Right now, if Australian retailers aren’t peddling 2-ply toiletries (or anything else deemed ‘essential’) then you can bet they’re in crisis mode.
Business strategies that have perhaps enjoyed a period of stasis are being stress-tested to incorporate foreign facets like ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’, and bricks and mortar stores unschooled in reaping traffic of the URL variety are struggling without its IRL equivalent.
And while retailers’ B2C divisions are being whittled into skeleton crews and closures, B2B stakeholders are watching very closely to see how they’re responding. Is it with silence a la Corona brewers, or solidarity like Guinness brewers? And more to the point, does it even matter?
According to the numbers: yes — at least if you’re selling to tomorrow’s customers.
The Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey 2019, which recorded views of some 13,000 millennials and 3000 Gen Zs over 42 countries and territories, found that consumer sentiment towards business is increasingly negative. Only 55 per cent thought that business had a positive effect on society, which is a steep decline from the 61 per cent recorded in 2018.
Pertinent to a COVID-19 world, 32 per cent of millennials thought that businesses should try to improve society, and 37% said they would ‘stop/lessen’ their relationships with businesses because of ethical behaviour. As Deloitte put it, this is because millennials think businesses “focus solely on their own agendas rather than considering the consequences for society.” Not to be left out, a significant number of Gen Zs were also found to put their money where their values are by patronising brands that mirror their progressive ideals.
ACE Metrix, an advertising analytics company, add context to this in terms of brand responses to coronavirus. They report that 42 percent of consumers surveyed are in favour of brands addressing the pandemic, while 44 per cent added the caveat that it depended on the brand and message. “Actual action, not just words” was the key take-away, as 75 per cent placed the onus on brands to help out during the pandemic.
In light of Victoria’s stage one shutdown, the importance of brand communications has heightened. Search interest for ‘coronavirus retail’ saw vertiginous, yet volatile, spikes after Sunday’s announcement. ‘What retail stores are closing in Australia’ was a breakout term, meaning the query increased 5000 per cent over the previous period.
So, the demand for intel is there. Now what?
Retail consultant and 12HIGH founder Nathan Bush recently advised that “now is not the time for elaborate promotions or whimsical story telling.” In other words: keep it simple, stupid. Some brands are already getting called out for ‘panic marketing’ (founded or not), and Buzzsumo’s data shows that coronavirus headlines from Australian domain designators have clocked over 33 million engagements in 2020. Over 27 million of them will come from March alone, meaning any virtue signalling disguised as brand altruism will raise more eyebrows than a sneeze on the train.
Giving back is obviously the knee-jerk reaction. But while big-box retailers like Woolworths can afford charitable responses like their dedicated shopping hour, others may benefit from straight-forward transparency.
One standard approach across the board is to take to socials and speak directly to your community. Yeti’s Instagram post is a model response, incorporating brand ideals (the great outdoors) into a message informing their customers of closure dates and what it means for their staff. And their community liked it; looking at Yeti’s last nine image posts, they liked it approximately 155 per cent more.
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Even those enjoying the contemporary gold rush that is the toiletry business are responding in kind. Who Gives a Crap notified their customers of reduced stock, assuaged those with subscriptions, and tied in brand messaging by urging charitable giving through a #plyitforward campaign.
Ancillary to social posts, brands like Arc’Teryx have addressed COVID-19 through creative content. Their ‘Together for What’s to Come’ article gave an uplifting message of unity in uncertain times, before outlining how the virus would affect their people, operations, and community.
Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty, is exemplary of how you can take charge with thought leadership. She set up a ‘war room’ community on Slack strictly for owners of e-commerce stores. Over 130 people joined to trade in knowledge and support.
I’ve set up a war room for ecommerce leaders on Slack for COVID-19 planning, let me know if you need an invite.
— Kate Morris (@morris_kate) March 12, 2020
Providing a sense of stability, keeping positive, and communicating is important, but as business leadership author George Bradt wrote in Forbes, it’s important to manage your brand through the crises. And that means being realistic about the immediate future.
Finance reporters have been cataloguing the permanent closures of either stores or whole brands like Collette by Colette Hayman, Ishka, and EB Games across Australia. This week, jewellery juggernaut Michael Hill closed 300 stores ‘indefinitely’ and Aus swimwear brand Tigerlily went into voluntary administration. Both citing coronavirus as the main reason.
ING Group are reporting that COVID-19 closures of Chinese factories will reverberate up the supply chain. Apart from Australia’s standard dependance on Chinese trade, IBIS World highlight Australian retail sectors most likely to take a knock from Chinese imports include electronics and footwear. Beyond that, OEC data on Australia’s 2017 Chinese imports indicates which other wares coronavirus could spell trouble for.
Of course, there are areas of opportunity for growth — even if you’re not selling 2-ply toiletries. Live video, virtual services, and e-commerce are but a few poised to benefit, and the cyclical nature of economics stipulates that a bust is followed by a boom. While you hunker down for the uptick, take note from others in the space. Take stock, avoid empty rhetoric, and be transparent with your customers. If there’s any luck, doing your bit to ‘flatten the curve’ might even salve flattening sales.