If your state is beginning to lessen coronavirus restrictions or has already, your retail business is probably in the midst of deciding which operational policies to implement and how to communicate those changes to customers.
When you reopen your retail business, customers who are on their way to your store are probably wondering what to expect. Many businesses are offering curbside pickup or order shipping since COVID-19 shut many stores down. What accommodations are you offering when your store reopens?
Work through this guide to develop a policy plan for reopening your store, communicate it to your customers, and leverage the power of eCommerce to maximize your sales.
Table of Contents
Decide your plan of operations
Half capacity? Tight shopping aisles? Masks required? Each state has different regulations that you need to consider before inviting your customers inside. Work through these steps to make decisions for how your store will operate when it reopens to shoppers.
When you’ve created a strategy that follows government policy and meets customer needs, share it with all employees and create a piece of content so everyone can have it on hand.
Look to state or county-specific restrictions
These rules are the ones you don’t really have a choice but to follow.
Silver lining: You no longer need to struggle with operational decisions. These requirements are now very black and white.
Many regions are adjusting maximum capacity, adding testing requirements, or implementing a curfew to temper high amounts of traffic that could put everyone at risk.
You can start out on a site like this one from NPR that aggregates all COVID restrictions by state. Then, search your official .gov state website or your county website for the most specific information.
You can also leverage these laws in your messaging. Explain to customers that you’re in compliance with state law. It’s not your personal decision that they need to wear masks inside your store.
Find accurate health and safety information
Check reputable sites to decide the most effective methods for ensuring health and safety. You may want to consider:
- Best cleaning materials and cleaning frequencies to eliminate viruses on surfaces
- Most effective protective measures for individuals, and how much of it is reasonable to require customers and employees to do
- Latest documentation on COVID-19 symptoms so you can restrict customers and employees who exhibit them
Recommended amount of distance between people while they shop at your business (the CDC says at least 6 feet)
Leverage insights from customer questions and comments
If you’re trying to figure out what will make customers feel comfortable at your business, you might as well get the answer straight from the horse’s mouth.
Tap into discussions about your store on social media. Discover what customers want in these communication channels:
- Your mentions
- Your DM’s
- Searching your business name
- Searching your industry and location
Move on to questions in Google My Business or other listing aggregate sites. If customers are asking
“Can we see which products are in your store virtually?” or “Are you going to make it possible to social distance while shopping?” They are probably hoping your business will provide that service.
If your store’s contact information is displayed in such a way that it’s common to get phone calls or direct messages, find a way to document relevant feedback from those as well. Any avenue of customer communication is a great source for gleaning these insights.
Opening up in the most intentional way possible is all about caring for the well being of our fellow humans, and your store’s employees are no exception. Get a sense of policies that would make employees feel the most safe and able to focus on their job, as well as anything they may have heard from customers while they were out on the front lines.
Create a process for fielding customer messages
Questions, comments, and concerns will be coming in through just about every avenue possible. To make sure accurate answers are out there and customers feel heard, decide who is responsible for monitoring each of the following channels and responding to users:
- Social media
- Google My Business
Create a strategy to assess the success of your plan
In order to make sure you’re running your operation to the highest possible level of success, you’ll need to implement a strategy to evaluate the response.
GatherUp CEO Aaron Weiche recommends using first party reviews to gather answers to questions, such as these ideas:
- Q: Rate how well did our team follow our COVID-19 guidelines
- Q: Rate how you feel about our process for your health and safety
- Q: Rate your feeling on our social distancing guidelines and signage
- Q: How would you rate the ease of our process?
- Q: How would you rate the speed of our service?
- Q: How would you rate your overall satisfaction?
- Q: How likely are you to purchase again from us in the coming weeks?
Decide where you will generate this feedback, whether with a survey on an iPad in-store or an email you send to everyone who has bought a product online, and train your employees on how to guide customers toward the feedback mechanism. Keeping tabs on these answers will allow you to be agile and remediate whichever methods have missed the mark.
How to message it
Did you know that 68% of Americans say they are concerned that state governments will lift coronavirus-related restrictions on public activity too quickly, while one-third reports experiencing high levels of psychological distress?
Your main goal in messaging and tone should be to garner feelings of safety and security among your customers, should they choose to enter your store. Use this list of ethos phrases while crafting messaging in order to evoke a tone of security:
- Authoritative: “We have a plan of action for you, and it’s based on facts.”
- Empathetic: “We understand your concerns, because those are also our concerns.”
- Flexible: “We know everyone is experiencing a different level of comfort, and we will do what we can to accommodate you.”
- Transparent: “This is the experience you can truthfully expect to receive when you patron our store.”
- Informative: “ “Here is everything you need to know about visiting our store again and how we came to these decisions.”
Once you’ve got a good handle on how you will relate to your customers using tone, consider including this content into your marketing to drive home that feeling of security.
Emphasize health and safety
Customers want to know how you’re keeping them safe, and how you’re committing to keeping your employees safe. For this topic, it will most likely be more effective to list out your new health and safety protocol in a list of tangible items, rather than simply saying you’re improving health and safety conditions with no concrete evidence.
Luckily you’ve already figured this piece out when deciding your new operations strategy, so you can simply polish it up for customer content. The list of policies you share can be a combination of government restrictions, decisions you made based on health research, and ideas inspired from feedback.
Show off your social proof
When the theme of the times is uncertainty and fear, reviews that provide a sense of security and an inside glimpse to the real experience will be paramount.
If you don’t already have a lot of reviews on Google, Facebook, and product review platforms, consider starting a review generation campaign a priority in the coming weeks as your prep to reopen.
In your review generation campaign, you’ll need to place emphasis on two things:
- High Aggregate ratings
82% of customers expect an aggregate rating of three or more stars. 47% want a four-star rating or higher. 12% of customers won’t touch a business that has anything less than a full five-star rating.
- Recent reviews
86% of customers feel a review that’s older than three months is irrelevant. 48% of those customers only care about reviews submitted within the last two weeks. Even worse, only 1% of customers actually pay attention to reviews that are older than one year.
If you aren’t sure how to kick start your review generation, use this guide from Grade.us.
Don’t forget to audit and tidy up the reviews your store already has. If you have unanswered questions, reviews that you haven’t responded to yet (especially negative ones), or any inaccuracies in your listings, now is the time to get everything straight.
The last step in leveraging social proof is to be social, and show it off. Implement it into your marketing in these ways:
- Embed a review carousel on your website
- Use the text from reviews to make your own visuals and implement them into your website, emails, social posts, or other communications
- Share positive messages on social media from your followers
- Screenshot positive reviews and share them on social media captioned with an appreciative comment
- Add links to popular review sites so users can go check it out for themselves
Address common questions
Get out in front of the issues that are on your customers’ minds. In the same way that you used your Google Q&A, social media mentions, or search queries (on both social and search engines) to get inspiration for which changes your customers prefer, use these questions to guide you in what you should address.
In the time it takes for a customer to have a question and scour your various digital assets searching for an answer (and then hoping it’s up to date), there are a handful of touchpoints where they may find it easier to simply go to a competitor. Feature answers to these questions front and center in messaging, but also make sure you’ve directly answered the question where the customer asked it.
If you’ve been offering the option to do product packaging and curbside pick-up, you don’t have to nix this accommodation when your store reopens if you have the resources to continue it. Everyone will be at a different point in their comfort level, personal health risk, and knowledge of information about the pandemic, so allow that grace and space and do what you can to meet customers where they are.
In addition to simply allowing this grace and space in your operations, be vocal about it in your messaging. Let customers know that if they need an accommodation you didn’t think to offer, they should feel comfortable in working with you to implement that flexibility and work with them to ultimately build that relationship and brand loyalty.
Make the move to eCommerce
You don’t need to be a household name corporation or mass produce items to offer online shopping—but you do most likely need to offer online shopping.
COVID-19 might be an accelerant for this initiative, but to grow your business, it was trending in this direction anyway. For retailers that are mostly store-based, online sales have increased 14% year over year and the number of orders increased 32% year over year.
If you don’t have the resources to expand your site with inventory and point of sale infrastructure, there’s good news—plenty of popular platforms have customizable ways to showcase and sell your products. Not only do your customers already hang out on some of these sites, but it could drive traffic to your shop from customers who may not know of you, but were looking for an item in general.
Offer as many flexible options as you’re able to and consider shipping products, packaging them up for curbside pickup, or any other socially-distanced options that come to mind.
Pro-tip: No matter which eCommerce platforms you choose, creating top notch images or hiring a professional photographer for your products is crucial.
Templated eCommerce Platforms
This is the option that will most closely replicate you expanding your own website to have full eCommerce functionality.
These platforms work similarly to a CMS like WordPress (and some even have a WordPress plugin), but come with pre-designed templates built for eCommerce, offer secure checkout, and allow the opportunity to match the domain to that of your website.
When using these tools, choose a template that fits closest to your brand and then adjust details of the look and feel as needed. After populating all of your products and squaring away payment account info, link to your shop wherever you want to drive qualified leads from.
Here’s a few of our favorite eCommerce platforms:
Google My Business Products
The Products feature in GMB allows retail owners to add an image and a call to action button for a wealth of individual items if your store comes up as a result for a search.
You create categories for your products which may help your products come up for new customers who didn’t perform a branded search. Jessie Low also recommends using them to bolster your selection. “You create categories for your products, and add each individual product to each corresponding category (for instance, Most Popular Running Shoes, Must Have Casual Shoes, Summer Sandals, etc.), you can add multiple products within a category, which gives you the opportunity to make a very robust product section.”
Your CTA options for Products are:
- Order online
- Learn more
- Get offer
The downside is that these CTAs link to your site or landing pages you create for those products, which means you still need to create some sort of form or point of sale mechanism in order to make the sale.
On the upside, posts that populate in the Products section of your GMB are one of the first things shown on your profile, so you can leverage these images and CTAs to drive more site traffic. Use this guide to learn how to set it up.
Facebook Shops is a new, turnkey way for businesses to set up a customizable online store that customers can access on both Facebook and Instagram, and it’s completely free.
According to Facebook, “Any seller, no matter their size or budget, can bring their business online and connect with customers wherever and whenever it’s convenient for them.”
Besides its brand customization, the best part about Facebook shops is that it provides you with point of sale infrastructure, so you don’t need to create that like you would on your own site. Customers can browse your offerings, save products they’re interested in and place their orders right on Facebook.
In 2018, Amazon’s share of the US eCommerce market hit 49%—leaving 51% for all other online retailers combined.
If you decide to sell on Amazon, there’s no question that it could drive a wealth of new customers, which probably explains why selling on Amazon is the priciest platform of all your options.
According to their seller resources, “With the Individual plan, you’ll pay $0.99 every time you sell an item. The Professional plan costs $39.99 per month, no matter how many items you sell. For both plans, Amazon also collects a referral fee on each sale.”
The great thing about Etsy is that it was built for small retailers who don’t have much experience in building a digital storefront. If you’re a smaller retailer, Etsy customers are also likely more qualified leads, because they are specifically seeking out alternatives to huge retail corporations.
As part of this ease, the Etsy set-up walks you through every field you need to complete to give every detail about your products and how you’ll deliver them to your customers. Simply add items, complete their listings, and publish them to your shop. Once you choose how you’d like to accept payments, your Etsy shop is up and running and just needs to be marketed.
While not a completely free eCommerce platform like Facebook Shops, Etsy is fairly inexpensive. It costs $0.20 to publish a listing to the marketplace. A listing lasts for four months or until the item is sold, so if it’s available for longer than four months, you’ll have to relist it. Once an item sells, there is a 5% transaction fee on the sale price (including the shipping price you set). You can read more about selling on Etsy on their website.
Marketing channels for your reopening
Once you’ve gotten your new processes nailed down and you’ve prepared how you’re going to message your store’s reopening in a way that makes customers feel secure, make sure you deliver the news on all major channels.
Pro-tip: If you’re showcasing products on a platform that isn’t your website, think through the journey you want your customers to have. Are you linking them from social to your website, or to your shop?
Your website is the first place retail shops should make sure all offerings, hours, and health and safety initiatives are up to date. The latest information should be clear and easy to find, and we’ve seen other stores typically use one of three methods:
- Add a Coronavirus-specific page to your website that visitors can access directly from a main navigation bar
- Use an eye-catching banner that leads them to a round-up of changes they can expect
- Moving the normal home page content below the fold and making COVID updates the first thing visitors see, front and center
Once you’ve got your information thoroughly laid out and easy to find, finish preparing your website by adding your social proof. You have a range of options for displaying your best reviews, from embedding a feed that pulls the reviews from the platform they live on, to more artistically featuring customer quotes in various places on your site.
Retail reviews are unique from reviews in other industries because customers don’t only want to know about the holistic shopping experience, but about individual products. If you’ve been able to set up a digital presence for your products, consider implementing a product reviews plugin. If you sell on Amazon, you can use a tool like Traject SKU to monitor and manage product reviews.
To finish polishing up your website, add links to your social media channels so users can get those timely updates you pinned and see more of your products.
Pro-tip: It may be tempting to embed a grid of your Instagram posts onto the page, but there’s evidence that this is a big SEO no-no and may relegate your store to the bottom of the list when customers are searching for products. Link out to your Instagram so they can find it, but if you’re featuring the images from your Insta, just repost them as normal images on your website.
Google My Business
As we already mentioned, the most significant way to leverage GMB will be populating the “Products” fields.
However, Google has recently created several different features on their Google My Business platform to support small businesses.
GMB added a special COVID-19 Post type that appears higher and with increased visibility in the GMB panel in your search results. At this point in time, you can only populate these posts with text and a link. Similarly to the website banner, this will help you catch the eye and direct customers toward your COVID updates before they get too into the weeds searching for answers on your GMB and wondering if they’re up to date.
Google also released a COVID-19 feature called “Support links” where customers can access donation links, gift card links or both to help financially support that store. When you set this up, leverage the field where you can write a short personal message to customers letting them know that you’re grateful for their support or how their donation will be used.
Because of its instantaneous nature, many customers will visit your social media sites looking for timely updates. This is a place where you can provide those updates, but also answer questions and provide a behind the scenes look at your store’s processes.
First, create a concise post of the more pertinent information about your reopening. If you can, avoid putting a link in the post in order to increase it’s organic reach, post it and pin it to the top of your profile. If the update changes, repeat the same process, unpin the old post, and pin the new one.
Phew!! First week done ✅ What a fabulous week. Thank you for the smiles, the laughs, the purchases, (the gossip!!) and for being the most wonderful customers ever 💛💛💛 Next week, longer Saturday opening and we’ll be trialling the reopening of the children’s room! 😍 #reopening pic.twitter.com/scYOOXOcU5— Read. Holmfirth (@read_holmfirth) June 20, 2020
Decide who among store employees will be in charge of monitoring social media mentions and directly responding to customer questions or problems. If you see questions that tend to be recurring, it may help to share them with your own accompanying text, or on Twitter “retweet with comment.” This will allow you to share the question and answer with the rest of your followers by letting them into your authentic conversation.
Besides that, just update update update! Show off images of your new branded social distancing floor stickers, photos of store employees wearing masks, or exciting new products that will generate some buzz. Anything that shows followers how you’re working hard through preparations for reopening and gives them that insider look will invoke that feeling of security.
Email is a great, direct way to let customers know you have some information that applies to them. The challenge, as any email marketing expert will tell you, is getting a list.
If you’ve already been in the eCommerce game and have customers that have bought online, you’re one of the lucky few—you already have a list of customers, provided that you made email a required field for these processes.
For other retailers that haven’t built up long lists of emails from these sources, the most effective way to get email addresses is to add an opt-in form to your website. If you aren’t sure how to set this up, use online guides that walk through easy, out-of-the-box form plugins meant for website owners who aren’t super-savvy developers.
Now you just need people to actually opt in to the opt-in. What can you offer them through email that the general public doesn’t have access to? Many retail businesses incentivize subscribing to emails by providing exclusive discounts and news about upcoming sales. Let them know what they’ll get in the same place as the opt-in form on your website.
In store signage can be helpful in guiding your customers’ behavior once they arrive at your store, and makes social distancing easier.
If there’s a direction customers should walk down each aisle as they shop, map it out for them with arrows or stickers. If there’s anywhere people typically wait in line, such as at the cash register or waiting to enter at limited capacity, designate safe distances between all who are in line.
This is a great opportunity to have fun with it and make what would have been fairly standard directives fit your brand or a local theme.
Bonus points: Show off pictures of your fun social distancing directives in emails or social media that double as a heads-up for the expectations you have of customers when they enter your store.
Final thoughts on reopening your retail business
As restrictions in some states may begin to lift, these 4 steps for making adjustments will help ensure a seamless experience for everyone:
- Decide the right operations processes for your retail business.
- Create content that includes all the elements discussed above.
- Build out your eCommerce presence.
- Distribute it thoroughly on all possible marketing channels to keep everyone updated.
The best part? Most of the principles in this guide can be universally leveraged during any changes your store implements in the future, and could likely increase sales from people who just appreciate the flexible option. Do these four things, and you’re likely to be visited by customers who know exactly what to expect from your store, and are looking forward to their next visit after they receive it.