This pandemic has challenged businesses of all stripes, but few have felt the impact more than physical stores that rely on foot traffic for revenue. We've gathered seven examples of savvy brick and mortar business adaptations to show you how other companies are responding to COVID-19.
Brick and mortar business isn’t going down without a fight.
COVID-19 has many companies stuck between a brick and a hard place. What can you do when your industry has been deemed “non-essential,” but relies on in-store foot traffic to stay afloat? Large corporations are losing fortunes, sure, but the small businesses are suffering even more. Many local shops, restaurants, and family-run, single-location stores simply don’t have a war chest capable of waiting for this crisis to come to an end.
Even essential businesses are starting to feel the heat. Some experts are saying it may be time for grocery stores to ban customers from coming inside. We’ve got a ways to go before things return to normal. So, what are brick and mortar proprietors doing? In a few words, they’re getting creative and adapting as best they can.
We’ve done some digging and put together a few examples of business adaptations that showcase the way the market has transformed for COVID-19. Some of these might be strategies worth exploring (if you haven’t yet) for your brick and mortar business. Let’s take a look.
Pivot Your Channel Focus & Messaging
Some brick and mortar retail brands are lucky enough to have an online presence already. At the very least, they’ve got a website and an e-commerce wing they can beef up to combat losses from on-site cutbacks or closures. These “clicks to bricks” companies—a business model with both an online store and a physical location—are still finding the transition to the COVID-19 challenging, but not impossible.
Other brick and mortar businesses are finding, at the very least, that this is an opportune time to expand into the online space. It’s easiest to adopt this model if you have a physical product and the ability to ship it to customers. And once the pandemic is over, you’ll still have a built-out online presence that you (and your customers) can take advantage of!
It’s also wise to make a few (temporary) business adaptations to your core messaging. An airline pitching free-spirited globe-trotting vacations could come across as tone-deaf, for example. It would certainly be appropriate, however, to remind customers that the airline is open and prepared to help with all of their urgent travel needs.
1. Easy Tiger Goods
Easy Tiger Goods has had to shutter their brick and mortar business location, but their online store and shipping functions are still intact. The brand’s Instagram profile, current promotional code, and marketing pitch (“WFH can be cute!”) are all relevant (and appropriate) to current events.
2. The Livery Shop
This clothing retailer has tried to combat the lack of socialization in-store with an interactive experience on their social media channels. If customers can’t try on outfits in the changing room, at least they can click through The Livery Shop's Instagram story to see what it looks like as it comes together!
This is a great example of a creative way to leverage a social media presence in the place of real-life experiences, all while driving online visitors towards e-commerce sales.
The shoemaker was in a tough spot on February 29, 2020. Mass store closings in Greater China (5,000 stores, or 75% of their fleet, by early February) had dropped their sales for the latest quarter by 5%, ending a 22-quarter regional streak of 10% sales increases.
But during the closures, Nike turned to its e-commerce channels—a business adaptation highlighted by a free 90-day premium membership on the Nike Training Club app (on android and iOS). Fortune.com reports that “because Nike’s fitness and e-commerce apps are particularly well integrated, it fueled a 30% increase in digital sales.”
Now, they’re trying to replicate this success in the USA and Canada markets, where the shutdowns came later. With gyms and workout clubs closed, plenty of folks are looking for at-home alternatives—and Nike’s savvy promotion is filling the gap while bolstering sales.
Under Armour, whose stores are also closed, is now jumping aboard this strategy with their MyFitnessPal and MapMyRun apps. The lesson is to shift focus to existing online areas of your business that better compliment the “new normal” of COVID-19.
Offer Virtual Experiences
What if your brand sells in-person services and experiences, rather than physical products? This makes e-commerce a non-starter, and also prevents you from interacting with your customers face-to-face. Some companies are combating social isolation by turning live experiences into virtual ones.
A straight conversion may be possible (a virtual webinar is a quick substitution for a live session at a conference), but not all experiences are traditional fits for digital channels. Here are a few companies that are innovating with online media formats to continue to reach their loyal customer base.
4. The Annoyance Theatre
Live theater and other entertainment venues that gather large audiences have been hit particularly hard. It’s just not the same watching theatrical performances through a computer or television screen, without that familiar interplay between actor and audience. Film and TV are much better at this style of entertainment.
The Annoyance Theatre, a long-running improv comedy theatre in Chicago, has risen to the challenge. They formed a “QuaranTeam” of 6 performers and 3 staff, locked them in the empty theatre for 10 days, and live-streamed footage of the chaos that ensued. In their own words:
“The Annoyance has hand-selected some of its top performers to be quarantined within the walls of the theatre for 10 DAYS — no one leaves, no one enters. You’ll be able to watch this team of brave comedians living their daily lives, rehearsing, eating, crying, singing, dancing, falling asleep in random places & slowly losing their minds. The Annoyance Theatre ‘QuaranTeam’ will broadcast the true nature of what it’s like to lock yourself inside during a pandemic. During this quarantine period, the artists will undergo an intense collaborative process where they will write & produce an original show to be live-streamed at the end of the holding period.”
Here’s a pre-recorded teaser they assembled to hype "Out of Touch," their social-experiment-slash-fundraising-effort:
Live streaming out-of-work actors, locked in quarantine and slowly going nuts, might be the most theatrical thing we’ve ever heard of—whether we’re sitting in a packed playhouse or on the couch.
5. Olive & June
Nail salons, barbers shops, spas, massage parlors, and other personal care services are also struggling to make business adaptations without inviting customers inside. Forbes recently reported that Olive & June is offering online mani bootcamps, complemented by “Studio Boxes” they’ll ship with the essentials for DIY at-home manicures.
Galleries, museums, concerts, yoga classes, and more can also harness the power of live-streamed courses, events, and guided tours to continue reaching audiences with socially distanced “in-person” attendance.
Think Outside the Box Store: Shift to Curbside Pickup
At some level, there’s no way around it—a brick and mortar business is built from the ground up to facilitate on-location customer transactions. When virtual experiences and e-commerce aren’t enough to keep the wheels spinning during COVID-19, many companies can still try moving business outside. A full drive-thru retail store would have been nearly unthinkable a year ago, but the groundwork is there. Wal-Mart has been doing a form of curbside pickup (and pickup at FedEx locations) for years.
Embattled retailer GameStop recently made headlines for keeping their doors open, in spite of the closure of non-essential businesses in many areas. Now they’ve transitioned to an on-site, “contactless delivery service” called Delivery@Door. Customers call ahead, drive over, and an associate comes outside to deliver the bagged product on the curb.
Other brick and mortar retail brands have followed suit, including Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, Barnes & Noble, and many more. Some dine-in restaurants have even seen success with a similar order-ahead, take-out variations on their menu.
Deliver Essentials to Your Customers
Some businesses simply can’t operate through e-commerce, live streams, or on the curb. A brick and mortar business model that’s built on atmosphere and also sells a product that won’t transition to public spaces—such as alcoholic beverages—is in a truly difficult spot.
A growing list of our favorite wine bars, sports bars, and similar establishments have closed down, potentially forever, due to an inability to support the venue and staff without on-site customers. But at least a few have tried new business models to sustain themselves through the crisis.
7. Flora’s Wine Bar
This gorgeous new wine bar in Newton, MA, opened shortly after Valentine’s Day 2020. Like many other local businesses, it was shuttered by the state’s indefinite closure of dine-in restaurants. Unfortunately, in this case, it was not long after a widely-celebrated grand opening.
Since Flora’s serves wine, cocktails, craft beers, and charcuterie to the local community—but doesn’t feature a full dinner menu—a transition into a take-out restaurant wasn’t a realistic option. Co-founders Andrew Li and Corey Fletcher are restaurant industry veterans, however, so they knew how creativity could keep their business alive.
Flora’s has temporarily shifted into a grocery & wine delivery service for the Newton area. By using their suppliers to provide an influx of essential groceries, Andrew and Corey have been able to keep some form of revenue coming in. They’re also promoting the sale of gift cards for the dine-in wine bar, for use once it reopens to the public.
So there you have it! All seven of these examples showcase the kinds of business adaptations that can help retailers, entertainers, and restaurateurs through trying times. For some, a shift in their brick and mortar marketing strategy is enough to bolster revenue through less-obstructed channels. Other industries have had to completely reimagine the typical business model, at least for now, to keep the lights on.
One thing that we can all do is remember: we’re in this together. Look for opportunities to partner up or collaborate on solutions, support other local establishments, and keep focusing on what you can control. No crisis lasts forever, and brick and mortar businesses will persevere.