— By Mandy Nowels —
Pivoting an experience-based brand online during quarantines and lockdowns: how The Spice & Tea Exchange quickly shifted focus from experiential to e-commerce.
By April of 2020, 97% of our spice and tea specialty retail stores had been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Some had to shut their doors completely for a few weeks or months, while many others had to reduce hours and only offer curbside pickup and local delivery. As a franchise system, we had to ensure two things immediately: that our franchise owners could continue to bring money in and that our loyal customer base had access to the premier teas, spices, blends, sugars, salts and accessories they’ve come to love and crave.
One of the first steps we took was having the executive team call every franchise operator in our system. We wanted them to hear straight from our leadership that The Spice & Tea Exchange is a nimble company, working tirelessly to pivot so they profit. Leaders in our corporate office immediately launched a COVID-19 response team to provide guidance on the pandemic as well as new revenue channels, with a heavy focus on e-commerce opportunities.
Coming in to 2020, The Spice & Tea Exchange was already up over year’s past in terms of online sales, but we saw huge spikes in March, April, May and June. Our online sales are up an average of 180% year over year seeing monthly spikes as large as 400%. In fact, in June 2020 we surpassed our total number of online sales from 2019. To continue supporting our franchisees, 30% of sales from web purchases went back to local stores.
We attribute the jump in sales to a few things: constant communication with our franchise owners, pivoting the marketing and social media focus, re-shuffling our product offering to fit the moment, and moving the unique in-person experience The Spice & Tea Exchange offers online.
Pivoting the Marketing & Social Media Focus
As the world changed with the pandemic, so did our guests’ tastes. As with most specialty retailers, we quickly realized that certain items were selling at a more accelerated rate on our website than others. Specifically, our recipe packs, wellness and immune boosting teas, and steepable spices saw large gains in online ordering.
Our marketing team used our sales reports to directly influence what was being presented to our social media followers and e-newsletter subscribers. When the immune booster and cold & flu-focused teas like the Hibiscus Flower (a steepable spice), Lemon Grass, Marrakesh Mint, Peach Turmeric and Daily Defense Herbal Tea starting doing particularly well, that’s what the newsletter and social media content focused on. Our newsletters went from being distributed weekly to being sent out near daily for the first couple months of lockdowns and sheltering in place.
Giving the Customers What They Want
Both our corporate office and local franchise owners worked to put together new product offerings that fit a customer who is primarily at home. Instead of focusing on our on-the-go tumblers and energizing teas, franchisees put together recipe packs with teas and spices for family-favorite recipes. These were demonstrated on social media and prime in-store locations or in window displays.
While the franchisees were working on local bundles, the corporate office introduced its “Send a Little Sunshine” gift box for online customers looking to send some surprise sunshine to family and loved ones.
Moving the “In-Person” Experience Online
In normal times, we encourage all of our guests to ‘open the jars and smell’ and truly indulge all five of their senses as they explore the shop. This in-person, sensory experience was gone in an instant, so we had to think of creative ways for guests to continue exploring our products from their homes. Many franchise operators and the internal corporate team went “live” to social media to promote product, share recipes and offer tips to get guests cooking more at home.
All of The Spice & Tea Exchange’s products travel extraordinarily well, so we encouraged our franchise owners to offer bundles of tea or ingredients for select recipes for curbside pickup or local delivery, and coordinate their own store orders via a new online “Pickup & Local Delivery Form.” This kept our guests engaged with the brand and even more eager to return once our stores reopened.
Retailers across the globe are shifting how they’re doing business. If you can take the experience you provide and offer it online, you’re adding a brand new revenue stream and widening your customer base.
— Mandy Nowels is vice president of marketing and e-commerce at The Spice & Tea Exchange. This article originally appeared as the August 2020 cover story of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business magazine.