Nationwide lockdowns and remote working are no obstacles for digital-first e-commerce brands. The Drum explores how DTC brands across the grooming, luxury and hygiene spaces are adapting.
The coronavirus lockdown has hit retailers hard – annihilating footfall on high streets, forcing businesses to be run from home (or not at all) and disrupting supply chains across the globe.
However, many digital direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands have found themselves suited to the new landscape. How they adapt to the crisis now could shape their businesses, and consumer behaviours, for years to come.
In March, while Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley tried to dig in and keep his 470 stores open throughout the crisis, DTC beauty brand Glossier quietly mothballed its destination stores in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and London and continued trading online; market researchers Mintel predict the virus will increase demand for ‘clean’ beauty products.
More dramatically, DTC luxury toilet paper company Who Gives A Crap sold out entirely, after a run on its stock, before March was out. Peach, a rival luxury loo-roll brand, says its sales went up 267% in the first fortnight of March.
Vanessa Morrish, creative director at Who Gives A Crap, suggests that “the rush on demand was a little bit of fear and a little bit of 'fomo'.
"Part of it was the idea of having to stay home for an extended period of time and people wanting to stock up on essentials. It was probably also driven by the fear that production could shut down," she explains.
A social enterprise that donates 50% of its profits to building toilets in the developing world, the brand has had to keep a close eye on its ongoing marketing efforts to make sure its communications “are mindful, useful and human and aren’t tone deaf to what’s happening in people’s lives”, says Morrish.
While its stock has run dry across the world, Morrish notes that the unprecedented sales leading up to March will have aid its social mission. She says: “The surge in toilet paper buying will have a long term benefit to our charity partners in terms of financial donations. Our impact partners are facing some huge challenges right now. So we’re very happy we can help.”
Similarly according to Matt Hiscock, vice-president of grooming brand Harry’s, demand for shaving equipment has spiked.
“We have been adjusting to the changes in demand and shopping behavior; where we have seen a spike online within our core product range, including the Truman razor and blades. We recognize the importance of daily routine and self-care during changeable times, so we’re doing all we can to fulfil orders to ensure our guys shaving and grooming routines aren’t disrupted,” he tells The Drum.
Demand has not been equally distributed – and what products customers deem essential is variable. While DTC wine retailer Wine Insiders has reported an upturn in consumers looking to booze their way through lockdown – demand for chardonnay grew 11%, and average orders went up 15% in the second half of March – luxury leather goods Bellroy, whose suitcases and bags are targeted at affluent travelers, has been hit by the grounding of the travel industry.
Nevertheless, Lina Calabria, co-founder and chief operating officer of Bellroy, says the company is using the lockdown as an opportunity to conduct experiments and trial new strategies.
“Generally, you learn things from experiments, even when they’re not a screaming success,” she says. “So currently we’re running: what would it be like if we didn’t have an office? Can we affect a change in how people think about the idea of travel and what it means to them? Were the masters of business right when they said you need to be diversified? We’ll need to see how this experiment plays out.”
Even when DTC brands have enjoyed an upturn in demand, it’s not been easy to meet consumers expectations. Aron Gelbard, founder of letterbox florists Bloom & Wild, says: “We have seen strong demand for our product and we think there are two drivers of that. One is people are more inclined than they might be in more normal times to send flower gifts, due to social distancing and being separated from friends and family. And secondly, they’re needing to rely on online channels for retail.”
Mother’s Day, the company’s busiest week of the year, was a challenge. “A normal week in the run up to Mother’s Day is really busy; it's the busiest trading week of the year for us,” Gelbard says. “And we were adapting to our first week working from home in the midst of our busiest week of the year.”
Providing fresh flowers on-demand makes for a constant supply challenge, Gelbard notes. But nationwide lockdowns in Europe and the UK, and social distancing measures at warehouses, have made it even harder. “The product can't be stored at the grower level or at the retail level, and physical stores shutting down means a lot of good flowers have been wasted. There have been far worse consequences of Covid-19, but it's unfortunate for the those whose livelihood is spent growing them and it's unfortunate environmentally, too.”
To cope, Bloom & Wild has had to source in the UK, rather than rely on growers on the continent. “We’ve had to rapidly change our range to make sure we’re sourcing flowers that work for us,” he says.
While the spike in demand and sales enjoyed by these brands is likely a short-term effect, increased exposure to consumers could normalize subscription services and DTC products. Harry’s business model has given it a “fortunate position during such uncertain times,” admits Hiscock. “It’s the core of what we do, so we’re continually able to adapt and flex.”
Gelbard is cautious not to speculate but suggests it’s an opportunity for businesses like his to prove themselves to consumers. “I hope that some of the customers that have discovered us during lockdown will see that we've given them a good experience and a good product, and will continue to shop with us afterwards,” he says.
According to Cheryl Calverley, chief marketing officer at online sleep wellness brand Eve Sleep, the lockdown will see e-commerce retailers treated as the rule, rather than the exception. “We’re all far too fixated on saying we’re digital businesses. Digital is just the mechanism of delivering business in this age. It shouldn’t be the only thing your [brand] is defined by,” she says.
“The reason we sell directly to consumers online is because it is the most efficient way to deal with them, and it is never to be gimmicky. Brands that don’t do it properly will get found out.”