Reskilling Retail Employees: How One Ecommerce Brand Reinvented the Role of the In-Store Employee | Coronavirus Series

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series that explores the impact the coronavirus crisis is having on the world of ecommerce. Explore daily insights surrounding the coronavirus crisis or check out these additional resources to help you navigate your marketing strategy during this time.

Across the globe, stores are reopening but that doesn’t mean consumers are ready to flock to them just yet. Or that they’re even allowed to, given social distancing guidelines. 

According to a recent survey of consumers, forty-three percent of people who plan to continue shopping from newfound online stores say they think they won’t return to regularly shopping in-person for at least two months. 

As a result, brands with physical stores are getting creative with how they’re using ecommerce to drive revenue. 

Gym + Coffee, for example, is an athletic clothing brand based in Ireland that sells to many countries, including the US. The brand was founded by three Irish expats who wanted to create clothing that could be worn at the gym and then to brunch or coffee afterward. 

I recently spoke with Diarmuid McSweeny, chief marketing officer, and Alison Sheehy, ecommerce manager, to learn more about the marketing strategies they’re using to acquire and retain their customers, and to get the scoop on how, despite temporarily closing five stores, they’ve seen unprecedented growth that’s recouped any potential lost sales. 

Comparing their online sales to the same time period in 2019, the team saw 1,245 percent growth in 2020. What’s more, the team finished the second quarter of 2020 at 133 percent of their planned target, which is impressive considering their stores were only open for two weeks during the second quarter.   

Read on to learn how the brand has leveraged its store employees to contribute to their ecommerce business, why they’ve built a community hub, and how they stay authentic to their brand values as a growth strategy. 

How Gym+Coffee has leveraged their retail store employees to catapult their ecommerce operations

Before the global coronavirus pandemic, Diarmuid and his team sold online and in five Ireland-based retail stores.  Diarmuid said the team had been discussing opening more stores to grow their footprint prior to the pandemic. 

Customers of all ages enjoyed coming into the stores and having the tangible and tactile experience of seeing, touching, and trying on the brand’s clothes. Retail associates were skilled in salesmanship, but they also had a personal touch that, many would argue, couldn’t be mimicked online and were exclusive to the in-store shopping experience. 

After the onset of the pandemic, however, Diarmuid and his team had to temporarily shutter their stores and, instead, turn to ecommerce to sell their products. They didn’t want to lay-off or furlough their employees, so they retrained them.

“We had to train our retail store associates to become omni-associates who could help customers with their online shopping experience, which helped us also prevent layoffs or furloughs,” Diarmuid said.

"We had to train our retail store associates to become omni-associates who could help customers with their online shopping experience, which helped us also prevent layoffs or furloughs."

Diarmuid McSweeny, CMO, Gym + Coffee

It’s a good thing since their new retail partners, who have retail villages in Germany, Italy, and China, have shared that foot traffic in these newly opened regions has been very slow. 

“It’s a bit of a crystal ball for us because our retail partner has retail villages in places where stores have started to re-open. They’ve told us that their social distancing recommendations for the villages are working quite well, but foot traffic is down about 70 percent and there are still lines to get in the stores. Many retailers are using queuing apps for customers to book their shopping time slots,” Diarmuid said. 

With their stores near-empty now and a big logistical challenge ahead to fill those stores again, Diarmuid and his team launched a virtual style and fit program, and trained their retail associates to operate it. 

“We know our retail associates are smart and valuable. Their tips and suggestions for items are why our store orders have higher average order values than our online orders. They’ve done extremely well supporting this initiative, so they may be asked to have hybrid offline and online roles in the future,” Diarmuid said.

"[Our retail associates] have done extremely well supporting this initiative, so they may be asked to have hybrid offline and online roles in the future."

Diarmuid McSweeny, CMO, Gym + Coffee

Gym+Coffee started off this new initiative by asking retail associates to help with online customer service, specifically focused on sizing, fit, and product details. 

The volume of questions became so high that the idea for a style and fit program was born. With this program, a customer can book an online session to speak with a retail staff member about what they’re looking to buy, talk about sizing, chat about product details, or discuss how to navigate the website and add an item to their cart. 

We did a little soft launch where we contacted or emailed everyone who had shopped in store, but never online, and told them that we would help them shop online if they were interested. We used Klaviyo’s segmentation capabilities to sort and message who we were chatting with, and so far the customer response has been positive,” said Alison.

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reskilling-retail-employees

How Gym+Coffee expects to retain their new customers

Many brands are seeing an increase in the number of new customers who are now shopping with them. The question that’s top of mind now for most brands is how they can keep these customers engaged and expand their lifetime value (LTV) over time. 

Gym+Coffee had the same question. The team noted that 71 percent of orders over the last year have been from new customers, and their returning customer rate is 41 percent higher than the year prior. When the team looked back to how they originally grew organically, they decided to launch an online community hub as a solution. 

“We first started growing by hosting events and bringing people together who like to exercise and giving them the opportunity to socialize. Then, when this pandemic happened, we wanted to continue to provide this opportunity. We launched a community hub on Facebook and we’ve challenged people to challenge themselves with a workout, a new language, or a new skill,” said Alison.

"We first started growing by hosting events and bringing people together who like to exercise and giving them the opportunity to socialize. Then, when this pandemic happened, we wanted to continue to provide this opportunity. We launched a community hub on Facebook and we’ve challenged people to challenge themselves with a workout, a new language, or a new skill."

Alison Sheehy, ecommerce manager, Gym + Coffee

By offering this online community to their customers, a unique thing happened. Customers started engaging with the brand and each other. 

“We had a physiotherapist that was part of the community and he could answer a lot of questions for people. That had nothing to do with us and we never prompted or organized those conversations,” said Alison.

 

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By creating a community haven for their customers, the Gym+Coffee team has created an invaluable resource—a sustainable and accessible way of learning what customers care about most and providing them with it.

Why Gym+Coffee remains authentic to their brand values

When I asked Diarmuid and Alison how they expect to retain customers aside from running a community hub, they said staying consistent with their brand and values have helped them remain authentic and grow.

“We didn’t become something different because of COVID-19, or we didn’t try to become something different. We did have a one-week of period of sales at the end of March where we got a little worried, so, we increased promotions and then it was fine,” said Diarmuid.

"We didn't become something different because of COVID-19, or we didn't try to become something different."

Diarmuid McSweeny, CMO, Gym + Coffee

Alison said they’ve been purposeful with their content and messaging, and they make sure it conveys a human connection while conveying their brand values about supporting an athletic lifestyle. 

“Instead of sending transactional messages, for example, we send hopeful messages wishing people are staying healthy and active, and encouraging them to join our community group,” Alison said.

Gym+Coffee’s commitment to brand consistency has helped the team easily navigate this time successfully.  

“We’re not ASOS. We’re small, but nimble and on a collective journey together that we want our customers to be a part of. Klaviyo has helped us drive this messaging even further with nurture flows. The flows are personalized and our welcome series is a great example of how we think we’re making an ideal first impression with a customer, so they get to know the company and who we are,” Diarmuid said.

"The flows are personalized and our welcome series is a great example of how we think we’re making an ideal first impression with a customer, so they get to know the company and who we are."

Diarmuid McSweeny, CMO, Gym + Coffee

Key takeaway

While many stores are beginning to reopen, the volume of consumers actually willing and able to shop in a physical store is likely to remain low due to continued concern about the coronavirus and social distancing policies. This poses an immense challenge to many brands that have revenue to recoup. 

Gym+Coffee is an example of a brand that creatively utilized its store employees, built an online community hub, and relied on it’s brand values to steer it financial success. This is a brand that’s nailed down the art of the pivot, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.  

Looking for more information to help you adjust your marketing strategies as you navigate the coronavirus crisis? These resources may be helpful. 

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