Recognizing what's really important on the other side of COVID-19
(Author's note: The following is a personal opinion piece.)
Yesterday morning I read that J. Crew, the retail clothing chain, filed for bankruptcy. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/j-crew-bankruptcy-1.5554266) Now I'm sure there will be creative minds behind how the company can pivot - now there's a word that is popping up everywhere - and will be able to keep some form of operations. We are seeing increasing signs of smaller businesses around the world that will not survive on the other side of COVID-19. I'm sure many of them are facing insolvency of one form or another.
What strikes me about the J. Crew situation is my reaction to the news. I just don't care. I know I should, this is a large company that employs thousands of people, in many countries. Yet my reaction stems from the fact that what J. Crew made was actually very superfluous. (Remember, this is an opinion piece and before you go off on me because you loved their clothes and loved the lifestyle they portrayed, hear me out.)
Early on into being quarantined, spending a great deal of time at home, I was working on some home reno projects. In searching for a specific tool I started going through everything that was in my garage workshop. I found I have seven hand saws. I cannot recall how I came to acquire them, but they are there. Hammers, wrench sets, screwdrivers by the dozens and on it went. I eventually found what I was looking for and got the project finished. But I promised myself I would go back and put aside what I didn't really need and make sure it got to our local Habitat for Humanity store so someone else could make the best use of my excess. Coincidently, my wife had also been asking me to go through my closet and really look at my clothes to get rid of anything I just wasn't wearing anymore. Just like the garage, I was a bit shocked at what I saw. How is it I let myself get so many clothes? This was really embarrassing. And I was the only one to blame.
How does this all tie back to J. Crew? It's about my coming to terms with consumerism.
Consumerism - the theory that increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable. Also: a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.
- Merriam - Webster dictionary
I had too much stuff. We, as a society, buy too much stuff. Companies like J. Crew make it their mission to push us to buy more. Seriously, it's in their mission statement from their website: "We make timeless clothes that last a lifetime…then pair them with of-the-moment styles season after season, decade after decade." On the one hand, they make timeless clothes that last a lifetime, but then make sure they are of-the-moment so that what you just bought is out of fashion in a very short time. And J. Crew is, of course, not at all alone in this and I don't mean to pick on them. Hundreds if not thousands of companies provide the fuel that power consumerism within all of us. Just look at news highlights of any given Black Friday and the mad rush of shoppers that event creates. Don't get me started on the marketing, advertising and PR firms. That's a whole 'nother rant!
This global pause we are experiencing is such a unique experience on so many levels. One level is time. We now all have so much time on our hands. I'm really hoping many of us will take this time and reflect on what is important to us. For me, having stuff just isn't important anymore. Having what I need is important, of course, and what each of us needs is vastly different depending on who you are. But I have clearly found I have an overabundance of stuff in my life and honestly much of it is meaningless. And now I'm trying to simplify my life because I've discovered that connections with people are actually much more meaningful and valuable.
Now the extreme example of simplification in life is minimalism and I watched the wonderful documentary of the same name by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Co1Iptd4p4). I'm not fully there, but I sure buy in - pardon the pun - to the whole theory that stuff doesn't make you happy.
As a small business owner who helps other small business owners, I am seeing a key strength emerge during this time of business slow down or shut down. Companies doing well are those that provide needed products...needed products at a basic level and are actually making connections with the people they serve. Just look at how scarce wheat and yeast have become! Look at how we are viewing the importance of the food supply chain overall. Look at how technologies that allow us to connect with others have exploded in popularity. Companies that provide what we need at an essential level and can connect with us or better yet, allow us to connect with them, are proving to be real winners in this pandemic. And then there's J. Crew. That new short sleeve pop-over in linen for Spiring 2020 just doesn't really matter anymore. Businesses that are surviving are doing so because they are providing real meaning to their customers and really meaningful products.
Too many companies have tried to "pivot" by just selling online. That's not how you connect with customers...I mean really connect. Successful companies are pivoting by reminding customers of the value they got from them in the past and how they can continue to provide meaning to them now - in a time of crisis. And most of those successful companies are small, local businesses. Around me, companies like Lone Oak Brewery and Copper Bottom Brewery have partnered with The Handpie Company to offer packaged combinations of local beers with locally sourced and hand-made pies. And they will even deliver right to my house. In their promotions are reminders of how these companies are part of my community. They are living the same challenging times. They share my experience and they give me opportunities to share through them. But they also remind me of the great times we've had in the past, the value they can provide and the value I can derive from supporting them. I can now even buy most of my groceries from many of the local farm merchants all online thanks to a community farmers market. I can become part of a farm cooperative; who knew! And again, the value I realize is in supporting local and the freshness of the products I am buying.
On the other side of COVID-19 it is my hope that we as consumers have come to the realization that what we need to sustain us is actually much less that we previously thought. Equally, I hope business realizes that needless production simply for the sake of driving consumption is not sustainable. Sure we need constant innovation. There must always be a need for improvements and efficiencies. This will propel the creation of newer and better products. None of us would still want to be driving a Model A Ford...well not many I'd guess! What I want to see from companies is better ways to connect with them and for them to take a leading role in educating us as consumers and making us part of their communities. Imagine for example if clothing companies helped demonstrate ways we can recycle or reuse the products they create - sharing within their community as one example. Of course another way would be if J. Crew was connected with local drop off centres for clothing donations. These efforts might not have saved the company, but it sure would have added a great deal of value to their overall contribution to society and potentially positioned the company better in the minds of consumers, in the minds of their community. When a company can connect me to great value either tangible or intrinsic, that's when they have me as a customer for life.
Post-COVID-19 I truly believe many companies need to retrench their customer acquisition thought processes by focusing on the customers they already have and getting them to come back, getting them to become part of an enhanced community. Especially those who have lost touch with customers because their business has been closed and there was no way for them to operate. But even for those who have kept things going, the importance of demonstrating that you care, really care, about your customers is going to be so important. Making them part of your community, sharing events with them, providing special offers, early-bird access to new products, inviting them to be the first to try something new, giving them something extra for referring friends, throwing some small gifts in with their shipments, a handwritten note saying thanks...all these things can help build an inseparable bond with you and your customers.
I am quite certain most small businesses that have had to cut back in many areas cut back in marketing first and foremost. This probably wasn't the best idea, however, what I honestly believe most small businesses should do in the coming months is to concentrate efforts on retaining the customers they have. Retention is going to be more important than acquisition. Consumer spending is certainly slowed during this lockdown period and even as things start to open up slightly, most of us don't have the income we used to. Making your customers feel part of something special, demonstrating real value to them, and engagement strategies that keep them connected to your business is what will win out.
So take this time and assess your company. Are you really adding something of value that people really need? Because I know I'm going to be drastically changing my spending habits in the future. I hope you will give this equal consideration as well and let's continue carrying the torch that we are all in this together.