Indie Retailers: 10 Tips for Times of Crisis

When the COVID-19 pandemic sent us into quarantine, I immediately thought of the local businesses – especially my favorite indie retailers.

Soon, I had calls and email exchanges with several shop owners, brands, and even wholesale platform The Main Tab.

They said things like:

“We’re just trying to wrap our heads around this.”

“I don’t have a great website.”

“Online marketing is overwhelming. And I don’t have a budget for it.”

So, in between hand-washing and news-watching, I wrote down 10 tips for indie retailers moving their businesses mostly online. First, I shared them on LinkedIn. But, I’ve decided to bring them together right here.

Shopkeeper at a door with a closed sign due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Here are my top tips for indie retailers…

  1. Be loud and proud about what makes you unique
  2. Hammer home your shop or brand’s key talking points
  3. Be open and vulnerable
  4. Cultivate community
  5. Share ways people can support your indie retail business – without spending money
  6. Focus on *two* free marketing channels
  7. Find simple ways to keep selling
  8. Sell to and serve customers creatively
  9. Use promo codes and discounts carefully
  10. Promote future purchases, repeat buys, and bundling

Keep scrolling to go deeper on each of these ideas.

Tip 1: Be loud and proud about what makes you a unique indie retailer

In times of panic, it’s scary to have a strong, narrow point of view. Common sense might tell you to go “broad” over “niche” for mass appeal. But, it’s a bad idea to make yourself common – I promise!

Why? Because consumers today have so many options. That means that indie retailers need to “break through the noise” and find THEIR people. When the vision’s watered down, the connection is, too.

Ready for some good great news? Research shows that brands that stay true to their purpose and values in times of crisis rebound faster when good times return.

So, look at your homepage, About page, and social media messaging. Do they communicate what makes you “you”? If not, take action or contact me for a free 1-hour messaging audit.

Tip 2: Hammer home your shop or brand’s key talking points

What are talking points? They are the messages you want your audience to instantly recall when they think of your brand. Common examples are shipping/return policies, customer service commitments, and facts about your product assortment – for instance, all-organic or American-made items.

At most, I recommend picking three talking points. This strikes the perfect balance of variety and consistency.

Which companies are great at this? Indie retailers can look to mainstream direct-to-consumer brands like Everlane and Casper as examples.

Everlane’s three talking points are lasting quality, ethical factories, and transparent pricing. You’ll find these – sometimes one-at-a-time, sometimes all together – on the website, in emails, on social media feeds, and elsewhere.

Casper puts their three features (delivery benefits, 100-night trial, and a 10-year limited warranty) right at the top of their homepage. Then, they echo these messages across consistently.

Tip 3: Be open and vulnerable (Pro tip: As an indie retailer, you have permission!)

It’s beneficial – maybe even non-negotiable – to be real and human right now. We are in unprecedented times.

Joss & Main offered a great example of how to do this last week when they wrote on social media: “There’s no rulebook on how to react during a pandemic. Just as you’re figuring it out as you go, we are too.”

Social media post showing a retailer's response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Entrepreneurs: Are you scared about what this crisis means for your business and your local community? Then you should say so. Are you experiencing financial pressure? Well, let customers know that spending their dollars with you will make a huge difference.

Studies show that one impact of COVID-19 is an increase in “feel good” consumption. Everyone is craving humanity and connection – even from retailers – in this period of uncertainty. So, how can you capitalize?

Tip 4: Cultivate community

With social distancing, everyone is craving a sense of togetherness. So, how can your business keep an emotional bond with your customers and make sales by bringing groups together?

In Boston, Sofi Madison – owner of Olives & Grace – asked local kids to draw and mail in artwork to hang in her shop window. The theme? Togetherness. Her shop’s sales have moved business entirely online during the crisis. But, the window display is a colorful reminder of local community for all who stroll past.

Meanwhile, Shannon Maldonado of Philadelphia boutique Yowie opened up her calendar to her “biggest support system both virtually and IRL.” Using a simple Calendly link, people were able to book 20 minutes for a free “virtual coffee.” The topics? Business advice, project advice, life advice, and even Vanderpump Rules.

Social media post from Yowie's owner

However, community is more than a tool for building emotional connections and loyalty. It can drive revenue, too.

So, consider using a program like Zoom to hold remote “shopping parties” with groups of customers or friends, where they can socialize and you can show off items they can purchase remotely.

Or, think about setting a goal (such as your monthly operating expenses or a target number of orders) and asking your community to help you meet it. Share progress along the way, almost like a brick-and-mortar Kickstarter campaign.

Tip 5: Share ways people can support your indie retail business – without spending money

Yes, cash is critical. But, in addition to purchasing products and gift cards, there are no-cost ways that people can help. So, ask your followers to share your business with their friends, write a positive review, sign up for your email list, or follow you on social media.

Speaking of email and social…

Tip 6: Focus on *two* free marketing channels

Yes – you can stop worrying about needing to do it all. The sheer number of marketing opportunities out there often leads to indie retailers feeling overwhelmed and doing nothing.

Instead, commit to two. I typically recommend email (if you’ve already been collecting email addresses – if you haven’t, start!) and either Instagram or Facebook depending on your audience’s demographic. 

These are great places to keep in touch with your customers, stay on their minds, give updates, and market your products. (I’ll be giving more ideas on how to use these in tips 7 and 8!)

Tip 7: Find simple ways to keep selling as an indie retailer

If you already have a website, make sure that customers know the URL and understand that you’re still open for business. If you don’t, there are easy ways to keep showcasing and selling products.

The simplest step you can take is to take pictures of shop shelves or merchandise vignettes. Share these on social media or in email, along with a message like this one from indie retailer Juxtaposition Home: “Everything you see in this photo is available now and just a phone call away.”

Many small businesses are successfully using Instagram stories, which aren’t subject to Instagram’s algorithm (unlike posts in your feed). These disappear after 24 hours – but retailers can get around this by using the Highlights feature.

Here’s an inspiring example from the hospitality industry: Baker, cookbook author, and James Beard award-winner Joanne Chang is selling ingredient kits for one signature recipe at a time, available for pickup or shipping. Each week, she goes live on Instagram to host a virtual “baking class” to keep her community engaged.

Are you able to still visit your shop in person? Then you can offer “private shopping appointments” to interested customers via Facetime or Skype. Beauty brands like Glow Recipe, Huda Beauty, and BareMinerals are all offering virtual consultations. So is Everthine Bridal Boutique, which has locations in Connecticut and Vermont.

What techniques have you seen indie retailers testing out during this time?

Tip 8: Sell to and serve customers creatively

The hard truth is that we are in a really difficult time. While we’re looking for silver linings, here’s one I see: independent retailers can experiment and innovate.

Independent retail boutique, Olives and Grace, a small boutique shop in Boston

Consider ideas like:

  • Local delivery/curbside pickup – including “contactless delivery” where you leave the item in a safe location for customers to retrieve. For payment, use Apple Pay or a platform like Invoicely.
  • Mystery or “matchmaker” purchases, where customers set a budget and give preferences. From there, it’s up to the shopkeeper to send custom selections.
  • Send-a-gift programs, which encourage customers to delight a friend with a surprise item during this era of social distancing.
  • Or, send-a-gift with an extra-great twist: Adopt-a-nurse or adopt-a-doctor programs, where customers can “pay it forward” to deserving person they don’t even know. Send the purchase to a local ER with a note saying something like “For a fabulous first-responder, sent by [Customer name].”

Tip 9: Use promo codes and discounts carefully

Small businesses have small margins in the best of times. So, this isn’t the time to panic and offer deep discounts. Even large companies frequently find that codes increase the number of orders – but not by enough to increase their bottom line.

But, what should retailers do instead? See tip 10 for ideas.

Tip 10: Promote future purchases, repeat buys, and bundling

Design promotions to set your business up for long-term success. Here are a few ideas from well-known retailers:

  • Use a strategy like Old Navy‘s Super Cash promo to turn a purchase now into more down the line. For instance: Buy this month, get 10% off next month’s purchase.
  • Or, give a small discount to customers who commit to a subscription. This could be to receive the same product (i.e. a favorite beauty or food item) on a regular basis, or a “surprise” item/curated box a la Birchbox.
  • Consider bundling or “buy more, save more” promos to increase your average order size. (But, do the math first to make sure it increases your bottom line!) ThirdLove, for example, offers $15 off purchases of 2 bras, $25 off purchases of 3 bras, and $40 off purchases of 4 bras. For your business, it might make more sense to use percentages instead of dollar amounts.

How are you feeling about your business?

In ordinary times (remember those?!), 31% of small business owners call marketing their #1 challenge. Of course, the current situation isn’t making this any easier. But, it has also taught us that we’re all in this together.

That’s why I’m offering a free 1-hour messaging audit to any indie retailer who wants it. My treat! If you’re interested, just click here and submit the contact form.