In this entry in our Guest Retailer blog series, Steve Anderson, owner of Third Eye Comics in Maryland and Virginia discusses his stores’ multi-pronged approach to reaching customers with storefronts closed and the challenges faced when different lawmakers give different instructions on reopening.
By Steve Anderson
I look at COVID-19 as 4 stages, in terms of how we’ve been impacted and how we’ve adapted.
Stage 1 was in late January for me. I saw the news about Wuhan and had no idea how serious this was going to be, but started thinking in terms of the impact it would have on customer behavior if it did hit. I did not anticipate what it was, or what it has been, but instead thought we might just see something similar to when the swine flu was prevalent.
I ramped up our internal store cleaning procedures (which were already pretty hardcore), set up a contract with CINTAS for scheduled future deep cleans of our busiest storefronts, along with the installation of touchless soap, paper towel, and hand sanitizer stations (including public ones), and increased our store stock of hand sanitizer, wipes, etc, which are all things we had already been keeping on hand for normal day-to-day operations.
Stage 2 was around the end of very start of March. This was when it set in that this was going to be something that could potentially threaten the existence of our business, but again… we had no idea just how much. I made the decision to close our tabletop game store, Third Eye Games, and event space and cancel all in-store gaming events at the beginning of March.
Along with that, I began instituting some preliminary policies that are now major parts of our day-to-day. Disinfectant wipe-downs of high-touch surfaces throughout the day and other measures like that.
It was around this time I also began developing “just in case” models for how we could do business if shutdowns came our way — and, sure enough, on March 23, that came.
From there, that takes us into Stage 3 — our stores shut down to the public on May 23, and we could only offer curbside. By the 30th, curbside was removed as an option.
- Local delivery within 40 miles of our store
- Ramped up mail order with flat rate shipping
- Programs like ZOOM Personal Shopping
- FB Live Shows for selling clearance merchandise
- Curated reading packages
- The Third Eye Binge Box
- Third Eye Battle Bonds, gift cards packaged with rewards, depending on the tier.
We kept selling new comics, even when there were none to be sold. We’d spotlight and re-introduce old favorites, making sure to maintain continuity with our customers throughout the entire process.
In addition to thinking of survival, we also tried to keep positive by taking on initiatives we couldn’t when the store was open:
- We had to rethink the model of our game store entirely; 50% of the store was dedicated to play space, and that was going to be unusable for at least eight to 12 months. With pretty much zero budget to do so, we managed to change the space around and re-imagine the game store in a way that introduced new categories that we think will perform well and make up the lost revenue from the event space.
- We streamlined our internal processes and refined infrastructure.
- And, while it hasn’t launched, we re-imagined our e-commerce presence and have a better strategy for that going forward.
Through all of these processes, our customers were incredible. With their support, along with some smart decisions from our vendors, we survived Stage 3.
Now, we’re in stage 4 — and this is the hardest stage, by far: the recovery.
Our state made a decision one way for opening, our county made a decision another way, and our city made a decision another way for where the flagship Third Eye stores are based.
We’ve literally been having to retool the messaging of how we’re operating, and what we’re doing, on a near-daily basis.
We’ve finally been given a concrete date for when we can reopen, along with guidelines for capacity, so we’re hopeful about that. And, if I had to say, how’ve we been adapting now? We’re focusing on making sure we have everything as safe, and as ready, as possible for when we do re-open on June 1.
Our satellite stores in Richmond, VA and Southern Maryland have both been open for nearly two weeks now, and are doing great. We’re excited to get the Third Eye flagship stores in Annapolis open with them.
Honestly, this is a lot shorter than what I had for category 1, but really it’s this simple: you take whatever gets thrown at you, you figure out how to make it work, and you keep at it until it works.
You have to stay positive, stare straight ahead, don’t look up, don’t look down, just keep looking forward, and when problems arise… beat your head against them until you figure out the solution.
For us, our customer service and hand-selling has always been a big part of what makes Third Eye special. Not being able to offer that in-person was a huge disadvantage. We are very much an off-the-rack store, and very much not a catalog pre-order driven store.
In other words: locking people out of our shops is about the worst thing that could happen to us.
We didn’t overthink our Personal Shopping service. We put together a brief how to, encouraged people to schedule appointments, and then chatted and showed them the store via Zoom. It worked pretty well.
It was very helpful to us, especially in the first two to three weeks.
Thanks so much to Mr. Anderson for his contribution to this blog and detailed information about retail strategies that have helped during this ongoing pandemic. You may visit Third Eye Comics on the web and via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.