This is a contributed article from Shilpa Shah, the co-founder and chief experience officer at Cuyana, a San Francisco women’s apparel and accessories brand.
The coronavirus pandemic has not been easy on any of us. Even the most well-positioned retail companies have faced declining revenues, the layoff or furlough of valued employees and, of course, an unpredictable future.
When my business partner, Karla Gallardo, and I launched our women’s clothing and accessories line, Cuyana, in 2014, we started as a digital-only brand as so many retailers are these days.
But we always knew we wanted to have a physical component as well. We experimented with popups in several markets before eventually opening permanent storefronts in San Francisco; Palo Alto, California; Venice, California; Pacific Palisades, California; New York; Boston; and Chicago.
In March, we closed all of our doors. While sales were still strong online, our closures were difficult and challenged the community feeling our stores embodied. As we contemplate reopening, we have paused to reevaluate the retail experience model that we were designing towards.
In the pre-COVID world, we encouraged community building through human connection. Now, we are no longer able to use our spaces to encourage people to linger and connect with the brand and each other. Going forward we must focus on growing the store’s role to service a greater omni-channel vision.
3 things we've learned from the pandemic — and how we’ll move forward
1. Connecting with customers is key.
What we’ve learned from the coronavirus pandemic is that society’s needs are changing and as a result, we need to meet customers where they are. Recognizing the variance in economic stability for many and the uncertain future, we intentionally shifted our marketing communication, focusing more on slower living and less on highlighting the product. As a brand that celebrates “fewer, better,” this shift wasn’t dramatic. It emphasized brand tenants that are at our core. In unpredictable times, it’s important to rely on the essence of your business in a meaningful way.
At Cuyana we chose to be honest, authentic and most importantly to guide the conversation in a more human way, towards intentional living.
We delivered this message across channels, with a social media presence with regular posts that build customer engagement and didn’t solicit products. While it’s impossible to offer the same experience we can in-store, we can give our customers a sense of the brand this way and maintain our connection with them.
2. Explore omni-channel opportunities whenever possible.
Today, as we focus on the future, we are also choosing to not be reactive in regards to the challenges facing us. While times are indeed scary, we are looking forward by innovating wherever we can. We have chosen to focus our efforts to refine the customer experience in new omni-channel ways.
We are inspired by brand leaders such as Apple and Nike and also multi-brand retail innovators such as Nordstrom and Target. These companies have continued to try new customer paradigms even while in a pandemic. We, too, are viewing the time to reflect as an opportunity to innovate. Our success through this reflects the importance of considering not just online sales, but the intersection of all customer touchpoints.
For an experiential brand like ours, we’ve been able to deliver our products through our website, but, we are also exploring new methods to encourage connection.
We know we’re going to have to reopen our store fronts at some point, and we want to do that thoughtfully and hopefully in an omni-channel way that invigorates the industry.
3. Rethink reopening and reach out.
While we are eager to reopen, much of our attention will be on determining the best way to do so with the health and safety of our staff, customers, and suppliers top of mind. Putting our customer needs first should be the guiding force of all major operational decisions. The key pain point for most small business owners right now will be creating a future plan as the consumer concerns keep changing day to day and week to week.
These challenges are very real, and communicating the company’s efforts honestly and transparently to customers will be fundamental.
This will include messaging across our channels, driving to the company website as a hub for all detailed information, and ensuring customers know we are doing everything we can to protect their health and safety.
Since the environment keeps shifting, we view all efforts as a phased approach with testing and learning as the main goal. As local economies begin to relax isolation and social distancing orders, we will begin looking at ways we can bring back employees and serve our customers, including curbside pickup to start. As the outbreak subsides, we know that we will begin welcoming customers into stores on an appointment basis. We have a plan forward, yes, but are also prepared with two to three contingency plans ready as backup. Through all of this, we will take all necessary measures to ensure our employees are healthy and that our stores and products are cleaned thoroughly and often.
Navigating a pandemic is uncharted territory for all of us. Remaining open to quick and necessary pivots will be key, and ensuring the health and safety of our employees and customers will be paramount if we are to return to any kind of new normal that feels even remotely natural.
For more resources to help your business during coronavirus, visit our Small Business Guide for Coronavirus Relief.