It’s no secret that back-to-school spending has taken a huge hit because of COVID-19. However, with the right strategies in place retail can bounce back in Q4.
Research firm GlobalData expects back-to-school spending to decrease 6.4% from 2019 — the lowest since 2015. Back-to-college is expected to be hit even harder, with a decrease of 37.8% from the previous year. “A lot of the lucrative spending on dorm rooms, buying collegiate-branded gear and buying food and other essentials for student living just won’t happen,” said GlobalData’s managing director Neil Saunders, in a comment to the Wall Street Journal.
It’s a blow for retailers, to say the least. To get back on track, merchants need to work extra hard in the coming months. It’s easier said than done, of course. But with a well-executed strategy (particularly around the holidays), retailers could make up for poor back-to-school and back-to-college results.
To that end, here are some expert-backed pointers on how retailers can bounce back in Q4.
1. Cut back on unnecessary expenses
You may have already cut back on spending in the beginning of the pandemic. Still, it’s worth revisiting your finances and see if there are ways to save even more — without compromising quality, of course.
With sales being down, it’s important to stay on top of your financials and protect your bottom line.
Examine your sales and foot traffic data over the last few months. This will help to determine if you should adjust your current practices. For example, if you have fewer shoppers in your store, it may make sense to reduce your operating hours or shift staffing schedules.
Another area to look at? Marketing and advertising. Increasing the visibility of your business is important. Which is why you need to ensure that you’re dedicating your budget towards efforts that actually work.
Look at your marketing strategy. Identify your lowest-performing tools, channels or tactics, and then divert funds to the things that are driving results.
Rameez Ghayas Usmani, a digital marketing executive at PureVPN, recommends that you “cut unnecessary costs (cash-heavy internal campaigns, tools you don’t use), and consider reconstructing your marketing budget.”
“Stop doing additional A/B testing and focus on strategies that work the best for you during the pandemic,” he adds.
Last, think about manual processes you could save time and money on with automation. It may not seem like the time to introduce a new spend on technology. However, a small spend on a new solution can give you significant savings in other areas. For instance, converting your store operations or merchandising audits from Excel and email to an app like Bindy can save you some serious time on your store inspections and related follow-up.
2. Get your q4 inventory right
You can’t thrive if your customers don’t buy what you’re selling. That’s why it’s critical to stock up on the right products and position them in front of shoppers who are most likely to buy.
As Carlos Castelán, managing director of The Navio Group, puts it, “sellers can maintain their sales as well as introduce themselves to new customers by ensuring that they have available inventory and can ship on time.”
Getting your inventory right is a tricky task (even without a pandemic). But you can put yourself on the right track by using data to guide your inventory decisions.
“Closely monitor the changes in demand on the products and services that you offer,” advises Martin Seeley Chief Executive Officer at MattressNextDay. “Knowing what your customers need gets you ahead of your competition. And giving what your customers demand is the best way for your business to thrive in Q4.”
Do your best to anticipate consumer behavior in the coming months. Pay attention to COVID-19 trends in that area and use the data to determine which merchandise to stock. For example, if your store is located in a place that continues to see a rise in cases, consider carrying more merchandise that people would need when in lockdown mode. Is your state or city starting to open up? It may be worth adding products that consumers may need when socially distancing outdoors or in public.
Consider using a site like Rising Retail Categories. It’s an interactive tool that uses Google Search data to shed light on trending categories and products in the retail space. You can filter the data by state and derive insights on which merchandise categories are in demand in your area.
3. Don’t lose touch with existing customers
One of the keys to succeeding in Q4 is staying top of mind. Ensure consumers think of you when they decide to shop in the coming months.
The best way to do that is to stay in touch with your customers.
So, start building your list. Maybe you’re already capturing people’s email addresses on your website, but are you doing it in-store as well? Are you encouraging your social media fans to subscribe to your newsletter? Would it make sense to tap into other communication channels, such as SMS?
These are some of the questions you should explore. Do it sooner rather than later, so you’ll have a solid marketing list when Q4 rolls along.
“Restaurants and other types of walk-in retailers have relied for too long on foot traffic for sales,” comments Colin Little, the owner of Social Launch Marketing. “With the pandemic changing the way people shop, stores need to build digital assets and build them fast.”
According to him, the most important lists to build are:
- email lists
- SMS lists
- remarketing lists
“With these lists, businesses have an opportunity to have sales conversations with customers whenever they like, not just when they’re lucky enough to get a walk in.”
And once you’ve built these lists, put them to good use by sending timely and relevant messages.
“A small message or email these days can actually develop close relations with your customers. This is the golden time to bond with your customers where the whole world is locked down,” adds Rameez.
“A positive and strong message like asking about how they have been holding up these past few days and whether they are ensuring to stay at home, could mean a lot. Make sure not to send them messages constantly, this will leave your customers with a negative impact as if we are trying to cash-in the opportunity.”
4. Double down on bricks-and-clicks
Online shopping will continue to dominate in Q4. See to it that you’re providing an excellent experience for your ecommerce shoppers. Make sure your website is easy to navigate and keep your stock levels updated.
Being flexible with order fulfillment is a must. Having the capabilities to offer various delivery and pick-up options will be a major competitive advantage. If you haven’t done so yet, figure out how to make same-day or next-day deliveries work in your business.
Buy online, pickup in-store is another major component here, and BOPIS adoption has grown 208% amidst the pandemic.
As Carlos points out, “Hybrid models such as buy online pickup in-store or curbside pickup will continue to grow in usage. Retailers that have invested in those fulfillment models will see further growth. Retailers that have considered adopting those models or have emergent versions will accelerate their efforts to adopt similar capabilities given how widely used they have become during this period of time.”
5. Get found online
With limited ability to window shop in the real world, consumers are increasingly using digital tools to research and browse. Google, Facebook, and Instagram are key players in this arena. You need to have a strong presence on these platforms in order to win. Keep your profiles updated and constantly publish compelling and relevant content.
For brick and mortar retailers who want to get found on Google, one of the best things you can do is to display your in-store inventory on your Google My Business profile. This allows shoppers to see what you have in stock.
In today’s climate, where people are more hesitant to head to brick and mortar shops, having real-time inventory visibility gives them confidence that you have what they need in-store. This, in turn, helps drive footfall.
Check out this example from Art Plus, an art store in New Hampshire. Aside from having their basic details on their Google business profile, Art Plus also has a “See what’s in store” section. This allows shoppers to browse their real-time inventory without leaving the search engine:
Bounce back in Q4 by optimizing your ads
In addition to beefing up your online profiles and listings, you may also find success in digital advertising — as long as you do it right. Optimize your ads by ensuring that you’re promoting the right products on the appropriate channels.
“For retailers looking to boost sales in Q4, I would strongly recommend focusing on the product data you are sending out to advertising platforms like Google and Facebook,” says Juan Keena CEO at WakeupData.
“Many retailers cut corners by sending the same list of products to all channels, exactly as they appear on their own store. Taking the time to adapt product listings for individual channels can, and often has, lead to dramatic increases in impressions, conversions and gross profit.”
He continues, “for example, improving product titles with relevant keywords and branding, adding missing fields like GTINs (Global Trade Item Number) and filtering out products which have a low profit margin all combine to deliver improvements for retailers’ profits, regardless of the industry. Adding visuals to product images for social media ads similarly has a beneficial impact on ROI. This can strongly contribute towards that bounce back.”
6. Heighten your cleanliness standards
When you do drive traffic to your offline stores, alleviate people’s safety concerns by upholding health and safety practices.
According to Carlos, “to keep everyone safe, retailers must heighten their cleanliness standards. Encourage potentially infected employees to stay home with pay. Target, for example, announced they will be cleaning surfaces every 30 minutes. Target also established limits on essential items to ensure more customers have access to needed goods.”
He adds that retailers should “implement technology to reduce interactions in-store.”
“Target and others are tracking foot traffic to limit the number of customers in-store at one time to help with physical distancing. Many are leaning into mobile payments like Apple Pay to avoid handling cash or credit cards. Many retailers are also checking their workers’ temperatures. A few are even checking their customers’ temperatures and redirected them to other ways to shop,” he continues.
Chris McCullough, CEO at Rotageek, echoes this, and adds, “one of the key ways to protect business into Q4 is to continue with the focus on socially-distanced shopping to set customers’ minds at ease. This can be done through anything from virtual queue technology to splitting staff into ‘cohorts’, ensuring that if you do have an issue with one group of employees, you have the continuity to continue business unabated.”
7. Keep your stores in top shape with retail audits
Customers who take the time to put on PPE and go out to a store are expecting a great experience. This means you still need to put in the effort to make sure your shelves are stocked, your staff are trained, and your operations will meet expectations.
Conduct store audits to keep all your stores up to snuff. From evaluating the safety and cleaning practices at your locations to ensuring that the right products and promotions are being rolled out, retail audits are more important than ever.
We’re living at a time when retailers have to meet new (and rapidly changing) standards and expectations. Being able to quickly check and evaluate your stores will keep you compliant and put your team and customers at ease.
About the author:
Francesca Nicasio is retail expert, B2B content strategist, and LinkedIn TopVoice. She writes about trends, tips, and best practices that enable retailers to increase sales and serve customers better. She’s also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores.