E-commerce News and Insights
Jul 15, 2020

How Growing Businesses Can Fill Gaps as Traditional Established Brands Struggle

There’s no doubt about it: the current economic climate is tough for all businesses. But if there has ever been a time to be a nimble, growing, online company, that time is now.

Traditional retail shops were already struggling before COVID-19, but the economic slowdown has sounded further alarm bells for some national chains, and their brick and mortar locations. The effects of both the pandemic and the ongoing shift in consumer preference towards online shopping are reflected in overall trends, which reveal that department store sales have fallen 30.1% year over year.

JCPenny, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, Pier 1 Imports, GameStop, and Walgreens are just a few of the retail giants that are permanently closing more than 100 locations this year. And depending on how the economy takes shape over the next few years, more closures could be on the way.  

As physical retail shops close, online businesses may be well-positioned to fill the gaps. This is true, even despite—or potentially because of—an economy that is changing fast. Here’s a look at how independent online companies can thrive in the new economy by filling the gaps left behind by traditional retailers.  

Utilize Established Online Systems and Continue to Develop Digitally

E-commerce remains a rare bright spot in an economy struggling amid COVID-19. The past couple of months, with the country mostly under quarantine orders, have seen record-breaking e-commerce volume. In April and May, US consumers spent more than $53 billion online. And, in May alone, online sales jumped by 92.7%

Because many e-commerce merchants already had fully functional online operations and online-driven revenue streams, they were well-positioned for 2020’s unique economic circumstances. But online brands should continue to fine-tune their digital experience.

To begin, ensure that the customer journey is seamless from start to finish. If you or your employees don’t think your flow is the easiest thing ever, your customers will struggle. Make sure you test everything and if possible, gather feedback from actual customers. From the initial product research to order checkout, to the returns process, each individual step should feed seamlessly into the next.

Once you’ve identified an area of improvement, flush out a digital solution. Whether this means upgrading software or improving web design, you’ll likely want to move fast. Remember, the internet is the ultimate comparison-shopping tool, allowing the customer to move quickly between options. Make sure that your potential customers have zero problems finding what they want—or making a transaction.

Never forget, one of your company’s superpowers is its ability to make near-immediate changes to your customer’s digital experience. No more putting off digital upgrades until next quarter. As a digital-first company, you are uniquely positioned to gather data from the consumer—and this can be a goldmine in terms of insights around shopping and buying habits that will help inform your decisions.

Personalize Your Message

We’ve all been getting cookie-cutter corporate communications from established brands, during COVID-19 and throughout other current events.

Whereas retail giants are often stuck in old ways of thinking and presenting, small growing brands can be agile with their communications. And to younger consumers, this type of communication matters. 

Growing brands can begin by filling gaps in the marketing strategies of legacy brands. For example, imagine a large alcohol brand that generally advertises at bars, festivals, and large sporting events, all of which are largely obsolete in a COVID-19 world. Seeing an opening, a growing alcohol brand could develop a marketing strategy to reflect the reality of imbibing while we’re sheltered in place. Instead of parties, a brand could position itself as the choice beverage of virtual Happy Hours. (Zoomtini, anybody?)

For another example, consider the e-commerce businesses successfully marketing to the huge subset of the population that is newly working from home. This includes sleepwear, yoga, and underwear brands. The emphasis on comfort and wear-ability is appealing to consumers who may be less interested in brands, like Victoria’s Secret, who are often seen as emphasizing “sexiness” over comfort.

Perhaps these companies got lucky considering the fortunate positioning of their product lines, but credit must also be given to their relatable, humanized marketing campaigns. The use of models in a variety of sizes and skin-tones along with welcoming language and branding (MeUndies says that they are “for every body”) has matched up well with the ethos of the current moment: We are all doing the best that we can to get through a difficult time, so we might as well be comfortable in our own skin.

Rapidly changing times pose a challenge, but also an opportunity, to strike a chord with customers. Small business growth won’t be possible without a cogent, timely marketing message. 

Pivot, Because You Can

Trends and tastes were changing fast even before COVID-19, and now the entire retail sector has been flipped on its head. Even the best-positioned companies will need to make pivots in their strategy and offerings. 

Take Peloton. The company dealt with its fair share of fallout at the end of 2019 due to an ad campaign that evoked accusations of sexism. But now, a visit to their homepage promotes the concept of working out at home—as well as current events—in a very poignant way. Featuring slogans “Bring Home Classes That Move You” and “We refuse to sit back and remain idle while racism runs free,” the company is showing the world that it “gets it.” 

Another example is online bridal brand Azazie. Understanding that price would likely be a concern during the pandemic, the company has been able to offer some simpler styles that are less expensive than many traditional wedding dress options. On top of that, the brand has been connecting more closely with its audience via Instagram Live, to discuss the state of weddings during a pandemic, and provide guidance on points to think about when considering a wedding postponement. 

Will this be the same, post-COVID? It’s difficult to say. But making a fast, decided shift in response to changes in customer demand is a learned experience that Peloton and Azazie can carry forth into the future. Every business must learn to evolve its offerings with shifting preferences. 

Sometimes, it can be hard to make a big change in your business. As business owners, it is easy to get attached to one idea of what a business should be instead of listening to customers. But if COVID-19 has given us anything, it’s a pressure-cooker environment that demands change, and fast. There is not a whole lot of room to be precious, and business owners must adapt to give customers what it is that they want. 

No matter the size of your business, the key here, is to view change in its many forms as one of your greatest opportunities. Embrace the new ways that people are viewing your product, your brand, and the retail experience—and build on it. 

Stay On Top of Customer Service

To take your business to the next level, double down on customer service. Growing businesses can offer a special, human touch that may not be a priority for Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret. 

Ask yourself, how can you make shopping on your site so satisfying that customers keep coming back for more? Could fantastic customer service be one of the primary drivers for repeat customers? 

There are opportunities for specialized service at every step of the customer’s journey. For example, instead of sending a boring order confirmation email, send a blog post or video about the brand or product purchased. Or, design a confirmation that makes the customer laugh. Use this necessary touchpoint as an opportunity to make a connection with the human on the other end of the transaction.

Here’s another idea. Consider integrating a try-before-you-buy program, à la Warby Parker. Without fitting rooms and retail shops, customers need a way to purchase your product without being on the hook for something they don’t ultimately love. If not try-before-you-buy, consider a robust return or exchange policy. It may feel counterintuitive, but customers will feel more at ease knowing they have options. 

Alternatively, you could consider a rewards program for repeat customers. If your customers love you, ensure that they keep coming back. Let them know that you love them, too. Rewards are a great way to encourage brand loyalty and keep those orders rolling in—which is the ultimate goal, here.

Of course, part of offering stellar service is making sure that there are no hiccups during delivery. And let’s be honest, affordable shipping can be make-or-break for some customers. What if I told you that there’s a way to slash prices on shipping, all while streamlining the process internally? Explore Shippo for a shipping solution to save your business both time and money. 

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Amanda Holden
is a personal finance writer, speaker, and educator. Through her business, Invested Development, she teaches young women (and anyone who has felt left out of these important conversations) about money and investing. She writes a blog called The Dumpster Dog Blog, which is scrappy and fun finance education for young women.

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