Left and right, retailers are closing their doors. For how long, they don’t know. And for many, locking up the doors could be permanent.
It’s easy to see how the lack of foot traffic and general reticence to shop for clothes in the wake of coronavirus pandemic has impacted brick-and-mortar retail. But, the ripple effects aren’t just at the store level. “It goes all the way down the line. For us, our problem really starts at manufacturing,” says Andrew Chen, co-founder of denim brand 3sixteen. For brands like Chen’s that have factories in San Francisco, production of new product has come to a halt.
Shelter-in-place orders have forced non-essential businesses, which include garment factories, to shut down operations. Even if factories have the materials to produce clothes, they can’t finish making the product, let alone ship it out to brands and retailers. Other brands might be in a location where they’re still able to actually ship their product to respective retailers, but when a factory closes, that means there won’t be anything for brands to ship.
In other cases, brands that had product ready to ship to retailers have been stopped short because the stores cannot make payments on goods or have shuddered altogether.
The timing of the pandemic hit just as brands started to ship out spring product. “Before the virus really spread, we accepted a lot of spring orders, but we have some spring orders that are pending,” says Cam Neiderhauser of Kansas City, Missouri-based store East + West. “Some of those are ready to ship and we’ve had to say, ‘Hey, we’re definitely still going to accept it, but we may need to push back the delivery date until we have a clearer picture of when we’ll be open back up officially.'”
To scrounge up revenue, stores big and small have posted sitewide sales and have promoted gift cards. Need Supply recently extended its spring sale, while others like Stag Provisions have set up GoFundMe pages to help pay employees.
Brick-and-mortar businesses have pivoted to purely online traffic and have had to maximize their digital presence more than ever. Brands like Indigofera are highlighting their retailers and vice versa. New York brand Adsum has posted blog posts from its empty shop and tapped DJs to curate a playlist. Others have resorted to community engagement in the form of Q+A sessions or putting out calls for customers to post their favorite shop purchases.
Driving around Kansas City to drop off purchases to customers’ doorsteps has been one way Neiderhauser has been trying to keep East + West going. With virtually nothing else to do at the shop, it’s a way for him to keep up with what demand is left while practicing safe social distancing.
There’s certainly a level of trust involved. Some customers do what Neiderhauser calls a ‘box program’ similar to menswear subscription services like Trunk Club, but they’ve been shopping with East + West regularly. Not every store is so fortunate, however. Neiderhauser’s store is one of the only Kansas City retailers that sells such a niche product. But in large metropolitan cities, independent menswear stores have to vie for attention. Also, the retail challenges are more difficult for newer brands and stores that have yet to develop a large and dedicated base.
Customers can use their dollars to help keep these businesses afloat, of course. Purchasing from small brands and retailers is a vote of confidence that helps now more than ever. But what else? “Engage with us,” Niederhaus says. “Letting us know how you’re doing gives us an emotional boost just as much as a purchase gives us a financial boost.” The need for community is glaring in this time of isolation — brands and boutiques need that genuine connection with customers beyond a purchase.
Platforms like Instagram Stories and Instagram Live are instrumental in not only showcasing new product but also in helping brands connect with their customers. Curated Spotify playlists, behind-the-scenes videos of people at home — what they’re eating and the company they keep — all serve as ways to keep up with customers in a more meaningful way. For many brands and retailers, foot traffic wasn’t just a big source of income, but a way to connect. Now, that connection happens digitally.
“Say hi — that definitely gives us energy,” Chen says. “It motivates us to keep moving forward.”