Your Business

A Retail Business Survival Guide for COVID-19

By Rieva Lesonsky

By many accounts, the coronavirus outbreak is going to get worse before it gets better—which is not good news for America’s retail business owners. Most state governments across the country are asking consumers to stay-at-home and nonessential businesses to close their doors to in-store customers. As the list of stores deemed essential grows narrower every day and the virus continues to spread, businesses should have a contingency plan in place. Retailers face challenges on two fronts: how will supply chains be interrupted and how to still get product to customers? 

Supply Chain Disruption

According to current news sources, while China is slowly climbing out from under its manufacturing interruption, the rest of the world’s suppliers are just feeling the impact of the lockdown. Freight carriers are under restrictions when it comes to delivering goods. Government border lockdowns are continuing to delay deliveries and impeding businesses across the country from getting goods to customers in a timely manner. As more airlines cut flights, the transportation of goods is backing up quickly and what would normally move in a few days is taking much longer to get across borders. A shortage of truck drivers and consumers’ panicked stockpiling has led to added stress on suppliers and shortages of goods making them more expensive for wholesalers, retailers and consumers.

Although the disruption is already starting to impact the shipment of goods to retailers for the back-to-school season, National Retail Federation (NRF) president and CEO Matthew Shay sees the supply chain disruption subsiding with the main issue becoming getting merchandise into the hands of retailers and subsequently the consumers. 

In the meantime, small business owners are feeling the strain and turning to local suppliers to keep inventory in stock. When Adam Rizza, cofounder of Sunscape Eyewear, an eyewear  wholesaler and online retailer, quickly discovered the orders from his Chinese factories were  going to be delayed an additional 45 days, he found local sources for his products so he could ship to his clients. “We had to source goods from larger local distributors; however, this affected our margins.” Plus, Rizza had to send his staff home (due to California’s stay-at-home policies), and still make payroll.

If your foreign sources are delayed, you can contact your city/county business development offices for a list of local businesses who have the product you need. Or you can also source from website marketplaces such as Shopify, Amazon Business, and Alibaba (just be sure to check availability and delivery estimates).

If you’re worried about payment and credit terms under these unusual circumstances, you may find vendors are in the same boat and willing to make deals and allowances right now. While you’re waiting for business as usual to return, you can search now for financial companies that offer a line of credit or allow flexible terms for small business loans.

Keep Customers Safe and Spending

Although your business may be in a state not yet in lockdown, convincing customers it’s safe to shop in your store is a retail challenge you’ve likely never faced before. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends developing a comprehensive strategy to decrease the spread of the coronavirus and lower the impact in your workplace. This involves reducing transmission among employees, maintaining healthy business operations, and maintaining a healthy work environment.

More information comes out every day about how to identify the symptoms of the coronavirus. It’s vital you keep your employees informed about these so they don’t come into work with the slightest sign of sickness. You may even want to require employees to take their temperature daily before showing up to work. 

To keep the workplace clean, the CDC recommends cleaning with soap and water first and then disinfecting with diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70 percent alcohol. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also issued a list of disinfectants for use against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. Cleaning staff should also wear disposable gloves and coveralls for all tasks in the cleaning process, including handling trash. If you know someone in your store has tested positive, the CDC recommends immediately sealing off the area for 24 hours (if possible) to “minimize potential for exposure to respiratory droplets.”

As you complete these best practices for safety, be sure to share your processes with your customers so they can feel safe and assured you’re doing everything you can to make shopping safer. Post updates across your social media channels, on your website, in email updates and even on the windows and doors of your store. Even if you decide to close your doors and only offer online shopping, knowing your products are coming from a safe environment can go a long way soothing virus-anxious consumers.

Focus on Online Sales

If your retail business has not yet set up an e-commerce component or you’ve simply let that portion of your business skate for a while, now can be a good time to ramp up your online sales. According to Chain Store Age, becoming a digital retailer “quickly” is entirely possible. There are several ways to make it happen.

  • Third-party delivery services. If you’re not yet set up for delivering online orders, there are many third-party providers that handle part or all of the process. Do a quick search in your area and check out nationwide services such as Deliv.co and Roadie.
  • E-commerce platforms/marketplaces. It’s also fairly easy to set up an e-commerce store on marketplaces such as eBay, Shopify and BigCommerce. Right now, demand is high on marketplaces such as Amazon, so know deliveries will be slower than normal.

One idea you may not have thought of is turning your store into a digital commerce hub. If you close your store for regular commercial shopping, you can still help consumers get products by contacting package delivery services such as FedEx and making your store a distribution point for consumers receiving products. You can also partner with Amazon to become an Amazon Hub. As a Hub you can either house Amazon lockers which allows customers to self-service for pickup/returns or provide a counter and staff the kiosk to handle pickups and returns. In the long run you may attract new customers who may not have known about your business before they walked into your store to get their packages.

Ready to move your business forward?

Subscribe to Fundbox Forward for expert insights and tips every week so you can grow.