Smaller store-based omnichannel retailers prep for holiday season

Smaller store-based omnichannel retailers prep for holiday season

At the height of the pandemic, shoppers bought more online and often picked up orders in-store or at curbside to minimize infection risk. Even retailers with just one store gained customers through omnichannel offerings like buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS). For this holiday season, they’re seeking to win repeat sales from their larger customer lists through early sales, text message campaigns and livestreaming.

Retailers with multiple physical stores invested heavily in in-store and curbside pickup during the pandemic in response to consumers shifting their orders online to avoid getting sick. Target Corp., for example, reported that its 1,800 stores were fulfilling 75% of online orders early in 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. That included orders shipping from its brick-and-mortar locations and in-store pickup.

To further its strategy of using stores to handle online orders, Target announced in late July 2022 that it will open three new package sorting centers during the next year — two in greater Chicago and one in the Denver area. And it’s not just giant retail chains that are leveraging their physical locations to increase sales and win new customers. Even some retailers with just a single store introduced options that catered to consumers shopping more online during the pandemic. Giving customers the choice to shop online or in-store is helping these retailers win new customers and positioning them for post-pandemic success.

One example is Moriarty’s Gem Art, a jewelry retailer in Crown Point, Indiana, whose online sales increased to 55% of its business today from about 30% pre-pandemic. Many local residents who previously would come into the store ordered online for home delivery or requested curbside pickup. The retailer introduced such omnichannel offerings during the pandemic, says Jeff Moriarty, the family-run business’ marketing manager.

“We never shipped out so many things to our town,” he says. “We were in Crown Point, shipping to Crown Point addresses, which was kind of strange. Some people also did pickup, so we would bring it out to them, out to their car. That was another option we offered. We tried to make it as easy as possible for people to still shop with us, but not actually have to shop in-store.”

Many retailers with physical stores adopted similar strategies. The retail chains — retailers with brick-and-mortar stores — in the Top 1000 increased their web sales 75.4% from 2019 to 2021, in large part by expanding omnichannel pickup services. The Top 1000 is Digital Commerce 360’s ranking of North America’s largest online merchants by web sales.

The percentage of those Top 1000 chains offering curbside pickup soared to 55.2% in 2021 from just 8.4% in 2019. Meanwhile, 71.3% offered buy online, pick up in store in 2021 versus 63.5% two years earlier.

The challenge now for retailers, regardless of their size, is to retain customers acquired during the pandemic with omnichannel services. One focus is the use of new marketing initiatives for the upcoming holiday season. Smaller retailers are stepping up promotions to customers who have signed up to receive text messages, through livestreaming sales events, and with plans for offering holiday bargains earlier than ever.

Moriarty’s closed its lone physical store from March 2020 to August of that year. In part, that was because 40% of its sales come from people older than 50, a demographic that was largely worried about shopping in-person early in the pandemic, Moriarty says.

With its store closed, the retailer focused all its time online, adding more products to MoreGems.com, the retailer’s website, and doing live shows online to display and sell new items, Moriarty says.

“Now, we’re at maybe four to five sales a day, which doesn’t seem huge,” Moriarty says. “But our average order is probably over $2,000, so it’s quite a large amount.”

Moriarty’s Gem Art’s average order value (AOV) normally drops during the holidays, Moriarty says, as the retailer offers less expensive items to hit a broader market. The retailer has “a ton of $500-range items, which normally sell very well, but of course drops our AOV,” he says.

“We do have lots of sales online during the holidays,” Moriarty says. “But every year that we’ve been in business, the majority of the sales during the holidays are still in-store. People love to go out shopping during the Christmas season. We’re on a big square in downtown Crown Point, which is really beautiful. Everybody’s got the Christmas decorations up. People just love to shop in person.”

About 60% of the business’ total sales last year were completed in November and December, he says. It comes down to letting customers shop in whatever way works best for them.

“Everything’s connected now,” Moriarty says. “Our in-store inventory is connected with our website. Anything that sells online or sells in-store, it all works together. You can purchase online, pick up in store. We even have customers that come in who purchase in-store, but they want it delivered someplace. It’s all done online through us there, so it kind of goes back and forth.”

Omnichannel offerings like in-store and curbside pickup are not without reward for retailers. Top 1000 retailers offering omnichannel services had a 3.33% median conversion rate in 2021. That’s higher than the median conversion rate of the Top 1000 as a whole (2.84%), and also considerably more than those that did not have any omnichannel offerings (2.66%).

Retailers like Moriarty’s Gem Art are planning to use discounts this winter — including via app — to take advantage of their omnichannel options as they prepare for their holiday sales. They’re also planning to start both their main sales promotions and early access deals earlier in this year’s fourth quarter.

For New York-based retailer Little Words Projects, app users will get first access to holiday deals.

Little Words Project sells bracelets that each feature a word or short phrase meant to be a source of affirmation. Some bracelets say “be happy,” for example, while others say “resilience,” “keep going” or “fearless.” Shoppers can customize bracelets with words of their choosing or a name.

Like Moriarty’s Gem Art, Little Words Project has just one retail location — though it plans to add a location in New Jersey. Currently, shoppers can buy from its store on Bleecker Street in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, on its website, or from its app, which it launched in June 2022. It offers BOPIS —the most popular omnichannel feature — both through its website and its app, and customers can also customize an order in-store and have it delivered to their home.

Every bracelet has a charm on it with a tracking number. Wearers are encouraged to go online and register their bracelets, says Richa Nihalani, vice president of site strategy. The idea is that when wearers feel they may not need the bracelet anymore, they can give that bracelet to someone who might appreciate its positive message.

“You’re encouraged to go online and register the bracelet with your story and what it means to you,” Nihalani says. “Over time, anyone can go and read those stories. You can also search for your bracelet a year from now and see where it’s reached and follow the journey of it as well.”

This voluntary registration provides Little Words Project a group of customers it can market to via email, which is a required field in the registration form. For customers who register their bracelets through its new app, Little Words Project can send them push notifications, which show up on the home screen of a consumer’s smartphone without them having to open a text message or app. The app also requires fewer clicks than the brand’s mobile website for a customer to complete a transaction, Nihalani says.

Little Words Project’s typical conversion rate is between 3% and 3.5%. Its year-to-date conversion rate is lower, though, as Lauren Bonfig, vice president of marketing, says it has been growing traffic to both its website and app. Bonfig did not say how much traffic grew on the website.

Little Words Project’s AOV is about $55, and that increases about $5 during the holiday season. The boost typically starts around October and runs through December.

Because of that, it plans to start both its early access and Black Friday deals sooner this year. It plans to have exclusive promotions for SMS subscribers and app users starting in October. Last year, Little Words Project began its holiday deals on Nov. 8, giving SMS subscribers access to sales before they were generally available. It launched its official Black Friday sale the day before Thanksgiving. This year, app users will join SMS subscribers in getting the earliest access to Little Words Project’s holiday discounts.

The brand launched its app to increase its owned channels, Bonfig says. That is, free ways of reaching consumers with whom it has already connected.

“I think everyone knows paid channels, for the most part, are getting more expensive and more unpredictable,” she says. “The more you can have your own channels, the better in today’s marketing landscape.”

Paid search costs in particular shot up during the pandemic. Digital marketing agency Merkle reported year-over-year increases of more than 40% in cost per click in the second and third quarters of 2021 before that increase moderated to 13% in Q4.

Persuading customers to sign up for push notifications and text messaging helps Little Words Project reach existing buyers without paying those inflated fees. And those marketing channels are particularly important for the brand because its customers are so wedded to their mobile phones, Bonfig says.

Despite the mobile app only having launched in June, push notifications, along with SMS, get the most engagement for the brand. That beats out email and social posts, though Bonfig did not say by how much.

The app also accounted for 3% of total monthly sales in its first month. Nihalani expects that to grow as Little Words Project adds product customization to its app. She says the goal is for 10% to 15% of monthly sales to come from the app.

Similar to Little Words Project, Igloo plans to offer early access to deals this holiday season. The cooler brand is primarily sold wholesale to stores like Walmart and The Home Depot. During the pandemic, though, it began to place more focus on selling directly to consumers.

Last year, Igloo created online forms people could fill out for early access to the brand’s holiday deals, says Kizzy Ezirio, Igloo’s digital user experience director. Those forms included a field for cellphone numbers that helped grow the brand’s mobile audience.

It’s no surprise that brands like Igloo and Little Word Project would focus on mobile sales, given that cell phones and tablets have become a prime shopping tool for consumers. The median percentage of visits to Top 1000 sites from mobile devices was 65.4% in 2021. That’s up from 62.2% a year earlier, according to a Digital Commerce 360 analysis of traffic data from Similarweb. For retail chains, that median of visits from mobile devices was 69.3%, reflecting consumers using their phones to check store hours and locations, as well as for researching and buying.

Customers who have signed up for text messages get special treatment from Igloo.

“We try to hit the SMS customer before everyone else, making that customer group feel really special,” Ezirio says. “SMS is just a very valuable customer group. Just think about it. Would you sign up for text for any brand out there?”

Igloo has more than 183,000 SMS subscribers, and its AOV via SMS is $93. It declined to share its website AOV.

“I think when you’re signing up for text, you’re a lot more selective than signing up for email, for example,” Ezirio says. “It’s something that’s immediate. It’s quick. We want that group to just feel special, and so we’ve been trying to treat that group that way. The holiday is a great time to do that.”

Igloo, like Moriarty’s Gem Art and Little Words Project, has just one brick-and-mortar location. Where it differs is that its company store in Katy, Texas, is located at its 420,000-square-foot facility. That facility also serves as a warehouse and distribution center to handle growing omnichannel sales from its website, IglooCoolers.com.

Ezirio says the brand is putting more focus than before on retention. That means segmenting messages to make sure the right message reaches the right customers at the right times, she says. One way Igloo does that is through addressing cart abandonment. Igloo uses automation to retarget customers who have dropped items from their cart. It also uses it for those who left its website without buying despite having added items to their cart.

Before, Ezirio says, “if they browsed the site, they would get a message saying ‘I saw that you browsed this item. Click here to make a purchase.’ But that’s just not personal enough, and maybe they had a reason why they didn’t buy it.”

Now, Igloo sends automated messages asking shoppers who abandoned carts if they have any questions, much as a salesperson might in a store. They also get updates if there’s a price drop.

“We get a lot of people who reply back,” Ezirio says. “There’s that back and forth, and they feel like they’re getting that service. I think one of things that’s tough about the digital world is we don’t get that one-on-one experience that we get in-store, and we can ask questions.”

Ezirio says she knows high gas prices and fears of a recession are leading many shoppers to cut back on purchases. Nevertheless, the brand’s retention-focused approach helps it stay connected with its customers, she says, during big sales events like during the holiday season.

Moriarty’s Gem Art is also keeping an eye on shopping habits. Moriarty says the retailer’s conversion rate spiked about 30% from 2019 to 2020 and 2021. That led him to test out product drops — special releases only available on the retailer’s website — in April 2022. Shoppers “love to be the first one to see new items that come out,” he says. “So we do these drops when a lot of our new designs are done.”

But this year, the retailer has seen about a 40% drop in conversion rates. And sales have been down about 20% in June and July compared with the same period last year, Moriarty says.

“We believe people are saving more and are frightened about a possible recession,” he says.

Whether or not those savings translate to holiday spending is too early to know. So for now, Moriarty’s Gem Art is sticking to what works — an omnichannel approach. The jewelry retailer has been adding digital features to its sales approach for more than 20 years. It continues to find ways to keep online shoppers excited about its products. For now, that’s livestream shows.

When Moriarty’s began selling online more during the first year of the pandemic, it needed a way to showcase its new products.

For more than a decade, MoreGems.com has included videos embedded from YouTube showing 360-degree views of its jewelry. Now, it’s also using YouTube for livestreams, or real-time online video shows, that allow Moriarty’s to display its products. Each product Moriarty’s displays is available on MoreGems.com and is one of a kind, Moriarty says. He helps host the shows with his father, Steve. Steve has been a gem cutter for more than 25 years. He shows the items while explaining their qualities, where they come from and how much they typically cost.

“That’s one area we’re going to really focus on to make it as easy as possible to see jewelry, hear about it, and then purchase online without having to worry about coming to the store,” Jeff Moriarty says.

The sales events typically last a couple hours and bring in more than 2,000 views each. Moriarty says the retailer will normally sell 10 to 12 items during those two hours. And because its jewelry items typically range from several hundred dollars to a few thousand each, these events bring in a lot of revenue in a short period of time.

“It’s done phenomenal,” Moriarty says. “During COVID, we were doing it once a week, and it was really helping get us through. Now, we do it once a month, but it does about $20,000 to $30,000 each show. We know how popular this has been for us, so during the holidays, we’re going to be scheduling more shows, more often, to show a lot of our new pieces. Local and just online.”

Viewers can chat live during the YouTube stream, and the retailer’s website, MoreGems.com, also offers a live chat feature. In both cases, Moriarty is the one replying. The conversion rate on MoreGems.com is three times higher for those who connect via live chat, compared with those who don’t, he says.

Before the holidays, Moriarty’s will be doing more livestreamed shows that are gift-focused, he says. That’ll include more with jewelry, as opposed to the gemstones that are typically the focus.

Moriarty’s Gem Art, Little Words Project and Igloo, despite for now having just one physical store each, are all able to capitalize on their omnichannel offerings to reach customers where they want to shop.

When Little Words Projects’ and Igloo’s customers shift more to mobile shopping, the brands shift in that direction, too, using their stores as hubs for pickups and deliveries. And when Moriarty’s saw customers watching its livestreams to learn more about its high-value products, it produced more, making sure to answer questions via live chat to ensure customer confidence in its products.

The proliferation of online and mobile sales channels and fulfillment options gives consumers more choice than ever. Retailers that invest in the omnichannel services their customers value will be in the best position to succeed this holiday season.

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