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Getting online fast is how retailers will survive COVID-19

A woman quickly gets online on her laptop and cell phone to help retailers survive COVID-19.

In my own corner of Montreal, it’s been tough to see the local businesses I love — my go-to bakery, my favourite bike shop — shut their doors during the current crisis. But, it’s important for retailers to remember: this is not a hopeless situation. 

We’re fortunate to be living through this at a time when technology lets us connect, and sell and buy, online. There are tools out there — some exceedingly easy to use — to help retailers open up a channel for sales that can help sustain them. 

At diff, we’ve seen the pandemic actually increase business for many of our clients, with those specializing in household goods, food delivery, health and wellness products and more doing particularly well. We’re honoured to support the growth of their brands and the performance of digital channels in particular. 

In my spare time, I’ve also been helping physical retailers in my own neighbourhood get up and running with online stores. What’s clear is that for many stores, this is an overwhelming prospect. How do I put products online? How do I process payment and fulfill orders? How do I connect with customers? Where do I even start? 

My biggest piece of advice: getting up and running is easier than you think. Really. You may not build an ecommerce empire overnight, but you can literally start selling online today, with minimal cost and headaches … especially if you’re willing to improvise. 

For retailers who aren’t sure where to start, here are four critical tips to get you back to business — fast. 

Focus on done, not perfect 

When it comes to launching an online store right now, speed is of the essence. The longer you are without a channel for sales, the longer your business will be without income. This is not the time to obsess over layout, design or getting every product description perfect. 

Rather, pick a simple, “off-the-rack” template (Shopify, our partner, has plenty to choose from) and populate it with the products consumers are most likely to need or want right now. Even a selection of 10 or 20 top-selling items is a great first step and can help keep you afloat while you work on getting your full inventory online. 

There will be time to tweak the details later. No one is expecting perfection right now. 

Go old-school with your marketing 

Getting your store online quickly is all about taking advantage of 2020 technology. When it comes to marketing, however, I’d recommend taking inspiration from the 1950s. 

Tap into good will from neighbours and let them know you’re open for business with some old-fashioned fliers. I’m serious.

With most people at home right now, it’s the perfect time to dust off the laser printer, get some colourful paper and print out fliers. Include info on your new website, operating hours and delivery or pick up plans, then distribute them to homes and mailboxes — just like the old days. 

If it seems antiquated, think about it this way: right now, I promise your customers are missing popping into their local cafes, restaurants and shops. Dropping a note in the mailbox is a way to rekindle that community connection — and could make the difference between them ordering that toilet paper or bike part they need off of Amazon versus buying from the local shop where they’ve been a loyal customer for years. 

That’s not to say you shouldn’t also put the word out online through your social media channels. But when it comes to reaching your core network of customers for support, there’s an advantage in reaching them where they live, literally. 

Don’t sweat the deliveries 

When first getting online, a lot of retailers stress about the logistics of deliveries. It’s understandable. For the past several years we’ve been living in a culture where everyone is busy and convenience is king. Deliveries had to arrive right on time or risk annoying or inconveniencing customers that were constantly on the go. 

Right now? Not so much. 

The silver lining in this situation is that people are rediscovering the luxury of time, and as a result, are far more forgiving of businesses that are trying to stay afloat and do the right thing. Curbside pickup has emerged as an increasingly popular option, while timelines for delivery have grown more accommodating. 

For retailers, this gives you the freedom to set hours for delivery or pick up that are feasible and work for you, whether that’s during a couple designated days a week or a few hours every day. One thing we’re all learning right now is the value of patience while we figure this all out. People are willing to wait for the items that will make them feel like life is a little closer to normal. 

Start building for the future 

While we’ve seen ecommerce steadily grow in market share over the past few decades, online purchases still account for only 16% of total sales. But quarantine culture has turned the tables and is likely to create lasting behaviour change. 

Without being able to shop in store, many consumers are being forced to overcome their hesitancy towards shopping online. People are using this time to finally figure out how to order groceries, shop for clothes or scan the web for deals on products to cheer them up or help ease the boredom. They’re more willing than ever to give their credit card to a website they may not have trusted before. 

In short, more people are now being exposed to the potential of ecommerce: the convenience, the efficiency and even the cost savings. That realization won’t go away once we’re back to “business as usual.”

If you haven’t started an online store yet, doing so now won’t just help your business through these strange and challenging times. It will position you to benefit from the sea change in consumer behaviour that is likely to linger beyond the pandemic. 

More than anything, I’m hoping we’ll all get through this crisis safely, and with our communities intact. Our local retailers are a huge part of that. I’m committed, both personally and professionally, to helping them survive. 

If you have any questions for me, or tips or resources for retailers that I haven’t covered here, please send me an email. I’d love to get a dialogue going on how we can support our business community right now. 

Stay safe everyone.

This article originally appeared in the Diff Agency blog and has been published here with permission.

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