March 2, 2021

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What the COVID Retailer Needs



Deborah Breither, owner of Elly’s Gifts in North Carolina, speaks in a panel during the GHTA conference.

In the second day of the Gift and Home Trade Association’s annual conference two retailers explain what they need to succeed during and post the global pandemic. Highlighting everything from the importance of terms and deals when ordering product to the value of a good sales rep, these retailers tell all. Participating in the panel were Deborah Breither, owner of Elly’s Gifts in North Carolina, and Christie Manry, lead buyer for Elam’s Hallmark in California. Read on for a breakdown of their insights.

The Value of the Marketplace

Though some retail experts have predicted a roughly 30 percent attendance rate at this winter’s shows, Manry and Breither both said they plan on visiting a least one physical trade show. “I think it’s time to get back to normal and back to business,” Manry said. “I can’t grow my business from my office.”

In addition to being able to see and experience new product in person, Manry said one benefit of the shows is networking. “I have learned so many tips and tricks by brainstorming with other (store) owners,” she said. Manry said she plans on spending seven days in Atlanta for The Atlanta Market and is hopeful to attend the Las Vegas Market and ASD Market, as well.

Breither agreed with the importance of getting back to normal, saying, “I think now we also know more about what we can do (to protect ourselves from the virus).” She, too, said she plans to attend The Atlanta Market. Her strategy in covering the show includes prioritizing showrooms for which she doesn’t have a sales rep.

Working Through Online Ordering

In 2020, with several shows delayed or cancelled and traveling being viewed as risky, many retailers were forced to turn to digital means to place their orders. In her “comfort zone,” Breither said it was incredibly easy to place an online order and that vendor sites have greatly improved in the last decade. “They’ve made my job easier,” she said. “It’s easy to buy, the sites have all products available, they’re more updated with new products, now, and they’re user-friendly, especially for someone like me who isn’t tech savvy.”

While Breither was used to ordering online – a skill she said she developed during the 08-09 recession when fewer sales reps would visit due to high gas prices – Manry had to take the challenge head on. “Once you get the hang of it, it works pretty good,” Manry said about placing wholesale orders online, either through digital marketplaces or directly through vendors’ websites. Manry’s only complaint was the degree of separation and lack of follow-up when an order wasn’t fulfilled either correctly or in its entirety – something she feels sales representatives could help with. Breither’s biggest complaint was lack of transparency by the manufacturers and the lack of information over what products were in stock, which ones were ready to ship and why some orders were delayed.

The Sales Rep Benefit

For Breither, sales representatives were pivotal in helping her to pull through COVID challenges. “A sales rep group offered a webinar on social selling,” she said, explaining how some sales reps have helped her to learn and transition during this challenging year. “The sales reps were very supportive,” she added. “Sales reps came in and did a fashion show (and) showed me Facebook Live…the (reps) I have seen have gone above and beyond.”

Manry has also relied on her sales reps for suggestions and help, however, wishes they were more involved with online orders. New to online ordering, Manry said there were times when an order would “disappear,” and there was “no follow-up.” “I want a type of follow-up app,” she said, “I would like to see sales reps have more involvement in making sure orders have shipped.”

When it comes to hearing from sales reps, both retailers agreed that they would love to hear about new products that fit their store on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Vendor Wants and Needs

According to Manry, vendors that provide samples make a big impression. In fact, she said she relied on those samples to help her place confident orders in a time when she wasn’t able to attend the trade shows in person, as she normally would (and prefers). In addition to requesting samples, Manry says that retailers should always ask what deals are available. According to Manry, a sales rep once told her that she wouldn’t have gotten the current offer had she not asked.

Manry also looks for special terms and discounts. “I won’t order without terms and discounts,” she said. “Terms are critical and it’s a make or break for me.” One good thing that has come out of the pandemic, according to Manry, is the increase in incentives she’s received from vendors. “Since COVID started, I’ve never gotten such great deals.” Of importance to her is six-month dating and free freight.

While shopping, both retailers also think in themes; cross-merchandising is a key element to their vignettes and ordering strategy. “It’s about product, theme and what I’m trying to say,” Breither said. Manry echoed that sentiment, saying she likes to pull together different products from different companies to create one story. For example, she had several displayed themes, like Breakfast in Bed, for Mother’s Day. She also changes the companies she buys from regularly in order to keep her store looking fresh and exciting.

COVID Successes

Though this year has been full of difficulties for vendors and retailers alike, the challenges have led way to creative solutions for success. Many retailers who had never attempted ecommerce before the virus, began ramping up their digital presence. Breither was one such example. “For six weeks I made it my mission to learn and improve our website,” Breither said. She now has a more robust website with about 300 products available online, though not everything that is in store is on her website and sales still aren’t what they were before COVID-19, “though the holidays are helping,” she added.

Though she did spruce up her website, Breither admitted that she didn’t attempt to host a live event on social media. “The store has actually been too busy for live events,” she said, though she did add curated gift baskets to her assortment. “It’s a nice way to get a nice-sized sale by bundling,” she said.

Manry has not yet attempted social selling either and didn’t invest in a new website. Instead, she relied on the personal connection with her customers. “Our customers are coming in as a therapy,” she said, noting her store’s welcoming environment and the friendly conversations between staff and shoppers.

 





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