Independent Shoe Stores Scrambled to Launch E-Commerce in COVID-19 Times — The Critical Lessons They’re Learning Now

Retailers have begun opening their doors as COVID-19 restrictions ease. But, for many online shopping converts, a click of the mouse may be replacing a trip to the store forever.

For independent shoe stores that experienced a loss of sales to their e-commerce counterparts during the pandemic, it’s not too late to get into the game with companion web stores of their own.

Jane Stricker, co-owner of Footloose and Threads, both in Lincoln, Neb., launched an e-commerce site in April, even though the state allowed stores to remain open. “If [consumers] are going to buy somewhere online, we hope they come to us,” said Stricker, about the decision to add an online option.

To get started, the store, which already had a website, hired an independent web designer, then used Big Hairy Dog, a sales and support company to manage point-of-sale and inventory control. To oversee day-to-day operations, Stricker tapped the stores’ two managers. “In three weeks, they [uploaded] all the shoe images and descriptions,” said Stricker. Total cost to build the site was $15,000.

So far, business has been steady. “I’m thrilled we did it since people are still not going out and want to support us,” she said, noting the goal for the site is 10% of overall sales. “When people are on the site, we [want] to make sure they [recognize] it’s us. [Therefore], our shipping presence is huge. We wrap boxes pretty with tissue paper, then add a ‘shop local’ sticker and hand written thank you.”

For retailers like Stricker, getting an e-commerce site up and running is easier than ever with guidance from a wide range of independent web designers to full-service agencies.

According to Aimee Duffy, owner of Aquarius Designs, which provides web design, development and marketing options, “E-commerce used to be a bonus channel, but not anymore. It’s the broadest opportunity for a company to flip that percentage of revenue.”

While Duffy’s not suggesting independents can go up against giants such as Amazon and Zappos, launching an e-commerce site is a way to reinforce business with locals who already enjoy shopping at a particular store.

Establishing an e-commerce business can include upgrading an existing informational website or beginning from scratch. Start-up costs for a basic site can range from $1,000 and $1,500, said Duffy, with more complex designs up to $5,000. (Aquarius is offering a free digital strategy session with a mention of FN.)

Once the site is designed, retailers can choose from a range of affordable shopping subscription software services with shopping cart solutions to sell ship, and manage products. Shopify or Bigcommerce are two such providers offering these services at monthly fees as low as $30.

Next, stressed Duffy, it’s up to retailers to get the word out. “Just because the store is built, doesn’t mean people will come,” she said. “Marketing is huge.” Facebook and Instagram ads are a low-cost, yet effective way to advertise a site, often at just dollars a day. Aquarius, said Duffy, can set up and manage advertising accounts for $150-$200 a month, coupled with a $200 ad budget.

Keeping customers engaged is the next challenge. “That’s where the personal service comes into play,” said Duffy. In addition to showcasing product, e-commerce sites can include Youtube videos, as well as live chats with sales associates. “Customer service is a huge component. They want [information at-once].“

Managing an e-commerce site can be easy as establishing one, according to Don Grantham, director of Evolve Media, another full-service agency that’s available to take clients from simply establishing a domain name to maintaining a full site. “I’ve seen stores pivot from a stagnant site to a live e-commerce site in just two days,” said Grantham. “You can go up quickly with just the basics and the fact you already have a web presence.”

For retailers without available staff to run an e-commerce site, Evolve offers management services. “We can also help with photography,” said Grantham. “We’ve trained some of our clients on how to take their photos that look professional.”

Retailers like Hawley Lane, which coincidentally added an e-commerce site just three weeks before the pandemic hit in March, have opted to go through the process alone by hiring an in-house web manager. “We wanted to establish a more enhanced informational site with an e-commerce option,” said co-owner Dave Levy, who already had an in-house team of two in charge of the store’s marketing and graphics. “While we’re not [currently] selling a lot, it’s definitely incremental business we wouldn’t have done.”

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