Essential retailers' workforces are under a lot of strain right now, as they are being forced to keep up with unprecedented demand, while at the same time many of their employees may be calling out sick. As a result, relying on robots to complete more in-store tasks is starting to look more and more attractive to retailers. Before the coronavirus pandemic, retailers including Walmart and Giant Eagle were starting to test out using robots in their stores for tasks like unloading pallets of inventory and scanning shelves to get a count of inventory. Now, that trend will likely accelerate.
As no one knows exactly how much consumer spending will rebound (or not) in the coming months, retail and e-commerce businesses are being forced to reconsider every single expense. The most obvious way for companies to cut costs is to lay off or furlough employees. And many of them have already done that. But beyond that, how do you save money? Consumer investors are advising startups to think of every single expense as negotiable. Here are some of their tips on places to save money.
A month ago, I was talking to the founder of a one-year-old direct-to-consumer startup who was out fundraising. The founder told me it was a weird time to be fundraising. The coronavirus outbreak was just starting in the U.S, and some investors were already starting to get hesitant about deploying capital. Additionally, many of the investors the founder was meeting with were looking for companies that could display a surefire path to profitability, but without sacrificing high growth rates. In the month since then, things have only gotten weirder. Months ago, steps that were being billed as smart and necessary in order for an e-commerce company to become profitable, like expanding wholesale partnerships and opening their retail stores, have now turned into logistical nightmares as most stores remain closed.
The coronavirus outbreak is likely to permanently change the relationship between workers at retailers that have been deemed essential, like grocery, hardware, and big-box stores, and their employers. Each day, the list of announcements from retailers about new steps they are taking to keep employees safe in stores, as well as to thank them for their work, is growing longer. While many of the benefits issued are being billed as temporary, what's become clear in recent weeks is that as their jobs are being classified as essential, retail workers see their jobs as being more worthy than ever before of better benefits.
In 2008, Melissa Mash, now the co-founder and CEO of handbag brand Dagne Dover, was managing Coach's wholesale e-commerce business, which consisted of selling through the websites of department stores like Macy's and Nordstrom. As the recession worsened, she got a crash course in what not to do during hard economic times. Mash said the biggest takeaways for her were, one, the dangers of offering deep discounting, and second, relying on wholesale retail partners to drive all of your sales, especially when they are hurting for revenue themselves.
Spring is typically the busiest time of year for hardware stores like Lowe's and Home Depot, as customers flock to stores for deals on plants, gardening equipment and other home renovation tools. But during a pandemic, high foot traffic is problematic. In addition to grocery stores and pharmacies, most states have classified hardware stores like Lowe's and Home Depot as essential in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. An ongoing source of frustration for many hardware store employees in recent days has been how many shoppers are still coming to the store for what non-essential items.
The reckoning was a while in coming. It just wasn't expected to come like this. After all, people on Twitter, that favorite platform of the direct-to-consumer startup community -- and plenty of articles on this site as well -- love to talk about one of a few things: If there's a direct-to-consumer ceiling; the best way to acquire customers, and the inevitable slowdown and burst of the DTC bubble as unprofitable businesses are due to run out of cash, with no investors left to fund them. And thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, that last one seems to have accelerated. "The coronavirus outbreak notwithstanding, there were a lot of issues that were spread out through the rest of the DTC ecosystem going into the first-quarter of this year," said Jeremy Cai, CEO of Italic, which sells luxury bedding and handbags. "I feel like we are settling into a new normal in many ways of being conservative," he said.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, Blue Apron was on life support. The meal kit company reported in February that it had 351,000 customers during the fourth quarter of 2019, down from more than a million at the height of its popularity, and has consistently failed to turn a profit in its nearly three years as a public company. CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski said the company was considering a menu of strategic options including a sale and raising additional capital. But in March, the company started seeing an unexpected uptick in demand, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak.
As the coronavirus outbreak drags on and more Americans do their shopping online, there's been a greater focus on the working conditions in warehouses, and whether or not companies are doing enough to protect their workers from contacting the coronavirus. Some Amazon workers at a fulfillment center in Staten Island yesterday staged a walkout, stating that they thought that Amazon should close the facility for two weeks as at least one worker there has tested positive for the coronavirus.
As it looks increasingly likely that most non-essential retail stores will be closed for the next several weeks, retailers are being forced to take some more drastic cost-cutting measures in order to survive through the month. Within the past week, the number of retailers announcing that they are either furloughing or laying off employees have picked up. Practically speaking, there aren't that many differences between laying employees of versus furloughing them, but furloughing employees is an indication from the retailer it eventually anticipates being able to rehire furloughed employees.
The coronavirus outbreak has lead workers from all kinds of industries to push for greater protections from their employers, and retail is no exception. This begs the question of how, once the coronavirus outbreak slows, which temporary changes to a retailer's paid sick leave policy or pay increases will stick. One potential outcome: that more retail workers will seek to unionize.
As shoppers in the U.S. and Europe are spending more time in their homes thanks to shelter in place orders, apparel brands are seizing the opportunity by offering sales on items like loungewear and leggings, and marketing their products as essentials for people working at home. Everlane is hosting a sale this week where shoppers can get a discount if they buy two pairs of leggings or two sweatshirts. Universal Standard is having a mix and match sale where if customers buy three products from a selection of tank tops, t-shirts, and sweaters, they get 30% off. It's an easier lift for some companies than others.
As many states are continuing to order non-essential retail stores to stay closed, and shoppers tighten their wallets, startup founders are having to take a look at what costs they can cut to ensure their can keep their business running through the coronavirus outbreak. Many startups are cutting their digital advertising spend. Others are trying to renegotiate leases. Many founders are taking extreme pay cuts themselves, and asking their executive teams to as well. And, ultimately many of them are also having to layoff or furlough staff, or asking them to take unpaid leave as well. Modern Retail will be tracking the job and salary cuts announced by startups, by date of when they were first reported, in order to get a better sense of how the coronavirus outbreak will impact the burgeoning direct-to-consumer industry.
There's more ways than ever for teens to make money. Some teenagers are foregoing the typical 20 hours per week part-time job in favor of starting their own side hustles, like promoting sponsored content on their Instagram pages or selling secondhand clothes. As a result, businesses that rely on a lot of young employees are having to offer more perks in order to convince teenagers to work for them
Nike took a hit to its China business during the third quarter thanks to the coronavirus outbreak there. Now, the company will look at what the outbreak, which is ramping up in the U.S., will do to its retail business, even as the company hopes that its growing DTC business and loyalty programs may mitigate the worst of the impact.
Exclusively for Modern Retail+ members: Hear from Connie Matisse, Co-founder and CMO and Alex Matisse, Co-founder and CEO at East Fork Ceramics, on how to maintain brand loyalty during a time of tumult.Subscribe