Nope, it's still not a retail apocalypse

April 2020

Retail has evolved endlessly across the decades (even centuries!).  It has survived depressions, wars, disasters and pandemics due to no shortage of grit, determination, elbow grease and innovation.   Leading up to the COVID-19 crisis, retailers who put customers and community first were flourishing.  Retail communities WILL rebound from this admittedly massive disruption.

There is much that operators—stores, eateries, barbershops and the like—can do in the near and longer terms to survive the immediate crisis and carry on...

First Things First immediate survival tactics

1.  Apply for the PPP and EIDL via the SBA, and talk to your landlord.

Most operators have already taken these steps, but if you have not then look here for information on the PPP, and here for the EIDL, and prepare to apply as soon as the next tranche of funding is ready.  Also check out your state’s unemployment coverage (expanded to cover many who are considered self-employed).  Finally, talk to your landlord about rent abatement/deferral—it will be in their best interest to see that you survive!

2.  Reach your customers however you are able.

Have gift cards?  Make sure your customers know (highlight this on your website, Facebook, Instagram—every channel you have).   Increase your use of social media for promotions and featuring products.  Don’t yet have a web-store*?  Offer private shopping to your regular customers via video-chat.  And, as allowed by your city/state, offer curbside pickup or free local delivery.   (*See the next section for more on a web-store.)

3.   Get über creative!

Partner with other local businesses to package and deliver goods; for example, if you sell cooking products, partner with a nearby farmer to deliver goods along with produce to homebound customers.   If you sell used books, take a cue from a Toronto bookstore that selects and delivers sets of books based on the customer’s chosen theme.  If you are a hairstylist, offer to guide customers in at-home cuts and treatments via video chat for a set fee.  Search the web to discover more creative ways operators are pivoting their businesses models!    

Next Steps prepare for the longer term

1.   Dig in to administrative and other back-of-the-house activities.  

Tackle your end of year accounting, revamp/update your website (especially if it has been a few years), and develop content that can be posted on social media accounts (some now and others after reopening).   More on websites: for retailers that haven’t sold product via their websites in the past, create an e-store now!  Two businesses that make this relatively easy are Vend and Shopify.  And read this piece on Shopkeep about transitioning from a physical store to an e-store.

2.   Implement a safety/cleanliness protocol.  

Review and implement the World Health Organization's and your local government’s guidelines for reducing contact (social distancing, contactless payments, cleaning standards, face masks, etc.) and ensuring safety in your business. And, COMMUNICATE your protocol to your customers.  On your website. In social media posts. In email blasts. On your front door (framed or hung on a suction cup—as always, no taped-up signs please!).

3.   Get a handle on inventory and consider planning a reopening sale.  

Take steps to stay on top of inventory, going through stock and accounting for products.  And determine if a blowout sale makes sense for when you reopen—getting some amount of cash out of your inventory (especially seasonal merch) is better than zero, and can help enable you to order fresh product more quickly.

4.   Enhance.  Improve.  Refresh.  

Take on ‘spring cleaning’ tasks like deep cleaning and/or painting interiors and fixturing, maintaining equipment, reworking your store’s floorplan and displays, and planning out window themes for the next several months.  

5.   Explore new incentives to offer your core customer base.  

If you don’t already have one, consider creating a customer loyalty program; Marsello is one resource for this.  Or a membership model might be right for your business; some small boutiques offer a small percentage off all full-price purchases for the entire year to customers who buy a gift card at a certain level (or the equivalent amount in one purchase) in January.  This engenders loyalty; when that consumer is looking for a new skirt, she goes to your store first!

6.   Review and potentially adjust your product lines.  

Research ways to pivot—stay informed on what’s occurring with the types of customers you serve, and consider new products and delivery methods to meet their changing circumstances.   Think about new essentials; these are not the basics needed for survival, nor are they non-essential items, but rather the products/categories that provide happiness and well-being.  

Right now, consumers are spending on health and fitness, housewares, beauty/cosmetics, home improvement and toys/hobbies; these new essential categories make up nearly 40 percent of consumer sales. People may continue looking for more “DIY” options as incomes have taken a hit and folks have been learning new skills (or polishing rusty ones) while at home.  You may have noticed that many have been busy baking— fun products and kits for people to bake their own cookies and cupcakes might be something to start carrying. Health/wellness/beauty has been strong retail-wise for a number of years, and this trend is expected to continue.  Also look at “nesting” products—apparel won’t be a priority, but with folks spending more time at home even once restrictions are relaxed, many are likely to want their abodes to be as comfortable as they can afford.  

Check These Out more resources

Claim your business on Google:  Google my Business is a free listing for any business. Once you’ve claimed your listing, you can add pictures, menus, products, hours of operation—all for FREE, and in the place so many potential customers search for products and businesses.

Yelp:  similar to Google, small businesses can claim their business page and then upload photos, add links to their website and social media profiles, menu, hours, and the like. And, importantly, claiming your page allows you to respond privately or publicly to reviews posted by customers.

Instagram:  this channel is a terrific way to market your business and/or make sales.  

Marsello: a loyalty program tool that enables businesses to deliver targeted marketing and increase customer retention and sales.

VEND and Shopify:  in addition to their web-store platforms, both are wealths of advice on launching and running small businesses.

Shopkeep:  offers point of sale and payment solutions for both in-store and online sales, and also has lots of informative articles and guidance for small businesses.

Research for Good:  read about how brand messaging influences purchasing behavior.


About Downtown Works:  Developer of pragmatic, results-garnering retail strategies and programs for downtown districts in large cities and small towns, and for individual urban properties, resort towns and new-urbanist communities.

Kelly Kost, retail strategist with Downtown Works and author of this piece, has worked with numerous shops and eateries over the last decade to enhance their store’s physical presence on the outside and merchandising/layout/display within, leading to sustained sales increases (and happy dances by business owners).