The Ever-evolving Retail Journey: How Three Retailers Are Persevering Through a Pandemic

Inside of a store

The retailer’s journey is different for everyone and the range of skills it takes is vast. Some retailers flex the artistry and creativity that comes more naturally to them while others go deep into the numbers side of things. But at the heart of it all, is perseverance. 

Whether it’s perseverance to make a dream become a reality, or perseverance in tackling challenge after challenge in a single day, from shift scheduling to having meaningful interactions with customers and everything in between; it takes a lot of heart.

So when the world hit pause last year, retail entrepreneurs across the world dug in, persevered, and faced some of their toughest challenges yet. With a lot of resilience, creativity, and the help of advanced technology, store owners were able to pivot to keep their businesses going. 

Across the United States, we saw retailers launching online shops for the first time, scheduling virtual appointments, testing new digital promotions, and introducing new ways to get orders into the hands of customers like curbside pickup and local delivery (in fact, 44% of American businesses launched local delivery programs).

While the effects of the last year affected regions across the world differently, we wanted to zoom in on the Western United States and look at the journey of three different retail businesses in Dallas, Texas.

We partnered with the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC) to chat with three Dallas-based retail businesses in totally different stages of growth to learn how they started, how it’s going, and how they see the future of retail.

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Pushing forward and pivoting through change to serve your customers 

Each of the three retailers we spoke with entered 2020 at very different stages in their business, which means they had different sets of challenges from deciding when to launch, to identifying strategies for attracting new customers and serving loyal ones.

“We identified a need in the market,” said Cam Leggett, who launched Nomad Grills with his Co-Founder, John Veatch, shortly after the initial onset of the pandemic. “At the time, no one was making a well-built affordable grill.”

Nomad Grills launched by offering a direct-to-consumer online shop so folks around the world could buy their portable grill. 

“Launching at the height of the pandemic was by accident. That wasn't our first choice,” said Leggett.

“We had the idea for this concept in 2016, so we spent a few years developing it, designing the products, building it, and getting it ready to bring to market. So we launched mid-pandemic because it was just time for us to launch.”

Nomad Grills also started using part of their office in Bishop Arts as a retail showroom to allow the local community to safely experience their products in-person and even try some barbecued samples. 

Person grilling meat

Molly Mathias is the founder of Magic Hour, a curation of handmade and ethically produced home goods. Mathias was quick to identify her customers’ need for even more self-care products and launched an entirely new retail shop just two doors down called Go Easy. Both stores are also located in Bishop Arts, and Mathias recently opened a second Go Easy location in Houston.

“My second retail concept came up because a lot of people were focusing on themselves and their mental health during the pandemic,” said Mathias. “We had a small apothecary section at Magic Hour. It was never our best seller, but during the pandemic, all of a sudden we were getting a lot more activity with that section.”

“A lot of people were wanting to send gift baskets to friends and family members. So I opened Go Easy very, very quickly because I saw the opportunity to provide for my customers and just took it.”

For Ashley Conger, Chief of Staff of Neighborhood Goods, a department store with an ever-changing roster of featured brands and locations in Texas and New York, the onset of the pandemic was all about enhancing their existing online shop and offering their customers the flexibility to shop the way they want. 

“We rebuilt our website, probably week two of stores being closed,” said Conger.

“We curate a lot of online brands that you'd have to go directly to their site to purchase from. But [at Neighborhood Goods], we're able to package up a really unique group of brands within our space, and whether you buy in-person or online, or buy online and pick up in-store, you’re able to shop the way you want.”

And having that instinct when so much of the world seems unclear, is another set of qualities that balances gut instinct and numbers.

“It's like balancing that art and science of things,” adds Conger. “We're looking at what sells frequently from the data and we're able to hear directly from customers, whether that's on social media or in stores.”

Despite being at completely different growth stages, the commonality amongst all three retailers is knowing your customers. It’s the difference between seeing an opportunity to launch your new business when everything is telling you not to and letting it fizzle out. And the best way to know your customers? Talk to them, observe them, and understand their habits. Soon enough, you’ll be able to recognize patterns and anticipate their needs - sometimes even before they do. 

Cultivating a community, wherever your shoppers are

These resilient retailers recognize the power of community as the source of their success. Of course, in today’s digital age, that includes online communities, too. All three of these Dallas retailers leaned heavily on reaching people online to stay top of mind and continuously engage with shoppers in a meaningful way. 

“I am a big believer in Instagram,” said Mathias. “That's something that we put a lot of focus on with both of our stores.”

Mathias added that it’s not just about marketing, but rather using Instagram as a tool to build a community.

“We try to focus more on building an online community,” she explained.

“That's what we've really done with Go Easy and why it's exploded so much. It's a safe space and we have a personality behind the brand. We’re focusing a lot more on influencer marketing [for the future]. That goes back to forming a community, and our shoppers will hopefully always be there for us because they're part of our community rather than just getting fed advertisements all the time.”

“The power of online, of course, lets us reach communities that otherwise would have taken us years to reach with a physical space,” agreed Leggett. “After launching less than 12 months ago, we've sold grills in 42 countries and every U.S. state and are gaining quick traction.”

Not only have they sold their products across the world, but Nomad Grills’ Instagram has become an online destination to see how some of the best chefs use the portable grill to bring their recipes to life. From Top Chef Masters winner, Chris Cosentino, to Miguel Raya of Cooking with Fire, the brand has cultivated an Instagram presence that not only makes your mouth water, but helps you learn new ways to use Nomad Grills products. 

For Neighborhood Goods, the team balances building community with the curated brand they feature in-store and online, and their shoppers. 

Inside Neighborhood Goods

“Community is definitely at the core of it all. It's an interesting challenge in terms of having our brand community and our customer community,” explained Conger. “We’re sort of manufacturing these moments so that they can all come together across our channels.” 

While the retail world continues to flow between online and in-person, it’s important to remember that your community of shoppers will do the same. Shoppers have come to expect the content they’ve been seeing consistently for the past year; now’s the time to embrace the omnichannel fluidity and showcase both in-store and online experiences on social media

The retail renaissance: embracing the in-person experience

With all the focus on ecommerce, social media, and virtual experiences over the past year, what does that mean for the future of physical retail locations? 

Brick-and-mortar stores offer shoppers an opportunity to see, feel, and touch the products they’re interested in and allow both shoppers and business owners to connect.

So while physical store locations are constantly changing to meet shopper expectations, that doesn’t mean they’re going anywhere. Retailers are now offering customers a hybrid experience with online shopping, local delivery, and curbside pickup, while still embracing welcoming and engaging physical spaces that become a destination for local shoppers.

Magic Hour

For Mathias, opening a brand-new brick-and-mortar shop amid the pandemic meant leaving behind her “bigger is better” mindset and pursuing a much smaller store location. Especially when shoppers can find their favorite items online, the need for such a large sales floor just doesn’t exist anymore. 

“My passion is definitely physical spaces, so I don't think we'll ever give that up,” said Mathias. “But I personally got very, very scared when we all got shut down. Rents are still due, you know? So that's something going forward that we are very conscious of. If I opened up another [store], I would open up a much smaller store again, just because it's way easier to manage.”

At Nomad Grills, order fulfillment is done in-house, so their store is a one-stop shop. And when it comes to buying something like a barbecue, customers want to be able to see and touch the product before making a commitment. 

“[When you come into our store], you can really get a feel for the brand and dive in and immerse yourself,” said Leggett.

“We like to slow down for a minute. At the end of the day, we're a lifestyle brand. It's about food and community.”

“Anytime we have people walk in our store and shake a hand or fist bump or whatever we're allowed to do, it’s a good thing,” Leggett adds. “It makes really powerful connections with the customers. And that really sets us apart from a purely online business.”

Neighborhood Goods provides a way for customers to experience a lot of local brands that often aren’t even found in-stores, making it a local retail collective with a constantly evolving assortment. It’s representative of a new retail era that’s centered around accessibility and experience. 

“As we look out at the next year, or the next five years, there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity there and different ways to shift the business,” said Conger. “So we are making sure we can stay focused with the exciting things ahead of us.”

No matter which stage you’re at in your retail business or where you’re located, there’s essential lessons to be learned from these Dallas retailers. 

Whether it’s taking a chance and pushing your business forward, despite the world telling you it’s not the right time or drastically flipping your marketing strategy to meet customers where they are, that perseverance remains at the core of it all. And when you persevere, magic happens.