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Top 10 Ways CE Retailers Can Cope During COVID-19 Crisis

COVID-19 means you'll get less in-store traffic, but not necessarily less business.

Even though your customers may be sheltering-in-place doesn’t mean they’re sitting around their kitchen tables staring blankly at each other. Consumers are working, learning and yearning to be entertained at home, so access to home technology becomes even more critical as consumers cope with the sequestering impact of coronavirus.

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COVID-19 means you’ll get less in-store traffic, but not necessarily less business. Here are 10 ways to not only keep your local tech retail business healthy, but help your neighbors through these socially-distancing times.

1. Emphasize local shopping: Amazon’s delivery delays provide you an opportunity to emphasis your ability to serve your local customers more efficiently. Stressing both BOPIS – including the option of having the consumer text you from your parking lot so you can bring their purchase to their car to avoid unnecessary contact – along with expanded and near-immediate local delivery tells your customers you’re there for them. “Smaller folks are more nimble, and many of them have a connection to the local community, and I think that that that could be their advantage,” observes CTA Hall of Famer Henry Chiarelli, principal of Bonita Springs, FL-based Chiarelli & Associates management consultants.

(Image credit: Georgie Rose)

2. Add product categories: This home-bound health crisis is changing the types of products consumers are suddenly looking to buy. For one thing, with no sports to watch, expect TV sales to drop. But, “people are in need of home office equipment and accessories,” insists Laura Heller, host of the High-Tech Retailing Summit at CE, “in addition to students setting up for e-learning while schools are closed.” Coronavirus also has created increased consumer interest in health/wellness technology products such as air purifiers, water coolers, and even home exercise equipment. Then there’s the opportunity to sell up-to-date Netflix-and-chill binging A/V and even Wi-Fi gear. “We are going to focus on networks, making sure [customers’] network ‘backbone’ is sufficient and secure for their needs being that a lot of entertainment is driven by networks,” reports Kris Dybdahl, VP at San Antonio’s Bjorn’s Audio/Video.


3. Initiate/expand e-commerce: Many smaller retailers have resisted adding an online sales piece to their operations for a variety of operational, economic or expertise reasons. But, “the days of saying, ‘I don’t do e-commerce,’ – this is the time to just put that in the past. The answer now is always ‘yes’,” opines Robert Heiblim, co-founder of Blue Salve Consulting. As more and more consumers are stuck at home, home technology needs are magnified, and these needs can only be addressed online. Enabling an e-commerce piece for your store – something as easy as creating a Shopify store, for instance – lets consumers not only buy from you locally, but enables you to create a more direct line to distributors to expand your available SKUs and make those expanded product category products available on your website without adding to your physical inventory. “Most distributors now have extraordinary pick, pack and ship capabilities, and they do it with your label,” adds Chiarelli. “[The customer] will never know that that box came from Scottsdale, Arizona, or Tulsa, Oklahoma, or wherever it came from.”

4. Add chat to your website: Effectively communicating with your consumers becomes even more critical when they’re not able to come to your store. “Now more than ever, dealers simply can’t afford to not dedicate the resources needed to become proficient at chat,” insists Dean Sottile, SVP Digital & Technology of the Nationwide Marketing Group, which offers best practices, successful case studies and Learning Academy sessions on chat. Nationwide suggests Comm100, Podium, and Live Chat Inc. platforms.

5. Expand social selling: You of course want to tell your consumers how you’re better able to serve them, which means you have to reach out to them, which means social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tik Tok, et al, all offer unprecedented – and often easily targeted – sales reach. “We are going to start sending out some emails and social media pushing the whole idea of being stuck inside and improving their experience,” Dybdahl says. If social selling sounds too exotic, simply do a Google search for “social selling training,” and you’ll find a wide variety of companies able to teach you and your sales staff how to reach out to your suddenly isolated customers. Or perhaps one of your younger employees is already social media proficient.

6. Virtual shopping: You have a smartphone. Your customers have smartphones. All these smartphones have video calling capabilities. So why not offer your customers a virtual sales call? Using Skype, Facetime, Zoom or Google Hangouts, your customers can measure and show you the space they have, then you can show them the products that will fit that space – and you can then get them the gear almost immediately. Or, you can hold live virtual sales sessions via Facebook Live, offering discount codes, refer-a-friend discounts and free delivery after customers watch you demo specific equipment and answer virtual questions.

7. Future discount cards: Cash flow issues are now amplified by the lack of walk-in traffic. One potential way to maintain cash flow is to sell discounted gift cards good toward future purchases, redeemable in-store once the local, state or national emergency is lifted. But be careful: while discounted future gift cards will enhance cash flow, “they’re some very tricky things,” warns Chiarelli. “There are special regulations at most state levels that you cannot record that sale until that gift card is redeemed. It could be sort of an accounting nightmare for small business operators.”

8. Rent-to-own: Breadwinners or students suddenly forced to work or learn at home may need new gear but may not have ready cash. So instead of selling expensive hardware, you could instead offer to rent expensive equipment – “financing in drag,” Chiarelli quipped. “[Customers] are not only paying full retail at no discount, but then they’re paying fees on top of it,” notes Heiblim. “‘We will drop it off and we will install it for you…then your rental fee will go toward your eventual purchase.’ Your finance company will help you figure out the terms.”

9. Reallocate sales staff: Since you have fewer customers to wait on and you’d rather not furlough staff, you can reassign employees to different jobs, such as manning the aforementioned chat function or for cold-calling previous customers to let them know you’re around and to help. “This is a great opportunity to add services or tele-support,” opines Heller. “Given the requests for social distancing and isolation, home installations aren’t recommended, but virtual support will likely be needed.” In addition, this might be the opportunity for a complete store deep clean and suddenly necessary sanitizing. Or, with the right added insurance, sales staffers can be deployed for immediate online or phone order delivery – leaving boxes on porches, stoops or lobbies as quarantined customers watch safely from inside.

Image credit: Igor Ovsyannykov

10. Adjust/reduce in-store shopping hours: With less foot traffic, you don’t need to keep your store open the usual 12-14 hours a day. For one thing, trimming hours will help you save on your electric/HVAC bill. But you can create new hours designed to meet your local customer needs, based on when your customers are most likely to visit such as evenings after work. You also can create special hours for seniors only, or set up appointments for when the store will otherwise be relatively empty to create more personal (but responsibly socially distant) shopping/selling opportunities.

Overall, advises Chiarelli, “you’ve got to get really creative. You have to work what I call the LinkedIn version of selling – who you know, who they know, who they know. You have to try to do the best you can under some really bizarre circumstances.”

See also: Working From Home? Here’s How To Give Your Space A Wellness Boost