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California Retail Revs Up with New Strategies to Court Consumers

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As California begins plotting a course toward economic recovery, low-risk businesses in cities and towns across the state have been allowed to crack open their doors.

Phase Two of Governor Gavin Newsom’s reopening plan began for many counties on Friday, allowing retail businesses to provide curbside pickup, and manufacturing and logistics operations to resume.

On Monday, the governor’s office announced that shopping malls, strip malls and outlets would also be allowed to open for curbside pickup under Phase Two, though it is unclear when that loosening of restrictions will take effect.

Stay-at-home orders will continue into the summer, Barbara Ferrer, who leads the city’s public health department, confirmed on Tuesday. While restrictions will ease up in time, she told the Board of Supervisors that unless the county sees a “dramatic change” in the virus’ spread, there is “no way that we could in fact see us not needing to continue with a set of restrictions.”

In Southern California, businesses hard hit by the lockdown have not waited on government mandates to enact creative measures to keep in touch with their customers.

“There’s nothing good to say about the coronavirus, but it has brought us an opportunity as a business to look forward at the future of the brand,” Beau Lawrence, founder of Santa Barbara-based denim brand Ace Rivington, told Sourcing Journal.

Lawrence’s gears started turning shortly after the shutdown began. Knowing that his community-centered brand could not survive an indefinite period on just online sales, he sought socially distanced ways of staying figuratively close to his consumer base.

In late April, Ace Rivington began providing local denim deliveries in the Santa Barbara area. Facilitated by company staff—not hired delivery drivers or postal services—Lawrence describes the idea as a “lightbulb moment.”

“Customers were saying they didn’t want to pay $7 or $8 for shipping when they live three blocks away from the store,” he said. Using the Shopify e-commerce system, the company was able to quickly add a $2 hand-delivery option to online orders.

Within just a week, Ace Rivington completed about 60 local deliveries, Lawrence said, and it’s a service he recommends that his retail peers adopt.

Local delivery orders from Ace Rivington.

Local delivery orders from Ace Rivington.

“For any businesses to offer that to the local community—that’s really helped us,” he said. “It’s also shown the level of service we’re interested in providing to the customers.”

While there are insurance requirements for automobile operators conducting deliveries, many states have eased restrictions in light of the difficulties businesses are facing, Lawrence said.

Building off of the delivery scheme, the denim label will also begin conducting “Front Porch Fittings” with locals. Ace Rivington normally provides in-house tailoring services for its denim aficionados, who are particular about fit.

Intent on providing the same care and attention from a distance, store staff will drive to a shopper’s home with multiple sizes of a desired style and instruct them on how to ready the jeans for alteration. Detailed instructions on pinning will also be provided on the company’s website.

Once a shopper has decided on their perfect pair and the fixes they desire, the employee will bring the jeans back to the shop for tailoring.

“Everything that we do right now is about showing the customer how much value they bring, and as business owners, it’s our responsibility to be creative about how we provide service,” Lawrence said. Though these efforts may be time consuming and expensive to deploy, “if your only focus is on profit,” he added, “you’re going to make the wrong decisions in the short term.”

Today’s contingency plans could help chart a course toward retail’s new normal.

“There are storm clouds on the horizon for sure, with regard to the pressure we’re feeling from this virus,” he said. “I’m not going to subject my employees or myself to an environment that’s unsafe.”

Lawrence anticipates changes like creating a lobby in the front of his Santa Barbara store to provide counter service to consumers once his store reopens, rather than letting them roam the shop freely. Instead of trying on product in store, he’ll allow them to do so at home.

Ace Rivington's Santa Barbara store will undergo some layout changes upon reopening.

Ace Rivington’s Santa Barbara store will undergo some layout changes upon reopening.

He also wants to replace his plate glass window with a bi-fold one in order to serve shoppers outside of the store.

“I’m excited about the twists and turns ahead of us,” he said of the prospective developments. “We’ll definitely make some mistakes, but whenever we do that, we over-deliver to accommodate for it.”

In downtown Los Angeles, Shannon Scott and husband Sean, both footwear industry veterans and founders of locally-manufactured ComunityMade, have used this relative pause in business to unload some sitting product and give back to their neighborhood.

At ComunityMade’s WeCare sale, shoppers were able to choose their price on an array of the brand’s original styles, with proceeds donated to The People Concern, a group supporting the city’s homeless population and victims of domestic violence.

“We were able to spring-clean some inventory, which was nice, and donate some money which felt good,” Shannon Scott told Sourcing Journal. “We really started regrouping on some things in development.”

ComunityMade’s factories have been engaged in crafting personal protective gear, she said, allowing workers to keep their jobs though the brand’s footwear production has stalled.

“We’re able to facilitate gown making, which hasn’t been addressed 100 percent,” she said. The products are being delivered directly to healthcare workers through the city’s Logistics Victory Los Angeles (LOVLA) program, which serves medical facilities that have been unable to source enough gear.

On the brand side, ComunityMade has continued offering virtual consultations for its largely custom footwear offerings. While the downtown showroom is currently closed for business, the Scotts are considering offering curbside pickup.

“We have someone down there monitoring foot traffic to see if people are out and about,” Scott said, adding that she might implement curbside pickup through the month of May—even if it’s mandated that stores can reopen—for the safety of shoppers and store staff.

“Local neighbors have been reaching out, wanting to support the business,” Scott said.

Seeing an uptick in online sales, the brand is pivoting its assortment to appeal to shoppers in need of a pick-me-up.

ComunityMade dropped its first $100 shoe, a women’s leather slide sandal that has outperformed expectations. “Our challenge was trying to come up with something that people could wear indoors and outdoors, to try to meet them where their heads are at right now,” Scott said.

“We knew something was there, and we’re starting to tinker with how to get sharper on that price point,” she added. “We’re not about promotional discount opportunities—our opinion is that you should have less things but more quality things.”

ComunityMade's Palmetto slide retails for $100 on the brand's site.

ComunityMade’s Palmetto slide retails for $100.

Despite the setbacks and the financial stress, Scott hopes this moment will be a reset for the collective consumer consciousness. Homebound shoppers—and the industry at large—should use this downtime to think about the true cost of the products they’re buying, both from an environmental and human rights perspective.

“This kind of snapped us back into the beginnings of what we set out to do,” she said. “We’re more excited about the business right now than we have been in the past year.”

“The way that our community rallied around us was super impressive,” she added. “As much as financially things are unsure, I believe we’re on the right path, 100 percent.”

Woodbury University professor and chair of fashion and marketing Wendy Bendoni underscored the notion that authenticity will be key to brands “sustaining themselves through the mess we’re currently in.”

Small businesses may be at an advantage because of their deep ties with their consumers, she said.

“Customer-centric marketing, being transparent—those are terms we’ve heard before, but they’ve become all the more important now,” Bendoni said. Shoppers are looking to engage with brands in a way that feels real, and they will shell out for products that can serve them in their daily lives—however mundane they’ve become.

“For me in the social data world, that’s why understanding behaviors and interests is important,” Bendoni added.

The fashion veteran has seen an uptick in online trends like livestreaming, and consumers are tuning in. “Personalization in engagement—whether it’s the website, the storefront or the social media presence—will help brands stand out,” she said.

Even as California loosens its restrictions on retail, it’s important that brands read the room when it comes to consumer sentiment. Highly promotional behavior may not fly with cautious customers, who are mostly looking for reassurance that it’s safe to return to normal life.

“Even companies selling high-end workout clothing, for example, weren’t pushing those products—they were pushing cooking videos that helped people work with what they had at home,” Bendoni said by way of example. Brands have used their physical absence from consumers’ lives to grow the fondness in their hearts, by ingratiating themselves into daily activities like meal-making and workouts.

Brands can also capitalize on showing shoppers how to dress for their at-home lifestyles. “Products need to fit into what their needs are right now,” she said. “We’re not getting dressed up, but there is a lot of conferencing, from FaceTime to Zoom. It may just be clothing and accessories from the top up, but that’s a necessity right now.”

Before this all started, retailers were thinking about how to create an experience in stores, Bendoni said. “Now, they’re thinking about how to make retail safe and easy,” she said.

Moving forward into the next phases of reopening, the most important objective for brands is to tap into their consumers’ needs and desires, Bendoni advised. “Don’t go back to the same tactics you’ve been using to connect with them in the past,” she said.

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