Retailers and brands make a quick pivot in the pandemic

Photos: Hanna Andersson; Mattel
Jun 25, 2020
Patricia Vekich Waldron

A terrific group of talented executives from a variety of brands and retailers shared their own COVID-19 pandemic experiences at this week’s eTail Digital Summit.

Some reported dramatic upticks in the sales of individual products and categories while others saw revenues virtually evaporate. Here are my favorite examples of brands and retailers used people-first thinking to develop relevant products and content timed perfectly to meet the needs of their customers.

  • Hanna Andersson and Polyconcept North America (PCNA) gave out 10,000 stuffed bears as part of a “surprise and delight” promotion to spark joy and encourage recipients to participate in a social distancing Teddy Bear Hunt.
  • American Frame, a family-owned vertically integrated pure-play, used raw materials originally intended for frames to make acrylic PPE when demand for frames declined.
  • saw a big downturn in party-related merchandise but an uptick in other categories — puzzles, games and home and office supplies. Working with their supply chain and manufacturing operations they were able to drive sales by expanding categories, backfilling hot-selling items and branching customers into other categories. They have also seen a resurgence in costume sales, presumably to liven up those pesky Zoom calls.
  • On Campus Marketing (OCM) repurposed existing products into “Snacks for Heroes” kits that were donated to first-responders as well as offered online. OCM quickly sourced PPE from U.S. manufacturers and added them, along with new wellness products, to their offerings.
  • CVS refused to let Moms go uncelebrated. Under tight timelines they engaged internal designers to create a series of Mother’s Day cards. Over one million free cards were digitally printed using in-store photo facilities or downloaded online. Store managers wrote personal messages to all the CVS Moms who worked on their big day.
  • Mattel immediately provided printable content to help customers keep children occupied. Their Fischer Price #ThankYouHeros set was an authentic and welcome new toy that was launched in a matter of days through their partnership with Walmart.

Retail still starts with a good plan, but one that is agile enough to react to current events and sense shoppers’ concerns and needs. Smart brands are focusing on consumers and shoring up their capacity (people, process and tech) to meet demand in a heartbeat.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is the best way for brands to stay in tune and/or ahead of the pandemic, economy and social unrest lifecycles? What other product pivots have inspired you?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"As bad as it is out there it is still an exciting time to be a retailer. Their creativity, perseverance, and love for their communities is off the charts. And commendable."
"To be proactive and responsive, brands can learn from the pandemic’s global success stories."
"If a retailer had to do something, it would be to acknowledge current conditions – in the public view, things are not normal and retailers can’t operate as if it were."

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14 Comments on "Retailers and brands make a quick pivot in the pandemic"

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David Naumann

Retailers have been forced to pivot and it has been very difficult for most retailers. The most dramatic pivot, based on consumer demand, is the increase in online grocery shopping and the fulfillment of those orders through curbside pickup and delivery. Adoption of online grocery in the U.S. has lagged the usage in Europe and Asia, but the pandemic accelerated consumer adoption here. Grocers have quickly adapted to fulfill these orders efficiently and some have succeeded. Others are still struggling to keep up with the demand.

Shep Hyken

When a brand can personalize a message to their customers, they connect on a higher level. Staying in tune during tough times isn’t just about the product pivots. It’s about the messaging pivots as well. Those are just as important, if not even more so. It’s not only about product. It’s also about the customer experience.

Dick Seesel

Aside from the highs and lows in demand for specific categories in the last few months — an obvious example being food delivery vs. dining in — the messaging from all sorts of retailers and consumer-facing companies has had to adapt. The initial tone was somber, almost to the point where you couldn’t tell one TV ad from another. Next, the floodgates opened to drive demand as if nothing were out of the ordinary. I’m not sure where marketers go next, since we are in a “new normal” of great uncertainty right now.

Ananda Chakravarty

Much of the apparel industry has shifted to making or supporting the supply chain for masks and other PPE. The non-essential retailers have had a substantial challenge in productizing anything – but they have also learned to pivot resources, processes and tech. The smartest of these retailers have reinvested in smoothing out their back offices, processes, and almost all have pivoted to click and collect, returns management as well as contactless delivery. One general and ongoing trend has been increased public awareness campaigning and showing solidarity with customers affected by the pandemic and social unrest. If a retailer had to do something, it would be to acknowledge current conditions – in the public view, things are not normal and retailers can’t operate as if it were.

Cathy Hotka

Communication is everything. Nordstrom telegraphs its concern for customers and associates by providing masks and hand sanitizer at the door. New signage tells customers the store is open and provides tips on how to socially distance. Tell customers you understand the situation, and they’ll reward you with their business.

Lisa Goller

Brands face a unique chance to pause, listen and respond with agility. Business doesn’t stop in a pandemic, it simply flows into the areas of greatest opportunity. Understanding and solving consumers’ new circumstances helps brands differentiate themselves from rivals.

To be proactive and responsive, brands can learn from the pandemic’s global success stories. In Asia, winning companies pivoted to livestreaming, social commerce and contactless pay to stay connected to consumers.

Adapting to 2020’s economic reality could mean adding affordable value tier offerings, private labels, and essentials rather than luxury items.

Social unrest during Hong Kong’s protests showed how taking sides could help certain brands earn consumer loyalty with a bold stance.

Even local small businesses serving the events space have innovated with agility. For instance, a wedding planning company and caterer turned to creating masks and family meal kits due to the temporary demise of large events. They’re proof that you need imagination, not just deep pockets, to thrive during this wonky time.

Georganne Bender
Pivoting has become second nature to the independent retailers we work with. The pandemic just added to their creativity. Owners of Ben Franklin Crafts & Frames in Redmond, WA were able to secure elastic that was out-of-stock everywhere and quickly assembled mask kits. They came in strong with craft kits and projects for kids and adults. Audrey DeJong, owner of the consumer craft show Pin It Canada, and her grand daughter, put together dozens of free craft kits for kids each week that could be picked from a table located at the end of her driveway. Peaceful Parlour, an eco-chic boutique in Geneva, Illinois put together tea packages, instructing customers online and on social medias about the healing benefits of teas, packages for kids, and Pamper Packages for MOM, among other weekly offerings including tarot card readings via Zoom. The owner of Jeans and a Cute Top Shop adapted new ways to serve her customers, including opening a resale shop so customers could donate and receive $5 to spend in her boutiques for every garment… Read more »
Brandon Rael

Retail has and will remain one of the most resilient and adaptive industries in the world. Brands and retailers have stepped up to the challenge and have pivoted their strategies during the pandemic to really listen to the customer, while understanding that we are all facing unprecedented challenges.

We see examples in small things we take for granted such as a free coffee from Starbucks, LVMH pivoting their manufacturing studios to produce hand sanitizer, Nordstrom offering their alterations team to sew more than 100,000 masks, as well as Target and Walmart offering senior shopping hours all make a difference

Trinity Wiles

The pandemic has forced a lot of retailers/brands to pivot quickly. From my perspective, it has forced the acceleration of technology/trends that were already in place pre-pandemic. We see BOPIS and curbside pickup growing and stores becoming fulfillment centers. While I haven’t enjoyed seeing the plight of businesses, I have enjoyed seeing the creativity come out of the need to pivot ops. One that inspired me was Uber pivoting to on-demand retail delivery.

Chuck Ehredt

This pandemic has been sad in terms of global suffering, but has been a shot across the bows of those brands lagging in their digital transformation – and I think will make the fit fitter and the weak disappear to enable their resources to regenerate into new forms of value for society and the economy. My favorite story was DSW (when their stores were closed) finding a way to ship pallets of shoes to Hy-Vee (which remained open) so customers could appease demand offline. What Patricia´s examples demonstrate is that today, we have a much more “deliberate” customer. They deliberately seek some forms of short-term pleasure after months of confinement, but also deliberately spend most of their money less frivolously than during the past decade. Retailers must recognize this behavior and tailor their efforts to it (as it won´t disappear for at least 12-18 months).

Ralph Jacobson

Important topic, Patricia! Being agile is one of the keys to sustained success for most any business. Retailers are seeing unprecedented challenges and the businesses you highlighted, as well as so many others large and small, are stepping up with new services that respond to shopper concerns and demands. Genuine concern and action are appreciated by shoppers.

Ricardo Belmar

Pivoting with agility is crucial for successful retailers. If you can’t pivot your products or service, then look to pivot your message so that your customers know who you are and where you stand. Customers will appreciate knowing you are not a faceless brand and will remember which brands were creative and clear with their message when they shop with you. If you can pivot your products as in the examples Patricia gives us, then you’ll be in a better position to stay engaged with customers during a crisis. That’s what develops an emotional connection between brand and customer.

Adrian Weidmann

COVID-19 has forced us all to pivot. While the word “pivot'” has become ubiquitous, I prefer “adapt.” Individuals, retailers, and brands all need to adapt — whether it’s a health pandemic, technological revolution (the Internet “supernova” of 2008), or cultural shifts. Those that adapt with these influences and seismic shifts will survive. Backyard pools and bicycles are experiencing record sales. Those that adapt and respond in ways that are valued and expected by customers will thrive.

Craig Sundstrom

I’m hesitant to give out grades, since responses were largely dictated by individual circumstance … retailers and manufacturers who were required to shut down had very few options or opportunities. But for those who could do … something … and at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think in general American companies responded well to what was an extraordinary emergency. Businesses small and large successfully adjusted their operating procedures in a matter of days — sometimes hours — and stayed IN business … IMHO that’s the biggest pivot of all.

"As bad as it is out there it is still an exciting time to be a retailer. Their creativity, perseverance, and love for their communities is off the charts. And commendable."
"To be proactive and responsive, brands can learn from the pandemic’s global success stories."
"If a retailer had to do something, it would be to acknowledge current conditions – in the public view, things are not normal and retailers can’t operate as if it were."

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