How COVID-19 Has Merchants Rethinking Their Customer Experience

This guest post comes from Lightspeed, a point-of-sale and e-commerce provider for retail and restaurant businesses. Visit Lightspeed’s COVID-19 Help Center for additional articles and webinars around e-commerce strategies to help your business.

Since COVID-19 flipped the world of retailers and restaurateurs across North America upside down, business owners have had to transform their operations and learn new ways to keep serving customers while keeping them and their employees safe.

It’s no small task, to be sure, but at Lightspeed, we have the privilege of hearing how our merchants are finding solutions to some of the biggest challenges the industry has ever faced.

We’re in an age of accelerated disruption and are seeing independents rise to the challenge, adopting new ways of doing business at an incredibly fast pace. From order-ahead to virtual fittings and digital cookbooks, we wanted to share how other independent retailers and restaurateurs are navigating COVID-19 and adapting to unprecedented shifts in consumer behavior.

We sat down with retailer’s Ruti and Rebicycle, along with restaurants September Surf Cafe and Elena, to share what they’ve done since customer service went digital. While finding answers in times of uncertainty is a challenge, these forward-thinking businesses are already implementing new ways of doing business that are likely to remain viable post pandemic. Here are their stories:

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September Surf Cafe: Order-ahead and curbside pickup

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, September Surf Cafe co-owner Mitch Martin had no choice but to stop his sit-down services and subsequently lay off employees. But the grim outlook industry-wide, Martin also saw an opportunity.

Rather than shut their businesses down until it was safe to reopen, they created a new concept called Deptember, (playing on their cafe’s name and dépanneur, which means “convenience store” in French), which quickly adopted an order-ahead business model to serve customers while practicing social distancing.

The premise is simple: Customers place their order and pay through September’s website and indicate what time they’ll come to pick up their order curbside. This pick-up-and-go concept has their labor costs down and Martin said that, despite their inability to sit down and enjoy their order on-premise, customers are still showing up.

“We’ve been about just as busy around this time as we were last year, so we’re pretty happy,” said Martin.

Along with pivoting how they serve customers, September also pivoted what they’re selling to align more with consumers’ needs during the pandemic.

“We’re selling a lot more retail coffee bags now. People are buying coffee for home, and we wanted to help” said Martin. “We’re also selling sourdough and baguettes so people can even get some of their usual groceries while they’re there.”

With no queues and clusters of customers bumping into tables, Martin thinks that the customer experience also improved. Ordering is streamlined and wait times have become a thing of the past. Due to the success of this order ahead model, both from an operational and sales perspective, Martin said he and his business owners have taken a second look at how they were operating prior to COVID-19.

“We do want to keep doing this when we reopen,” said Martin. “Where people can just come in, grab a seat and order on their phone and we can just prepare orders. So we’d be using this (order ahead) technology a lot more.”

Rebicycle: Personalized virtual consultations

Real-estate seems to go hand-in-hand with being a merchant. Retailers need to have a space to display their products, welcome customers and make sales. But when physical spaces began temporarily closing due to the pandemic, sales floors went dark and were replaced with eCommerce and virtual appointments.

Rebicycle is a Montreal bike shop that builds custom bicycles from upcycled components. When the pandemic hit and closed the shop’s doors, founder Ben Adler began offering virtual custom fittings.

Adler said Rebicycle is just as busy—if not busier—than before and is in no rush to reopen the storefront. “For me, I can do exactly what I was doing before virtually and it’s 100% safer for me and the customer,” he says.

This wasn’t a new idea for Rebicycle. The shop started offering virtual bike appointments to people who didn’t live in the city a couple of years ago, but the service wasn’t popular at that time. Now, it’s a completely different story.

“All of a sudden, it’s only virtual appointments all day every day. It’s kind of amazing,” says Adler. “Our appointments are booked way further out and there are fewer people canceling at the last minute.”

With people looking for ways to commute safely and stay active, Adler says it seems like “everybody needs a bike right now” and with virtual appointments, they’re able to support that surge in demand for their products while supporting social distancing measures.

In a physical space, balancing the cost of goods and operating expenses, such as rent and electricity, involves a lot of trial and error. Adler said the bike industry had been moving more and more towards a direct-to-consumer model over the past 10 years, but the pandemic has accelerated this shift and prompted retailers to rethink how they should use their physical spaces.

“You don’t need that valuable real estate. I think that’s going to be the biggest wake-up call to all industry is how overvalued real estate is,” said Adler. “If your retail experience isn’t an experience, you’re done. That model is over.”

Ruti: Implementing a try-before-you-buy policy

Retailers are faced with the constant dilemma of how to sell their products without being pushy. Not only do consumers who feel pressured to buy leave earlier than planned, but aggressive sales tactics can have a lasting negative impact on your brand.

This fragile balance involves the right team of sales associates, proper training and a commitment to making the sales floor a place where consumers feel comfortable and actually want to spend time exploring.

While the try-before-you-buy model isn’t new for apparel retailers, it’s certainly gaining popularity because of the comfort level it gives consumers when shopping online.

Ruti is a ready-to-wear clothing boutique with 10 stores across the US. All stores had to close due to COVID-19, but their Dallas location is now open and welcoming shoppers.

While excited to reopen and offer the same, personalized service as before, Ruti’s CTO, Sharon Segev, noticed that customers didn’t want to use the fitting rooms as much as they used to, likely due to concerns over COVID-19. His response was to implement a try-before-you-buy policy, giving consumers the ability to buy without hesitation and try the garments from the comfort of their own home.

“They come into the store, they look around, and instead of picking up the item and going into a fitting room like they used to, they take this item and go home,” says Segev. Now, nearly 60% of Ruti’s sales are a result of this new policy.

When asked whether or not they would continue supporting try-before-you-buy once all 10 of their retail locations reopened, Segev responded with a resounding yes because of how popular it was and how beneficial it was for generating sales.

“We like to say, we didn’t ask for [COVID-19] but, whether we like it or not, it’s here. What it taught us is to develop features that otherwise didn’t get the priority and now those features and functionalities are here to stay,” says Segev.

In times of hardship, creative problem-solving, listening and adapting to customer feedback is as important as ever.

Elena: Exploring collaborative digital cookbooks

Another byproduct of COVID-19 and social distancing measures was the surge in demand for recipes to cook at home.

With their dining rooms temporarily closed, savvy restaurateurs realized the opportunity at hand: creating cookbooks that feature fan-favorite recipes. Not only does it fulfill a new need among consumers, but it can be profitable as well.

When Montreal-based pizzeria and wine bar Elena closed their doors due to COVID-19, they launched a digital mini cookbook aptly titled Remember Skin Contact? with recipes to their most popular dishes. Customers could now enjoy restaurant-level cooking from the comfort of their own home.

This was quickly followed up with the second edition, Elena and Friends: A Tight-Knit (But Socially Distanced) Community Cookbook, featuring dishes from over 20 of Montreal’s top restaurants.

The restaurant has donated 100% of the proceeds from cookbook sales to the Montreal Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, an initiative supporting workers who have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. On May 22, the National Post reported that Elena’s cookbook raised over $50,000.

The revival of the cookbook offers a new revenue stream for restaurateurs, but for those who are less willing to share their secret ingredients with the world, there are meal kits.

While restaurateurs wait for more guidance on when and how to safely reopen for table service, they’re actively exploring new ways to serve customers.

Customer-centric reinvention

Retailers and restaurateurs may have had to pivot quickly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the services and changes they make to their business now are likely to benefit them well after they’re permitted to reopen.

One common theme we see in the way each of these extraordinary businesses approached their problem-solving is that they thought, first and foremost, about how they can serve customers better. They asked themselves “what do customers need from us right now and how can we safely provide that?”

Right now, businesses need to focus on the customers that support them. Only by doing so will they win their loyalty and see long-term benefits.

While we’re all searching for answers right now, use the resiliency and innovative approaches of your fellow independent business owners as inspiration. For every problem, there is a solution and now, more than ever, that type of thinking is what will determine a business’s outlook once social distancing measures are lifted.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Indeed.

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