When Lindsay Cunningham’s Monkee’s boutique closed for a month and half last year during peak pandemic shutdowns, she thanked her lucky stars she already had an e-commerce site to lean on. Cunningham, who opened her store in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, in 2018, is representative of the larger trend of retail brands that had to shift sales online in order to stay afloat during COVID-19.
“The shift was scary at first; you’re building a relationship with a customer who is a stranger, who you’ve never met and may have never spoke to,” Cunningham said. She also noted they have a higher return percentage with online sales. “Thankfully, with our online customers, we’re able to sort of build a relationship with a lot of them through Instagram and our trying on videos.”
Cunningham kept one employee on, Whitney, to check new inventory and post fittings on social media. Whitney became a local celebrity of sorts for their customers, who would call in and ask if she was working and if she could try certain things on for them.
“The first year I asked her, she said, ‘I’m not comfortable.’ But when we shut down, she came to the rescue and said I’ll do them because sales weren’t coming,” Cunningham said. “Since then, she does them every day anytime something new comes in, explaining the size and fit and colors.”
Learning to adapt when things don’t go as planned was one of the biggest lessons Cunningham learned, plus the power of communicating via social media.
“Most people spend hours a day on their phones on Instagram, it’s the best way to reach the consumer. If you’re not putting 120 percent effort on Instagram, you’ll see those numbers” drop, Cunningham said.
A Global Web Index survey found on average, global internet users spent 2 hours and 22 minutes on social media per day in 2020, and many digital habits formed during lockdown have endured despite many restrictions being eased. Instagram’s ad audience grew at a rate of more than 1 million new users per day, according to parent company Facebook’s advertising tools, showing that brands can now reach more than 1 billion people using ads on Instagram.
While the corporate team at Monkee’s helped franchisees apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans, Cunningham took action. Prior to the pandemic, she created her own clothing label, Olivia James, which is now sold in more than 100 Monkee’s stores. When COVID-19 hit, Cunningham realized customers weren’t looking for luxe items and wedding guest outfits anymore; they wanted comfortable, more casual pieces. She designed some inexpensive cotton dresses for wearing around the house, got them printed in India and started selling them under the LivRo label.
“LivRo came from the pandemic and was my saving grace when I was shut down because we had so much inventory in our store, but without weddings or vacations, nobody wanted to wear them,” Cunningham said. “Our customers didn’t want to wear sweatpants all day at home, they still want to look put together…for this year, people are just wanting easy, throw on and machine-washable clothes. Silks are a thing of the past. Everybody just wants cotton, the easier the better, but they also still want beautiful bold prints, bright colors, and block-printed dresses are huge in that way. It’ll stay that way for a while I believe.”
Her first LivRo delivery sold out in minutes. The same thing happened with her next few shipments, and Cunningham said her sales would have been thousands of dollars less than what they were without LivRo. Cunningham even started wholesaling her line to other stores.
“As long as what you’re selling fits in with the Monkee’s mold, I can carry anything I choose,” Cunningham said. “Since I’m just a franchise that’s independently owned, I can kind of just do what I see fit for my store as long as what is in my store is representative of the Monkee’s look.”
Resale brands trending
Thrifting and resale are also on the rise. Retail analytics firm GlobalData reported that 62 million women bought secondhand clothing in 2019, an increase from 56 million in 2018.
Leslie Bryant, owner of a Clothes Mentor in Arlington, Texas, also saw firsthand the power of reaching her customers through Instagram and Facebook live videos, plus placing hundreds of her products online for in-store pickup and shipping across the country. Her franchisor started piloting an e-commerce website in February 2020, and Bryant participated. Though she’d done shopping and shipping through social media live videos prior, the integration of the website and Shopify platform made the customer experience a lot easier and foolproof, she said.
“Basically, if you wanted to purchase something, you’d message us and we would email you a PayPal invoice,” Bryant said of the earlier process. “It had its challenges and wasn’t like it is now for sure; it’s definitely 100 percent better.”
Bryant closed her store March 21, 2020, and the next week worked with her husband and two sons to get products uploaded before the website went live nine days later. The franchisor was “working literally around the clock, trying to get as many stores up and going as fast as they possibly could, but it was just a matter of who went banging on their door first, and I had already been doing that,” Bryant said.
“And I think a lot of people were a little unsure, it was uncharted territory and weren’t sure if they wanted to take the plunge, but now more stores are getting on it now that we’ve had great success with it.”
E-commerce here to stay
The Closet Trading Company is another resale franchise that launched an online selling platform in March 2020. The brand has technology that helps optimize items stores take in and authenticate goods, and 80 percent of the business comes through consignment where stores offer cash or trade upfront.
“We are really leaning into a more curated, personal experience for customers, which is one of our selling strategies we’ve always had,” said Johanna Zlenko, CEO and founder of TCTC. “Our sales people are called stylists, and they really connect with consumers. This has helped us stay relevant, and that experience can carry forward online. But it’s not just waiting for customers to come in and buy stuff; our stylists have to reach out via social media and curate collections online.”
Chelsea Sloan, president and co-founder of Salt Lake City-based thrift franchise Uptown Cheapskate, is starting to see business return to normal as sales stabilize. With more than 87 stores and plans to open about 20 this year, Sloan is confident in-store shopping will return.
“It’s been interesting with COVID, but we’re actually finding that we have better opportunities for our franchisees now to negotiate favorable rent terms,” Sloan said. “…With the growth of the resale segment in general, we are seeing broad and wide adoption from consumers. People may shop online, but the in-store, tactile experience of shopping is still very important.”
Since May 1 when Bryant reopened her Clothes Mentor store, she’s done an average of 21 percent of net sales online, which to her means foot traffic is about 20 percent down. As more people are getting vaccinated and restrictions ease, Bryant is seeing an uptick in foot traffic but will continue e-commerce and social media practices for the foreseeable future.
“We never miss an opportunity to let customers know we’re online,” Bryant added. “Every customer we have that comes in, we want them to know they can shop from home if they desire.”
Cunningham is also seeing more in-store shoppers, but is hoping for more e-commerce growth. “You can only get so far with in-store, and there are only so many residents you can reach as your shopper, though I do plan and hope to mold those relationships and grow them the best I can,” she said. “But in the long run, I hope to grow my website to be something a lot of people are aware of and will go to instead of big profile websites and lines.”