With customers self-isolating at home and businesses increasingly putting bricks-and-mortar operations in hibernation, the gulf between the traditional retail experience and where the industry is at now is growing.
Social media has long been the norm when it comes to communicating with consumers, but while online shopping is becoming more important, it hasn’t replaced the convenience of physical retail.
If there was ever a time to explore new ways to communicate with customers, it’s now.
For instance, furniture retailer Coco Republic has started offering virtual showroom tours, digital design consultations, online interior styling courses and private showroom appointments outside of trading hours to adapt to the ways customers need to shop today.
Normally Coco Republic would push customers to its large showrooms, which creative director and co-owner Anthony Spon-Smith considers crucial to helping customers pick the right piece, but self-isolation has forced a change in focus.
“The idea was born out of the real possibility of a full lock-in due to COVID-19,” Spon-Smith told Inside Retail.
“If consumers are confined to their homes in a lockdown then why not give them a taste of the showrooms from their homes, consult online and then let them buy online?
“We’re an omnichannel business with stock, so we can accommodate the market in such a situation.”
And while it can’t be attributed solely to these initiatives, Coco Republic’s online sales have doubled since Australians have been working or isolating from home.
However, with customers still preferring to see, touch, feel and examine furniture before buying, Spon-Smith anticipates that while online will become more important post-COVID-19, Coco Republic will continue to focus on bringing customers to its showrooms.
“Good old-fashioned retail isn’t dead if done well,” Spon-Smith said.
Stepping out of the comfort zone
A few weeks ago, the team at sustainable, made-to-order fashion house Citizen Wolf was planning workshops for Fashion Revolution Week 2020 – something they’ve been doing for the past two years.
The business opens the doors to its factory and shows those interested how they do what they do, and holds a sewing workshop where everyone who attends gets to make and keep their own zero-waste tote bag made from the factory’s offcuts.
“We had already planned to do that [again]… and then a couple of weeks later it looks like we’re going to be in a lockdown,” Citizen Wolf co-founder Zoltan Csaki told Inside Retail.
The easiest option would have been to cancel and come back stronger in 2021, Csaki explained, but that Citizen Wolf generally runs by the mantra of ‘how hard can it be?’.
“That kind of attitude gets us in a lot of trouble, but it also allows us to move quickly.”
So if the customers can’t come to the factory, why not bring the factory to them?
On Wednesday, April 22, the business will be livestreaming a tour of its Sydney factory. On the following Saturday, it will livestream two DIY tote-sewing workshops, and customers will be able to purchase a ‘remote tote’ online, with everything necessary to make the bag apart from a sewing machine. Customers will get $25 off a Singer machine at purchase, however.
“We’ve never done anything like this before. This is all very, very new for us,” Csaki said.
“It’s an experiment. We have to step up to the plate. I think for us it makes more sense, if we can deliver a workshop on Instagram Live for 100 people, when we can only do it to 10 people in a factory, that’s a huge win.”
This initiative also creates an opportunity for Citizen Wolf to host more livestreams and events moving forward – something the business has been thinking about for a while.
“I think customers are generally a bit more forgiving now than they perhaps would have been otherwise, which allows us and everybody else to experiment with stuff in a way that maybe we were too scared to do before. Which is really cool.”
There are more examples cropping up everyday of businesses finding new ways to interact and engage with their customers.
Burwood Brickworks shopping centre, for example, will be hosting weekly workshops online ranging from kids cooking classes, pilates and yoga sessions, children’s education, as well as how to be a better dog owner.
“These workshops are a great way for all of us at Burwood Brickworks, including our retailers, to stay connected to the community we serve,” said centre manager Eric Park.