Charity shops and the marketing challenges of coronavirus
Before the closure of all non-essential shops due to the coronavirus outbreak, charity shops were a bright spot on the high street. Charity shops boasted a 3.2% increase in sales, year-on-year from Q4 2018 to Q4 2019, as compared to commercial retail’s negative sales growth of about minus 1% in the same period. (Charity Retail Association Market Analysis Report.)
While charity retail may have been faring better than commercial retail chains before the pandemic, the entire retail sector is facing new challenges now. And as stores re-open and lockdown measure continue to evolve, it’s essential that charity shops – from large chains like Oxfam and the British Heart, to medium and smaller charity outlets like Marie Curie and local hospices – are in a position to adapt to changing circumstances and respond to customer concerns and needs.
Here are critical steps that charity retailers of all sizes can take to ensure their charity marketing is effective now and in the future.
MAKE SURE ONLINE INFORMATION IS CURRENT AND CORRECT. Even though only essential businesses remained open during the strictest period of lockdown, people still needed to go online to find out which supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies and the like are open, and if so, when. Add to that, as restrictions have eased, we’ve searched online to try to figure out what restrictions may still be in place (limits on the number of customers allowed in the store at one time or certain locations of a business remaining closed).
More often than necessary, it’s been difficult to find the information we need, or worse, we’ve turned up at the store only to find the online information was wrong and the store is still closed. While charity retail begins to resume, now is the perfect time to make sure your online information is correct and that you know how and where to update key information online that will help your customers get the answers they’re looking for.
To start, this includes name, address and phone number. Although it may sound extremely basic, you’d be surprised how many online business listings have incorrect information. Research has revealed that more than 85% of the UK’s largest department stores had inaccuracies in their Google My Business listings, with store names and addresses the most common inconsistencies.
Not only does this make it harder for consumers to find you and get information, any inaccuracies in your business listings held on various directories (e.g. Google, Bing, Facebook) can negatively impact search engine rankings. Search engines like Google continually cross-reference directories with other platforms to verify their results. So if the information they find matches, it boosts search engine rankings. But inconsistencies could mean your charity store doesn’t show up in Google’s highlighted top three results, or worse, could bump your store off of the first page of search results entirely.
Furthermore, analysis of 73,000 business locations, across 37 directories, showed that almost 50% of all business locations had errors or missing information on their Bing profiles. Even though Bing isn’t as popular as Google as a search engine, it is the search engine that powers voice search assistants Alexa and Cortana. Consequently, people who are asking Alexa, “Where’s the closest charity shop?” could be missing out on your store completely.
In addition to being one of the most important directories for voice search, it’s also one of the key directories that Google cross-references for search ranking purposes.
Making sure that your business listings are complete and accurate across Google, Bing and Facebook is an important first step in preparing your stores for reopening.
CUSTOMISE YOUR ONLINE INFORMATION FOR BETTER VISIBILITY AND TO REACH THE RIGHT AUDIENCE. As the UK returns to some semblance of business as usual, consumers will continue to have many questions. As we’ve seen from other European countries that started reopening businesses in April, there are still strict measures in place as to which ones can open and how they must operate.
For instance, Germany announced that retail businesses smaller than 800 square metres would be allowed to open as of April 20 — as long as social distancing and strict hygiene measures remained in place – and by early May, all stores were reopened, but with appropriate public health measures still required.
Once you’ve made sure your basic information is correct in Google My Business, and other relevant directories (i.e., Facebook, Bing, Yelp, etc.), be sure to provide information that answers the key questions you anticipate consumers will have. Customers will not only be looking to see if you’re open, but also whether you’re accepting donations or what restrictions there might be, such as whether they need to wear a mask or pay by contactless only. Try to anticipate what those top queries will be.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has published guidance on retailers reopening stores, teaming up with shop worker trade union Usdaw to provide advice to support non-food retail stores. These measures include limiting the number of entry and exit points in and out of stores – as well as keeping separate entrance and exit points if possible, limiting the number of customers in stores at any time, and considering keeping changing rooms closed.
Using BRC guidelines as a reference, prepare updates for your online listings and website, if you have one, and share what measures you are taking, both with respect to customers and staff. As government guidelines change and evolve, you may need to act fast and adjust your listings, operating hours and responses right away.
Also, charity shops can vary greatly in terms of what items are offered for sale, ranging from the standard inventory of clothes, home furnishings and toys, to specialist charity shops that sell furniture, electrical goods or even bridalwear. If your location does specialise, or if your standard inventory has changed, it’s important to give customers more context about your current product offerings, e.g. items, such as fabric or sewing haberdashery, that maybe you don’t normally offer but now you do.
Google continues to provide businesses with the ability to add a Covid-19 update post to your profile, where you can share more detailed and timely updates about what’s going on at your store’s location. Google’s Covid-19 update posts appear prominently on your online profile, and are more noticeable to customers. Updates can include adjusted hours, special promotions or extra services that you’re providing.
COMMUNICATE ON MULTIPLE ONLINE CHANNELS. Consumers are consulting a number of different online channels to get the information they need – Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, store websites, and the like, so making sure you are managing your online presence in key platforms is essential. 86% of consumers are more likely to shop at a store that responds to reviews and the conversion rate (number of clicks on phone number, driving directions and website) climbs sharply when businesses respond to online reviews left by customers.
Social media accounts and online reviews are an important way to strengthen your online marketing, and it is in this area that smaller charities can shine. An analysis of the Google My Business profiles of 64,000 business locations across the UK, USA, Germany and France showed that smaller businesses – those with 10 or fewer locations – responded to reviews at almost double the rate of bigger businesses with more than 10 locations. The study also revealed that this higher response rate equates to higher star ratings for smaller businesses.
With fewer locations, it’s easier to manage business listings, engage on social media and respond to online reviews directly. Be sure to use social media not just to post updates, but as a way to have conversations in as close to real-time as possible. Social channels can be one of the best ways to communicate quickly and directly with a broad audience.
But even for the UK's largest charity shop retailers – such as the British Heart Foundation with 732 shops and Oxfam with around 650 – or medium sized charity retailers like Scope and Marie Curie, it’s still possible to update information and manage customer reviews and social media for tens, or even hundreds, of stores.
Larger charity retailers can use technology tools that both automate and centralise the way they update and monitor these various listings, and respond to social media and online reviews. And in fact, when bigger businesses increase their response rate to 32% of customer reviews, those businesses see 80% higher conversion rates than similar sized ones replying to just 10% of reviews.
A further benefit to charity shops managing social media and online reviews is boosting search engine rankings and improving consumer engagement.
Today, more so than ever, consumers are relying on online channels to get the up-to-the-minute information they need about local businesses. As the UK begins to return to normal trading, now is the perfect time for charity shops to master the basics, like maintaining correct business listings across key search engines, and develop systems and processes to manage social media and online reviews.
These capabilities are especially important now, but once established, they will continue to help charity retailers of all sizes optimise their online visibility and drive foot traffic to the high street in the future.