Online Shopping In The Age Of Coronavirus: 10 Strategies On Becoming “Essential”


The fall of Brandless. The marginalized middle. The renaissance, resurgence, and redefinition of “essential.”

What 2019 foretold, 2020 fulfilled. Then, the world changed.

The impact of coronavirus has been so seismic that predictions surrounding ecommerce can’t exactly be faulted. Where many previously hailed slowing growth and the separation of low-end versus high-end, COVID-19 has given birth to a new category … defying expectations and divides.

es·sen·tial good, noun: a physical item required to sustain life

e-com·merce es·sen·tial, noun: a product deemed worthy of purchase amidst life-threatening conditions

This is not to undermine the gravity of the pandemic. Rather, it is to stress that for many businesses these times are a matter of survival — for themselves, their employees, and the families who depend on them.

A full recounting of up-ended charts, reports, and whitepapers would be fruitless.

Instead, let’s get right to the point …

10 online shopping tactics to become “essential” with examples, insights, and results:

  1. Message “the Moment” with Honesty: Bambu Earth
  2. Stay Calm, Carry On, and Incentivize: Supply
  3. Lean into the “At-Home” Zeitgeist: Homesick
  4. Support Essentials by Adapting & Uniting: Igloo
  5. Do Good to Do Well via Displaced Groups: Born Primitive
  6. Go Strong on Brand, Hard on Performance: Love Wellness
  7. Maintain & Measure Your Marketing Mix: Dorsal Bracelets
  8. Enter Your Audience’s World on Their Terms: Tracksmith & Summersalt
  9. Fill the Social Void by Showing It Off, Online: Melon Optics
  10. Test Traffic Today for an Uncertain Bright Tomorrow: CROSSNET

Essential Ecommerce Strategies for Coronavirus PDF

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1. Messaging “the Moment” with Honesty

To begin, the tactics, strategies, and offers that worked two weeks ago will not work today. Deep shifts in online shopping call for equally deep thinking at every stage of the funnel.

How can you reimagine yesterday’s creative to convert today in ads, emails, landing pages, header bars, pop-ups, and even at checkout?

Does the new normal demand discounting? What about addressing safety and shipping concerns? Should you explicitly mention the virus or use softer language around health and home?

As with all things, the answer is: it depends.

To establish a baseline, we examined 418 homepages from 2PM, Inc.’s DNVB Power List — a database that tracks companies based on “employment, growth, funding, and Internet Retailer’s annual ranking.”

Of those brands …

  • 33.97% are currently running a discount or sale (excluding free shipping or email sign up incentives)
  • 10.29% explicitly mention coronavirus, COVID-19, or a direct equivalent (e.g., illness, pandemic, etc.)
  • And a mere 3.83% feature health, safety, or quarantine (at-home) language

Should You Discount or “Message the Moment” During COVID-19?

The DNVB Power List is paid a subscription: more data around verticals and deal structure will be released soon; the names of those companies will not

As added inspiration, we also took screenshots of 116 of the 142 sites currently discounting to represent a sample of the deal structures and positioning.



Download the screenshots directly using this Dropbox link.

Like most online retailers, COVID-19 hit Bambu Earth hard. Comparing Mar. 1-10 to Mar. 11 onward, daily average revenue dropped 25%.

“We’d decided to reduce ad spend, fix customer acquisition over the longer term, and focus on profitability in the short,” explains Andrew Faris, CEO of 4×400 — Bambu Earth’s holding company. “That was the story, anyway, until 5:38pm last Tuesday.”

That’s when Bambu Earth’s Brand Manager, Kohlman Verheyen, and its founder, Amber Hawthorne, sent this email with the glaringly simple subject line: “Coronavirus Update. Please open.”

Bambu Earth — Coronavirus Update. Please open.

Filmed on Hawthorne iPhone and sent in four waves (based on subscriber engagement level), the message included lines like:

  • We’re still shipping, but we don’t know for how long.
  • We don’t want you to panic buy. But we also don’t want you to run out of essentials.

The email took fire: $33.8k in revenue on the back of a single “Watch Now” call to action.

2. Stay Calm, Carry On, and Incentivize

High price point SKUs and those that thrive in social settings face acute challenges: e.g., fitness clothing, shoes and accessories, personal grooming, etc.

Could positioning your offer as a call to normalcy to encourage the comfort of routines? What role should educating consumers about the benefits of luxury play? Is there a way to incentivize shoppers without undercutting value?

Supply’s single-edge razors clock in at ~3x-5x the industry’s usual price-point. In good times, it’s a challenge overcome by educational marketing.

In bad times, it’s a show stopper.

To cross the conversion gulf, Supply tested and iterated on multiple concepts. The winner? A free year of blades featured in stand-alone ads and integrated automatically within the cart:

Supply Ecommerce Coronavirus Ad and Page Example

The results?

After an initial 5.07 ROAS, the offer was combined with an educational landing page highlighting the free year of blades. At scale, it’s held strong with a blended ROAS of 3.12 across multiple ad creatives.

“We went from a year low in sales two weeks ago to having our best weekend since Cyber Monday,” says Supply founder, Patrick Coddou. “I almost hesitate to share that. There are so many operators struggling right now.“

“Not everybody will find opportunities. But everybody should be looking earnestly. They’re out there. Don’t give up.”

As for discounts, while perhaps not a first-order strategy, where do you have margin to assuage thrifty buyers?

Could bundling or tiered-discounts help offset the cost by increasing AOV? Would buy-now, pay-later campaigns entice?

Alya Skin’s “Afterpay Day Slay” campaign brought together three price-sensitive elements: (1) a sitewide sale, (2) multiple bundles, and (3) installment plans.

During the event, the ads maintained an average 2.22 ROAS on over $91k in spend.

Alya Skin Ecommerce Coronavirus Ad and Page Example

3. Lean into the “At-Home” Zeitgeist

Software-as-service platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Loom fit naturally into work-from-home environments. And they’ve reaped the rewards.

In what ways can you lean in as well? If you sell fashion, how can you leverage Walmart’s macro-data on “tops over bottoms”? If you’re an outdoor product, how can you bring it inside or into a customer’s backyard?

And, how can you bring all that into your creative … to bring it to life?

The irony of candle-maker Homesick’s success is that with everyone stuck in the house, that only makes us miss home all the more.

Our real homes that is.

In response to that feeling, Homesick intensified its already strong position as a way to “connect with the people, places, and memories that matter most”:

Homesick Ecommerce Coronavirus Ad and Page Example

In tandem with the ads, Homesick also released a short email sequence and landing page to capture momentum, automatically apply two specials, and message the moment:

Homesick Stay Safe Email and Together Landing Page

Since the initiative went live, Homesick has reduced CAC from $19.65 to $13.17 and simultaneously increased:

  • Conversion rate by 68.4%
  • Traffic (users) by 99.5%
  • Revenue by 127.3%

4. Support Essentials by Adapting & Uniting

Of course, the pressing question is: what if you don’t sell something “essential” in any sense of the word?

Are there ways to front-load your products as “at-home” adaptations? Can you create limited-run variants to fit the times?

What about family-friendly or kid-focused editions? Could you bundle best-selling SKUs as care packages? Have you considered collaborating either with more of-the-moment products and brands or joining forces with truly essential organizations?

Combining these tactics, Igloo Coolers launched a donation campaign in support of the CDC’s Coronavirus Response Fund.

Igloo Playmate CDC Donations Email

“Within 24 hours,” says Brian Garofalow, VP of Marketing and Ecommerce at Igloo, “it 4.6x’d YoY growth, 2.8x over projections. Refersion has also pledged to donate our monthly fees to help supporters spread the word after they buy.”

As an added touch, a number of Igloo’s Playmate coolers part of the donation collection are also family-friendly collaborations with Disney, Star Wars, Volkswagon, and more.

Together, those factors enabled the below ad sets to hit 3.61, 4.74, and 3.53 ROAS on a still-going-strong $37.5k spend.

Igloo Ecommerce Coronavirus Ad and Page Example

5. Do Good to Do Well via Displaced Groups

Out-of-home industries like music, sports, and food have been disproportionately affected by closures.

Could those groups not only be helped by ecommerce companies but enlisted as influencers and micro-influencers? Might that include not only marketing efforts but content production as well? Where is your customer base hurting … and how can you meet those needs for them and you?

Take Born Primitive’s “Back the Gyms Stimulus” as a shining example.

Wanting to do more than a mere work-out-from-home campaign, Bear Handlon — co-owner and CEO — decided to put the brand’s money where its heart is: a 50%-profit share with gyms across the country.

“The gym owner is the foundation of the entire community,” says Bear. “Our brand was born in this space, and without these gyms and their members, we might not have ever existed in the first place.”

Born Primitive Instagram and Facebook Back the Gyms Stimulus Ads

Kicked off via email and organic social, Born Primitive has spent conservatively on paid promotions.

Nonetheless, with five days left and a 53% increase in spending, the campaign has already lifted …

  • ROAS by 66%
  • Overall revenue by 130%
  • Facebook revenue by 154%

Doing well by doing good indeed.

Born Primitive Back the Gyms Stimulus

6. Go Strong on Brand, Hard on Performance

Numerous retail enterprises have used the current climate to reinforce their brands and pull back on budgets. In fact, 81% of large organizations expect to cut ad costs “significantly” and ~50% of ecommerce businesses are either spending less or not spending at all.

Should you adjust your strategy likewise? Is “selling” during a crisis a recipe for backlash? Could money be better allocated building organic community? Is now the time to focus on brand over performance

Or … are those questions themselves fallacies?

Feminine health retailer Love Wellness has always gone strong on brand.

In recent years, its founder, Lo Bosworth, has graced a pantheon of mainstream publishers. Earlier in March, that PR commitment culminated in a rebrand unveiled in New York City’s Times Square:

Love Wellness Times Square

As a testament to the continued power of brand-meets-performance, its current BOGO campaign relies on a straightforward offer.

However, instead of a product page, shoppers arrive on a landing page with a heartfelt video letter from Bosworth “during this moment” right at the top:

Love Wellness BOGO Ads and Founder Video Letter

Only after the message does the offer re-emerge.

That savvy combination puts a face to the brand and builds audience equity. At the same time, it also scales to the tune of a 140% lift in ROAS compared to non-BOGO ads without reducing spend.

At the business level, Q1 2020 has seen Love Wellness grow its overall customer base 5X year-over-year, with more than 380% lift in first-time customers.

7. Maintain & Measure Your Marketing Mix

Already, the multiplication of channels presents two challenges. First, compounding results through a funnel that links demand generation with demand capture. Second, measuring your mix holistically (i.e., beyond myopic, single-channel attribution).

With social and search usage skyrocketing during quarantine, how best can you align them? Can organic followings be leveraged for more than just vanity metrics? What about post-purchase activities through rewards, referrals, and SMS?

More to the point … how should you measure these cross-channel efforts?

Launched a year and a half ago, Dorsal Bracelets began with a cause: removing one pound of trash from the ocean for every purchase. By Mar. of 2019, it’d earned a solid social following but sales were modest: ~$11k per month.

“I wanted to build a brand with streams of revenue that Facebook could fuel,” says founder Chad Ross, “but I didn’t want it to end there.”

Through the second half of 2019, Dorsal did exactly that: anchoring its spend on Facebook and extending into halo efforts on …

  • Google for branded search
  • Attentive for simple SMS marketing
  • Worldwide advertising to extend its reach
  • Rewards to foster retention and lifetime value
  • And an ambassador program for referrals as well as influence

Dorsal Multi-Channel Mix

To measure its efforts, Dorsal uses a metric known as MER: marketing earned revenue. In short, total sales divided by total advertising. “I’m so glad we took that route,” explains Ross.

“Last December was our biggest month ever. We crossed $100k for the first time. The biggest until March of 2020. We’ll end this month with an all-time high of $170k.”

“We’ve maintained our relevance, even in the face of the crisis, by being everywhere our customers turn.”

Don’t abandon your strategy because the climate has changed. Forge ahead by the numbers as long as the numbers are strong.

8. Enter Your Audience’s World on Their Terms

What type of content could you produce to better serve and engage your audience: videos, guides, tutorials, infographics, courses, etc.? Should you sell them, use them as list-building materials, or leverage them as incentives to nudge hesitant shoppers?

Is it wise to create educational coronavirus-related assets for non-paid distribution and discovery — e.g., emails, blogs, organic social, etc.?

Or, is it better to invest in support content that doesn’t name the issue directly?

As an organic expression, Tracksmith’s Culture Club highlights running-related books, movies, and podcasts though an Instagram Stories campaign:

Tracksmith Culture Club and Founder Letter

Tracksmith’s founder, Matt Taylor, also released an open letter via social: “And so when things do normalize, let’s be ready to pick up right where we left off.”

“I don’t know about you,” Lee Glandorf, Tracksmith’s Communications Lead, told Cualate in an article about shifting strategies amidst COVID-19, “but sometimes, even though running is the nicest thing to do when you’re stuck at home, it’s nice to have a little something to get you motivated or excited to run. A reminder of why we run and a little inspiration.”

Summersalt’s Joycast is easily the supreme example of this strategy.

Summersalt Ecommerce Coronavirus Ad and Page Example

Managed via SMS, the program has already garnered mainstream media attention from the likes of Fast Company, Forbes, and others. What’s more, the brand has also updated its home page and featured collection with messaging to meet the moment:

Summersalt Home Page

9. Fill the Social Void by Showing It Off, Online

Vanity products — for lack of a better term — depend heavily on social queues to drive buyers. That’s as true for Tesla and Ferrari as it is for Tom Ford and LVHM.

How can products that rely on social non-distancing still shine? Can that need be addressed through “show it off on social” threads, Stories, or live digital events?

Could these methods also fill the communal void by fostering relationships while at the same time encouraging UGC?

Custom sunglasses and goggles maker, Melon Optics, did this masterfully via an organic Instagram hashtag — #restingbeast — led by its head of marketing Ash Van Palmer.

Melon Optics Coronavirus Ecommerce Examples

“It took no effort, cost us nothing, got our community to feel involved and gave us content to post,” says James Pointer, Melon Optics’ founder. “In addition, it opened up a ton of DMs and got us engaging in conversation with our community directly.”

10. Test Traffic Today for an Uncertain Bright Tomorrow

We’ve potentially entered an era of cheap clicks and low-conversions — tight-fisted visitors all too happy to window shop.

To leverage inexpensive traffic, what tests can you run: video watch times, homepage CTAs, value propositions, email pop-ups, quizzes, or landing pages? Perhaps checkout as well as cart abandonment emails?

Equally important, how you can prepare now for a post-COVID-19 future?

As a model for walking that line, consider CROSSNET: a hybrid of four square and volleyball that’s typically played on the beach.

Since quarantine began, the brand has increased ad spend 2-3x. It’s also — as co-founder Chris Meade explained to Privy in a case study on thriving in uncertain times — “switched our sales approach from ‘BUY NOW’ to a message filled with optimism and that better days are ahead. People are looking forward to the summer, spending time with their friends and the world returning to normal.

As a result, sales have increased by +500%: “We had our best day in company history, five days in a row during the week of March 16th.”

CROSSNET Ad Examples

A New Time, A New Definition: Essential Ecommerce

For some of us, this will be a time when we grab market share previously dominated by enterprise retailers. We may see growth and opportunity like never before.

For others, we’ll be facing a day-to-day battle with cash flow … fighting hard to retain customers, remain profitable, and stay afloat.

We can’t change the current climate. What we can do is not hold back.

The winners will be those who peel back wallet-clasped fingers by removing every impediment to action while remaining sensitive to wider needs, causes, and realities. Constraints generate creative solutions — utilizing the data available to inform their business decisions and innovating within them.

These 10 brands offer clarity in the face of uncertainty. Proof that it’s possible to take control of your own realities amidst surrealities.

This article originally appeared in the Common Thread Collective Blog and has been published here with permission.

About the author

Aaron Orendorff

Aaron is the VP of Marketing at CTC. Previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, his content has appeared on Forbes, Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, The New York Times, and more. Connect with Aaron on Twitter or LinkedIn (especially if you want to talk about bunnies or #LetsGetRejected).