The Alphabet Soup website features categories based on current and seasonal trends. | Source: Alphabet Soup

It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic started, changing lives across the world. At first, it was impossible to imagine that entire cities would go under lockdown and quarantine, but that became an inevitable part of getting through the beginning stages — and many businesses adapted to the new normal by shifting to a digital world.

Purchasing in the online channel continues to outperform last year’s results by more than 30%, according to The NPD Group. Even after businesses reopen, it may take time before consumers rush back into brick-and-mortar stores, now that they have gotten used to the convenience of online shopping. Some small businesses were lucky enough to already have omnichannel commerce plans in place, while others found themselves creating websites for the first time. Either way, all businesses should consider riding the e-commerce wave and keep the momentum going while it’s hot.

BACK TO BASICS

Not all businesses have tech-savvy employees to help them go above and beyond with a fancy website, especially when the main focus is on a brick-and-mortar store. The easiest place to start is with the basics: Make sure the shop information is accurate, and set aside some time to keep online inventory up to date.

Happki opened an e-commerce store and a brick-and-mortar location in 2019. | Source: Happki

Happki is a specialty toy store that got its start in 2019 as an e-commerce store, followed by a brick-and-mortar location in Deer Park, Illinois, later that year. The original plan was to focus more on the website, but management found that it was difficult to keep up with uploading new inventory when there was so much work to do in the physical store. When Happki had to temporarily shut down due to the pandemic last year, focus turned back to its website.

“We started asking vendors for better images and uploaded every single product that we had in the store on the website,” says Mauricio Romy, Happki’s founder and CEO. “The biggest change we made was to focus on growing the catalog online. Our No. 1 task was putting our entire inventory on the website and that helped a lot.” The growth of the website made up for the lack of sales in the brick-and-mortar store as its April 2020 sales surpassed its 2019 holiday sales by 300%.

A Current Look at Happki’s Homepage | Source: Happki

The first thing Greta Perl did when she bought the Alphabet Soup toy store in Ithaca, New York, from its previous owner in 2018 was create a website with an e-commerce component. There was almost no traffic at first, until the pandemic hit and stores shut down in New York state. “It was really handy to have the website set up already with the inventory up to date,” Perl says. “The website was our only source of business through last June and it’s still a constant option for people to this day.”

Perl’s website is not only a convenient way for people to shop, but it also serves as an advertisement to let people know she’s there. When Alphabet Soup opened its doors again, many in-person shoppers told Perl that they found out about the store through its website. She constantly updates it to keep the front page seasonal and to showcase new items.

You don’t have to hire a trained photographer either: Perl takes the photos on her iPhone and two staff members update the photos and descriptions anytime new merchandise arrives. “For me, it really helps to have some staff help with the product listings because that takes a little bit of work,” she says. Schedule a little time each day to work on your website so customers can see what’s new.
Perl says that if you don’t know where to start, at least put your store hours up. “Having anything at all is better than nothing, so don’t worry too much about making it look amazing,” she says.

CUSTOMER SERVICE GOES DIGITAL

Most specialty toy stores heavily rely on personal touches, offering customers a level of service that they can’t find with big-box competitors. One of the biggest challenges of e-commerce — and the pandemic — is losing the face-to-face interaction that so many small businesses rely on. In what ways can businesses let their customer service shine through a computer screen?

Shoppers can narrow down their search on redballoontoystore.com. | Source: Red Balloon Toy Store

After approximately 35 years in business, Red Balloon Toy Store had a 422% sales increase in 2020 over 2019. There are six locations in Utah and, as of March, they’re up 202% over last year overall. Red Balloon Toy Store’s Vice President David Castillo had been working on building an omnichannel presence for the store pre-pandemic, but the e-commerce websites were more of a side project than a focus. After seeing a significant boost in online traffic, Castillo is now giving the websites more serious attention.

“We continue to ask ourselves: What sets the brick-and-mortar experience apart from the e-commerce experience and how do we bridge that gap to the best of our abilities? A big part of that is our credibility and our selection, but also the ability for customers to ask questions and interact with an employee who is knowledgeable,” Castillo says. The online chat features are popular with customers and Castillo makes sure to have staff available to respond to requests and give input if customers need help shopping for particular interests or age groups on the website.

Red Balloon Toy Store is also making efforts to improve its navigation functions so that shoppers can filter and narrow down their selections based on what they are looking for, whether that be price range, age range, brand, or other categories. “Where we failed before was assuming that everyone browses a website the same way that we do,” Castillo says. “Some customers might come into the store and say ‘I know who I’m shopping for and I know they love dinosaurs. What do you have?’” Castillo wants to expand the website’s navigation and interests sections so people can shop in a similar fashion. “We’re really trying to recreate that in-store experience as much as possible.”

A “Backyard Blast” Surprise Box from Alphabet Soup | Source: Alphabet Soup

Perl echoes that sentiment, adding that she constantly mixes up the categories and interests on Alphabet Soup’s website to keep it fresh based on current or seasonal trends, such as fidget toys or Easter-themed toys. The Alphabet Soup website also offers something called “Surprise Boxes.” The customer can pick a theme — such as games you can play on video calls or a 4-year-old who loves crafts — and the employees will customize a box full of surprise items catered to that request. “That makes it really easy if a customer is shopping for someone they don’t know very well or if they’re short on time,” Perl says. “This was helpful from a retail point of view as well because I could choose from what I had on hand and didn’t have to worry about things being out of stock.”

MAINTAIN THE MOMENTUM

As the world slowly, but surely, begins to get back to a semblance of normalcy, retailers need to hold onto their online growth before giving it a chance to slip away. One way to take advantage of higher-than-usual web traffic is by giving something back with special events, such as free shipping, flash sales, or giveaways.

“Set a budget on the side so you can do raffles and giveaways to create brand awareness, more than anything,” Romy says. Happki started doing more raffles and creative events online over the past year, asking customers to tag a friend and follow the store on social media to grow its reach. “Instead of doing paid ads, we put that money toward our customers and that helped a lot. Rely on your customers and tell them to help your store. If they know you have a website and ship to other states, they will share with family members and friends in other parts of the country and that brought us a lot of new customers.”

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As much as e-commerce opens businesses up to a wider reach, it’s also important for small businesses to remember where they came from and take care of their local community. “I know this sounds so counterintuitive, but it’s been working great for us so far. People look at e-commerce and think their target is the world, but we’re really just trying to gear our website toward our community first, and then let others outside of our area find it on their own,” Castillo says. “I want everyone in Salt Lake County to think of Red Balloon Toy Store first when they think toys, games, and puzzles. We want to build mindshare here and build the economy here. Then, we will bring in people out of our area.”

Just because more people are choosing to shop online doesn’t mean you should wait for the customer to come to you. Go out there, reel them in, and keep them coming back for more.


This article was originally published in the May 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!