Covid-19: Small Retailers Hanging On by a Single Thread

Covid-19: Small Retailers Hanging On by a Single Thread

Written by Sufiana SharuddinMarch 30, 2020

Covid-19: Small Retailers Hanging On by a Single Thread

Panic persists in the fashion industry as small independent retailers worry about the future of their business amid Covid-19. Unable to sustain cash flow, some brands have even cancelled next season’s orders and those with existing stock are incapable of selling it as stores remain closed. 

Other brands like Rebecca Minkoff and Everlane have resorted to more extreme measures by laying off a number of their staff, igniting controversy for the latter. Everlane, well-known for its sustainable and ethical values, is under fire for cutting hundreds of its employees after reassuring layoffs would not happen.

Stories like these join many others as conditions in most Western countries such as the US, France, Spain and Italy reach critical levels. At the time of writing, the number of confirmed cases in the US is over 120,000, overtaking statistics in China where the outbreak began. 

E-Commerce Becomes A Necessity

On top of slowing sales from direct sales channels, small retailers are also dealing with the downturn in wholesale as many department stores and multi-brand boutiques have begun to cancel their Spring/Summer orders. 

Wholesalers including department stores and multi-brand boutiques remain an important distribution channel for many young brands. However, the addition of this pandemic combined with shifting attitudes towards physical retail has many of these wholesalers on the verge of collapse. 

With wholesale no longer being a viable option, small retailers have only e-commerce to rely on. But, many are not ready for this shift, Kathryn Fortunato, co-founder of an independent jewellery brand in the US said, “If our retailers close, we couldn’t support our current team just by moving that business online.” 

Moving forward, fashion retailers have to be much more pragmatic if they want to stay relevant. New consumer shifts in the recovering Chinese market indicate interest in non-essential goods is wavering. With so many factors hanging in the balance, this is a critical time for them to restructure how they operate and adapt to the consumer shifts. The retailers that have adopted omnichannel strategies early on will emerge out of the crisis in a better position. 

Consumers Seek Comfort

Covid-19: Small Retailers Hanging On by a Single Thread - love to lounge homepage

In these troubling times, comfort has become the prime focus for many consumers. Sales for sweats, robes and sleepwear have surged amid the lockdowns, Omnilytics detected over 4,000 new SKUs tagged with the keyword ‘lounge’ in this month alone – a stark contrast to December’s numbers where barely 700 new-ins were identified. 

Working from home has also become a unique marketing opportunity for retailers as hashtags like #wfhfits and #wfhlife trend on social media. On March 20th, Boohoo launched a ‘work from home’ range centred around products such as comfy t-shirts, tracksuits and joggers. Among items to go viral is the ‘wash your hands’ hoodie, a cheeky nod to the virus. The hoodie which comes in two colours sold out in 24 hours. 

Covid-19: Small Retailers Hanging On by a Single Thread - stock status for Boohoo's hoodie
“Please Wash your Hands” oversized hoodie sold out within 24 hours

A few weeks prior, Boohoo also ran promotions for intimates and sleepwear. Sales for this category jumped tremendously this month, capturing the majority of the retailer’s full priced sales. Overall, Boohoo’s highly tailored merchandising strategy is paying off – sell-out rates in March are up by 8% compared to February. 

The demand for comfort isn’t just limited to fast fashion. In the US, Net-a-Porter also reported a 40% increase in sweatpant sales in the first week of the Covid-19 lockdown, indicating a silver lining for independent brands in the premium segment. Emerging designer brand Frankie Shop is known for its premium basics – the brand’s highly popular ‘Vanessa’ track pants priced at USD $150 have sold out twice in the past three weeks. 

For retailers that still have existing inventory and new stock coming in, try to find ways to pivot your line sheets. If comfort is what consumers want, find ways to launch your casual wear products first – sub-categories like t-shirts, tracksuits and hoodies are a hot commodity in the current climate.

A Shift Towards Health

Over in China where the crisis has subsided, a sense of normalcy returns. As of March 14th, many stores began reopening in Beijing and Shanghai, with some retailers already reporting an increase in sales as ‘revenge spending’ sweeps the nation. 

Among those who have benefited from this shopping phenomenon is Nike. The sportswear titan beat early estimates as Nike Inc closed the quarter with a 5% increase in revenue. Nike contributes much of this success to its swift digital strategy that was able to supplement China’s demand as stores were closed.

“One of the biggest shifts we’ve made is dialling up the strength of our digital ecosystem to help consumers maintain their physical and mental well-being while at home,” said Heidi O’Neill, the president of Nike’s Consumer and Marketplace division. 

Covid-19: Small Retailers Hanging On by a Single Thread - Nike NTC app
The Nike+ Training App is now available for free download in the US to promote usage. Image Credit:

This shift towards health and fitness is incredibly evident in China where consumer sentiment has evolved as a result of the pandemic. Demand for activewear has soared as many Chinese consumers gear up to workout from home – engagement for Nike’s fitness app saw an 80% increase in the last quarter.  Nike hopes the same will be mirrored in the West, where similar digital-focused strategies are being deployed for the US market.

Other activewear brands are also following Nike’s lead. Lululemon experienced a spike in sales for products like leggings and yoga mats after offering free online “sweat sessions” via their website and WeChat. 

Nurturing Customer Relationships

The success of these retailers in navigating the crisis demonstrates the importance of embracing digital in all forms of consumer touchpoints. Without the physical contact of a brick-and-mortar store, retailers will need to connect with consumers on an emotional level. 

Social media is more influential than ever as online engagement reaches an all-time high. Take this opportunity to diversify your communication channels and encourage human connections where possible. At this time, most people are searching for reassurance and hope, so it’s important to maintain optimism by sharing our human side. This means creating more videos, experimenting with live streams or even making quirky TikTok videos which are an internet favourite during this lockdown. 

This crisis is a sobering reminder for retailers to stop viewing consumers as mere dollar signs but as people who believe and support your brand values. Sincerity and transparency must be front-of-mind when communicating with your customers. 

As we weather this storm, it is time for retailers to really double down on efforts. For many, this crisis is a test of endurance. Retailers that survive this will undoubtedly come out stronger than ever and even more prepared for whatever the future holds.

Find out more on how global brands and other market leaders are responding to this crisis in Omnilytics’s latest report, Fashion Retail and the Covid-19 Crisis. 

Receive Weekly Industry Roundups

Sign up to receive the latest industry insights, news and weekly updates delivered straight to your inbox.

You might also like

Navigate the crisis with Omnilytics

Learn how our fashion retail clients make better decisions with ecommerce analytics