Mid-March Madness – A Snapshot of Retail Business in a Pandemic

by Tina Manzer

“What may be true this minute may not be true the next.” That’s easily the biggest lesson we’ve learned since first hearing the words “covid nineteen.” Hopefully by the time you read this, lives have been saved. Schools may be gearing up for students, restaurants may be setting their tables, and people may once again be talking face to face. Then again, everyone in the U.S. may be sheltering in place. We just don’t know.

On March 16, as we prepared to go to press, things were looking bleak. It was the first workday after President Trump declared a national state of emergency. So before we wrapped up this issue, we reached out to a few stores in our industry to see how they were coping. We discovered that those small businesses were working hard and creatively to remain up and running; albeit with a few modifications: customer delivery and curbside pickup only, shorter hours, fewer employees at one time, and increased digital communication with customers.

And those stores had customers, mostly parents dealing with remote school as well as remote work. Their double challenge was managing new ways of working while busying their kids with worthwhile activities – away from video games and social media. Parents were worried about summer slide, the perils of no routine, and how much blue light is too much. In addition to keeping their kids safe, parents also wanted to keep them learning. And that’s where your stores came in.

A Facebook post from Knowledge Tree on March 19

“Knowledge Tree is creating $25 to $35 bundles for your kids at home. All you have to do is call your local store and give us an idea of what you’re looking for. We will create a bundle for you for a reasonable price. Then you can drive up to the store and we’ll bring it to your car OR you can pay an extra $8 to have it delivered if you live close to one of our stores. We can’t wait to hear from you!”With five locations in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, Knowledge Tree has been busy fielding calls and filling orders since this message was posted. “People have been calling nonstop,” reported sales associate Brittany Osgood. “They tell us what they’re looking for, whether it’s reading, some sort of activity, or workbooks, and then we put everything together.”

One young customer received a bag containing Scholastic’s Jumbo Book of Kindergarten Fun, the “Burger Chef” edition of Crayola’s modeling dough, a Melissa & Doug paint-with-water book and a set of Trend’s Alphabet Old Maid playing cards.

A few days earlier on March 16, things at GA School Supply in Macon, Georgia, were quiet. Storeowner Diane Vogel didn’t expect it to last. “Our schools are closing tomorrow,” she explained. “Business will pick up later today and tomorrow when parents realize they don’t have enough to keep their kids occupied indefinitely. They’ll be looking for science books or material on Ancient Rome – things that reflect what children need help with in the classroom.”

In Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Borden’s Stationery and Educational Resource Center “did a decent business” on Saturday, March 14 and Sunday, March 15. “We saw a lot of parents who came in for educational resources,” reported owner Barry Lubin. “Their goal is to keep their kids busy to avoid summer slide.

Customers have the option of ordering online, but he predicted that his physical store would be busier than e-commerce during the next few weeks. “I sent word out on social media: ‘Work at home, stay at home. We have everything you need!’ because Borden’s also sells office supplies.

“I’ll work in the store as long as they’ll let me, and if that changes, I can still answer the phone and make deliveries,” he said.

And that sentiment was echoed by each retailer we talked to. “Financially, we have to, and we’ll make sure we’re fully stocked for shoppers,” said Pat Aboujaoude from GW School Supply in Fresno, California – before the state mandate to shelter in place. In addition to operating three stores, GW fulfills online orders.

In Columbia, South Carolina, Educational Wonderland was selling lots of Spectrum workbooks and math manipulatives, according to owner Dean Quenneville. “We’ve been pretty busy, and will stay open as long as we can meet the health guidelines.”

An email to her customers from Linda Hayes, Hopscotch Toys, McMinnville, Oregon

“We can’t keep telling you we love you and not do everything that we can to protect you. And, here’s the thing: some of our younger customers lick things when nobody’s looking. And some of our other customers are grandparents and great grandparents. So beginning March 16, we will close to in-store traffic until further notice. We will be in the shop receiving freight and mail from 12 to 4 every weekday. We would be happy to bring toys out to you curbside during that time. In this anxiety-laden time, don’t forget to count your blessings. I’m counting mine – and you’re really high on that list.”

Well-known speaker and author Bob Phibbs is known as The Retail Doctor (retaildoc.com) because he helps stores improve sales, customer service, and marketing strategies. Just to be clear, it’s not because he imparts medical advice, although he has some pretty strong opinions about retail-store hygiene.

“Store managers know they have to have sales meetings, but when was the last time they talked about personal hygiene and cleanliness in their stores?” asked Phibbs on his blog on March 16. “The prudent thing for any retailer is to control what you can control and have a meeting devoted to health. That way, you can allay concerns, calm fears, set out procedures and take care of your people. The more time we spend focused on what we can control, the better we’ll all come out of this.”

Here are just a few of the tips he offered retailers during Mid-March Madness. You’ve heard them before; they’re simply reminders from a retail perspective. “On an upside, I have to believe all of this attention will ultimately make all of us much healthier in the long run,” he said.

Don’t panic

“In some years, the regular flu kills more than 30,000 people in the United States,” wrote Phibbs. “But as The New York Times reports, we don’t have an irrational fear of the flu because we understand it, and have experienced and recovered from it. We feel we know the threat.”

Amped-up fear over the Coronavirus can cause stress, which impacts our immune system. The best antidote is to arm yourself with the facts, including information from the Centers of Disease Control (cdc.gov) and the World Health Organization (who.int), and the websites of your county and state government. Storeowners and managers – your crew will look to you for accurate information.

Model these good personal hygiene practices

• Don’t touch your face – as a reminder to stop, consider using a scented soap or hand sanitizer that you can smell when you bring your hands to your head.
• Wash your hands often – have an accountability partner to remind you to do this a couple of times every shift. Tell employees to partner up as well.
• Use hand sanitizer – it works, so use it often. It is still better to wash with soap.

Institute a daily checklist of cleaning

Use a combination of household cleaners and disinfectants. Then at the end of each shift, clean everything according your store’s usual checklists. “Add extra time to your employee schedule and close 10 minutes early so they do a thorough job. Post a note on your social pages about what you are doing in the face of the virus in terms of training, cleaning, etc.”

Wear gloves and then throw them away after you clean

• all phones, including your smart phones and “high touch” items;
• door handles throughout the day;
• the POS system and
• iPads, kiosks and anything customers routinely touch.

The nation may be in the midst of a crisis, but you still need to market to new customers, you still need to train staff, and you still need to look at creative ways to get them to return more often and spend more, Phibbs concluded.

From the blog of marketing consultant Pam Danziger, Unity Marketing, March 16

“The CDC and World Health Organizations are stressing the importance of proper hand-washing, and hand-washing often. This is bound to influence people to live healthier lives, which is a win for retailers selling sustainable products and healthier foods. It will move consumers to evaluate things from a different perspective.”

In her post entitled, “Will Coronavirus Leave Lasting Changes to Consumer Psychology?” Pam asked experts if the coronavirus crisis will result in a “new normal” for consumers. Here is a bit of their insight.

Now is the time for retailers and marketers to leverage consumers toward more sustainable and healthy choices, says Jorge Barraza, professor of consumer psychology at the University of Southern California. “People are becoming much more aware of the supply chain in general and how much we depend on China and Asia in particular.”

Brick-and-mortar retailers will need to offer meaningful online experiences to keep their connection with consumers intact. People spending more time at home, avoiding crowded shopping areas, and making more purchases online “which may be a hard habit for brick-and-mortar retailers to break once the immediate threat to health subsides.”

Through the things they consume and how they consume them, purchasers get a feeling of control. However, the threat of contracting an infectious disease takes that sense away. Long-term, it may predispose people to make choices based on their underlying sense of identity. “So, for example, people may indulge in more luxury purchases as significant to their self-esteem,” explains Pam.

“Consumption plays an important role in the lifestyle of American consumers,” Pam concludes. “But retailers and marketers should plan for potential long-term changes that this crisis may bring, and the values that underpin their purchasing decisions.”


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