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The coronavirus crisis has affected businesses around the world. Many businesses have closed their doors, and those that are surviving have had to make big changes to the way they do business. Whether it’s world or community events, natural disasters or other disruptions, it can be a challenge for retailers to make decisions about what they should do to keep their businesses going and their customers loyal during difficult times. What you do now to stay connected to your customers and continue to serve them will have a lasting impact long after things go back to “normal.” Therefore, it’s important that you take steps to not only stay connected, but to come up with innovative ways to serve your customers and keep moving your business forward.

Can or Can’t

In times of crisis, people have a tendency to focus on what they’ve lost and to focus on what they can no longer do. Not only is this type of thinking likely to increase stress, but it’s counterproductive, especially for business owners. Instead, focus on what you can do: for your business, for your customers and for your employees.

The restaurant industry during the coronavirus pandemic has been a great example. Although restaurants did shut down, many restaurant owners took a step back and asked, “What CAN we do to keep going?” Restaurants that normally didn’t do delivery started to deliver. Servers became delivery drivers or phone-order takers. Phone and online orders with curbside pickup became the norm. Many of these things can and have been done by pet retailers as well.

Ashley McLaughlin is a manager at Gimme a Bark, a grooming, boarding, day care and retail store in Friendswood, Texas, outside of Houston. She said things have been very unusual during the coronavirus pandemic, but they’ve taken the approach to continue to serve their customers in every way they can.

“After closing down for a few weeks to allow our employees to quarantine, we opened again to grooming with a limited number of groomers,” she said. “We also instituted curbside pickup and drop-off. We have owners take their dogs’ leashes and collars off and put our own on. For the retail side of the business, we’re using phone ordering and curbside pickup. This keeps things organized and traffic down to a minimum.”

Communicate, Don’t Inundate

If you’ve established a routine of keeping in touch with your customers via email, phone, text or on social media, now is not the time to stop communicating. Even if you’ve been forced to close your doors and your business relies 100 percent on customers coming into your store, such as a grooming salon, you need to remind customers you’re there for them and keep providing them with value so they will come back when your doors open. Share grooming tips or create how-to videos to help customers maintain their pets while they can’t come to see you. Since so many of your customers are now home with their pets all day, you can also provide other helpful hints to spend quality time with their pets, or keep pets occupied while they try to work from home.

Denise Clarke is vice president of Care-A-Lot Pet Supply, a family-owned business with five locations that’s based in Virginia Beach. She said during the COVID-19 crisis, their goal had been to simply let customers know “we are here for you.” The company’s communication focus has been on providing value by sharing information to help customers keep their pets active and stimulated during this unusual time. “Last week, we sent out an email campaign titled ‘Boredom Busters for Your Pup’ to showcase interactive toys to keep pets busy and active during this time.”

Keeping in touch and providing value is great, but becoming a spammer is not. One of the trends I’ve noticed from some businesses in panic mode is to over-communicate. If you normally send out a weekly email, don’t start sending them out twice a day. Right now, your customers’ inboxes are overflowing with emails from desperate companies trying to keep their business. You don’t want to be one of the ones to whom they “unsubscribe.” However, it is OK to communicate a little more than normal because you’re not having that face-to-face contact in your store that you normally have. The key is to stay consistent with your communication, whether it’s your regular Monday email, your “Tuesday Tip” video or your twice-daily Facebook posts, keep those efforts up to stay in front of your customers.

Create Community

In difficult times, people seek connection with others, especially when they’re feeling isolated. Your business can not only facilitate this feeling of connection but benefit from being a source of connection. Create opportunities for customers to meet other like-minded pet lovers and to share information and experiences. Of course, one way you can do that is with in-person events. However, when in-person events aren’t possible, that doesn’t mean you can’t get people together. Creating online events, live-streaming video that people can experience together and interactive social media posts are a great way to give your customers a sense of community and keep them interacting with your business as well.

“Our day care team has been engaging our customers by posting short videos on social media, like the special one posted for Throwback Thursday, which is a little slideshow of memories of our daycare and boarding guests,” said Clarke. The post not only featured their customers’ pets, but asked customers to engage by sharing photos and comments on the post as well.

Serving, Not Selling

Trying to hard-sell customers in a time of crisis will likely just drive them away. If you want to stay front of mind with your customers, focusing on serving customers and the community is the best way to keep their business. “When the CDC guidelines changed to encourage all citizens to wear face masks or coverings in public,” said Clarke, “we were able to utilize our pet-themed bandanas, traditionally used in our grooming department, to quickly make DIY face coverings for not only our employees, but also as an economical option for our customers.” Clarke added that their Care-A-Lot Charitable Foundation also donated supplies for an emergency pet pantry established by the Norfolk SPCA to assist families in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

About a year ago, Care-A-Lot Pet Supply purchased a branded delivery van for local deliveries to support their e-commerce option for customers. During the COVID-19 crisis, Clarke said they wanted to not only deliver needed pet supplies, but do something to reduce stress for their customers.  “As a surprise gift, we included a roll of toilet paper with a special note attached which stated ‘one less thing to worry about because we care a lot.’ Our hope was to simply put a smile on someone’s face!”

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