothes unless the items are quarantined or cleaned afterwards. “If people can’t try things on, why would they come in to a clothes shop?” he asks.
There are, though, some rays of hope. “We have a good connection with customers through our bricks and mortar business, and certain people will always like that. But we can’t afford to just be open – we have to find a way of making it work.
“We’ll have to adapt and become something else, something people can’t get from anywhere else. I like the idea of click and collect because you can do something quite interesting with that. You could then also narrow down the time the store itself is open.”
For Michelle Drew, co-founder of Established 25 Atelier, which sells fashion and home accessories, the coronavirus crisis forced her to reassess her ambitions. Before lockdown, Drew, who started in 2017 making scarves and bags for friends and family, was selling at a quarterly design market in Greenwich and had a monthly stall at Spitalfields market. When Covid-19 brought things grinding to a halt, her first thought was that she needed to get her website up and running, and really engage online. “I didn’t have a choice,” she says.
Since then, Drew has joined online workshops and used the time to rethink her plans. “Previously, I thought I’d love to collaborate with other designers and have a premises. I’m now wondering if that’s the way forward, because so much has changed and I’m not sure things will ever be the same.”
While Drew plans to return to physical selling at some point, she sees her business relying more on online trading. “It’s still a precarious situation. I definitely will return to the markets because I enjoy the contact, but I’m looking at other ways to move the business forward.”
Bigger retailers, too, have faced challenges, for all their greater resources. Some have come through with flying colours, though, particularly if they had the right technology to hand.
For Tesco, the coronavirus crisis brought an unprecedented surge in demand, but the company was well placed to react quickly. It already had emergency plans in place thanks to a “doomsday” management exercise four years ago. It had also embraced remote working, and had the technology to handle communication with 460,000 staff, suppliers, people services and security operations. These systems allowed the company to double its capacity for delivery and click and collect in just six weeks. Improvements to the computer algorithms used to drive picking technology – plus the army of pickers hired to cope with the increased demand – mean that whatever the future brings, the chain appears to have the flexibility to deal with it.
Similarly, the online flower delivery company Bloom & Wild proved its resilience. For its founder Aron Gelbard, protecting jobs by staying open was important, as was providing people with a way of showing they care for the loved ones they couldn’t see in lockdown.
With its tailored CRM system, which manages queries from a range of channels, Bloom & Wild now employs more than 25 customer service agents who manage between 3,000 and 3,500 inquiries every week – rising dramatically during peak times such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and, undoubtedly, lockdown.
The company uses Zendesk to manage its customer relationships, allowing agents to deal with inquiries across Twitter, email, phone, online chat, Facebook Messenger and SMS. Alongside this, analytics help the company forecast customer demand and plan for peaks.
As a business that exists purely in the virtual world, it’s an example to retailers everywhere of what can be achieved by clever use of technology.
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