10 tips for getting through the current crisis
Times are brutal for the retail industry.
On top of the EVALI scare last year, vape shops have been forced to close for months. Even between lockdowns, some customers are going to ground in the midst of the worst pandemic for a hundred years.
To survive and thrive, vape shops have to adapt and be nimble. Out of the present crisis, there will be losers, but at the end of it, there will also be survivors competing in a less crowded market.
That’s not only vital for the business, it’s also important for the consumers, who could otherwise be left without vape staff who often have years of experience helping smokers successfully switch to vaping.
To build up actional, practical ideas, we’ve combined our own experience with the thoughts of a few of the vape shops we supply, drawing on the wisdom of the crowd to bring you ideas that actually work.
1. Build up your social media profiles
Social media, especially Facebook, is a great way to communicate with customers, but most of us don’t have the time to give it the attention it is due in normal times.
But with fewer customers coming into our stores, now is a great time to lavish a bit more time on your social media accounts.
This can maintain your connection with customers who might otherwise drift away during or after a lockdown, as well as let them know when there’s something new worth coming in for when you have a sale.
It doesn’t have to be complicated! Here are some ideas for things to post:
- New products
- Customer stories
- You and your staff’s favourite products
- Clearance items
- Tips and tricks to get the most out of your vape
- Top vaping news stories
- Blog posts and vaping videos your customers are likely to be interested in (if you don’t have time to do your own, it’s perfectly valid to post other people’s)
It’s also a great lead in to…
2. Deliveries to door
Some of the best performing vape shops I have seen in recent months are those doing deliveries.
In fact, during the last lockdown, some of these businesses were doing more business, not less.
You don’t need a complicated website, but it does help to have a way of communicating with your customers, for example via:
- Social media
- Whatsapp groups
- Newsletters - standalone forms can be generated using services such as Mailchimp and used to sign up customers in store and via social media
You can do deliveries either by yourself or using external services like Deliveroo. While you do your deliveries, it’s worth keeping additional stocks of popular coils, e-liquids etc in case your customers want to order additional products.
One caveat - if doing this yourself do put some ground rules in place. I’ve known some retailers getting telephone orders at 1 am in the morning. Put a limit on it for your own sanity!
Tim Harris, Escape2Vape Maesteg
The first lockdown was a very difficult and challenging time for us! Without customers coming into the shop, we didn’t see how the business could survive. So we decided to go to the customers instead.
I posted on social media to say that as the shop had to close to follow government guidelines I would be starting up a delivery service in the area.
I made it as easy as possible for the customers, all they had to do was give me their order (a minimum of £20 as it was a FREE delivery service), their address and postcode.
I encountered a lot of gratitude for doing this but it was the only way I could have survived.
Through early mistakes, I would advise on setting a daily limit to your deliveries. Don’t run yourself into the ground!
Again through making mistakes early on, when you’re posting the advertisement, state clearly that you will only be taking orders during trading hours as I was getting orders coming through right up until it was time to go to bed.
With future lockdowns looking inevitable, I think that bricks and mortar businesses will have to start to seriously think of the delivery service option as I can honestly say, that without mine during the lockdown, I wouldn’t be in business today.
3. Delivery by post
You can also take it a step further and take orders for dispatch by Royal Mail or by courier. Even if you don’t have a website, you can take orders by phone, and keep your customers stocked up until they feel safe enough to return to your store.
One caveat, though. During the last lockdown, postal services struggled to deliver some items in a timely manner - and while you have no control over this, some customers will blame you rather than the post service. You also need to allow for a (usually very small) proportion of items not getting through.
4. Click and Collect
If the set up of your shop allows it, you can also set up a click and collect service. While this can be done via a website, it can again be a simple matter of allowing your customer to call you up and book their delivery. In fact, Ryan, whose advice is featured below, uses a combination of both web and phone orders for his click and collect service.
There are two methods commonly used for Click and Collect. The first is to pay over the phone (check if your card machine and card payment merchant allow you to take 'cardholder not present' payments), and the second is to pay in person. To minimise physical contact during Covid, the first is preferable, although you could also offer a hybrid model for customers who still prefer to pay in cash.
5. Work with stop smoking services and hospitals
English Stop Smoking Services (SSS) are increasingly working with vape shops and vape companies to help switch smokers from cigarettes to vapes. Working with stop smoking services not only protects your business but also gets your vapes to people who need them to stop smoking.
These services are great not only for selling electronic cigarettes but also for ongoing custom from smokers who successfully quit smoking using the services.
Most SSS require membership of the Independent British Vape Trade Association - but that’s a good idea in itself. In addition to lobbying on behalf of independent vape shops, the organisation provides superb support, advice and guides for members. And that advice includes a comprehensive guide to working with stop smoking services.
Some vape shops have also successfully worked in partnership with local hospitals. Playing their part in the UK's smoke free vision, more and more hospitals are adopting alternatives to help their hospitals and patients steer away from smoking. Some vape companies have opened up pop-up shops in hospitals, while others operate a mobile service, catering to patients on the wards.
Adam Williams, Rojeans, Liverpool
One big tip would be to get a portable (GPS) payment system. Last time it meant I could take orders from home using their 'no person present’ or contactless payments at point of delivery.
Adam’s top tips for getting through Covid and lockdowns are:
- If you have a street-facing site consider click and collect.
- Get a portable payment terminal, it’s actually very cheap.
- Be sure to thank your customers for supporting you.
- Change your shop phone number to divert to a mobile. Customers will not see your mobile number.
- Claim all benefits that the government makes available.
6. Get your head around your accounts
Accounts are probably the most boring part of running a business - but when times are tough it’s essential to know exactly where you stand.
Accounts can tell you where you are losing money, where you can cut back, where you need to invest and quickly identify trends which could point to a recovery. They can also identify opportunities to both save money and make money.
One tip here - don’t worry too much about profit - it’s cash flow that’s important. Profit takes into account all sorts of things such as depreciation and can be different from cash flow - but it’s the cash that’s coming in and out of your business that will make or break your shop.
The same goes for stock - by knowing exactly what’s selling and what you have in stock, you can rapidly adjust your purchases and minimise expenditure.
7. Cut your costs
Yes, we know that’s easier than it sounds, and it also relies on you being on top of the aforementioned accounts.
Start with the big costs first. Many landlords are starting to face reality and realise that in the current retail climate, rents will have to fall if they are to keep their properties full. If you’re a reliable tenant and you’re likely to renew your lease, there may be an opportunity to negotiate over rent.
You’ll also need to look at staffing costs. While it can be devastating to let someone go, sometimes a more palatable option is to look at reduced working hours on a temporary basis - or, now that it has been extended, utilising the furlough scheme.
8. Buy the right products at the right time
Dead stock on your shelves will eat into your cash flow. To avoid this, it’s well worth doing the research to find the best selling products and identifying up-and-coming products that will be the next big sellers.
Ryan Michlig: Right Vape
There are times when it helps to be a small business. The smaller the business is, the easier it is to manage and change. If something isn’t working, it can be adapted pretty quickly and you are able to get rapid, valuable feedback from customers to finesse your strategy.
During the first lockdown I set up a delivery service. But do be prepared - this can be time-consuming. This time around, I have set up a click and collect service after the local council confirmed this was acceptable as long as the customer does not enter the store. A table (and sanitiser bottle!) is set in front of the store, and the customer rings a bell when they arrive, while a gazebo ensures they stay dry.
I also found that being in control of stock could help me quickly adjust my outgoings. We saw that while kit sales were plummeting early on, e-liquid sales were consistent. So we stopped buying in new kits and focussed on existing kits already in-stock to preserve cash-flow while maintaining e-liquid purchases. An ongoing focus on careful spending is now putting us in a better position for when business picks up again.
A focus on social media has also helped us. Paying attention to our Facebook page helped us maintain interaction and get off to a great re-opening after the end of the first lockdown. We’re now using the experience we gained during that time to further boost our social media efforts.
Finally, quieter times in the business provide a great opportunity to focus on long term strategy for better times. I’ve found it a blessing in disguise in that it’s given me time to complete and finesse a new website which will have long term benefits for my business.
9. Take advantage of financial assistance
As I write this, the Welsh Government is launching its resilience fund, along with grants for shops that are shut due to its ‘firebreak’ lockdown. With Covid posing such a threat to the economy there may well be more support to come.
Over the long term, of course, your business will need to be self-supporting, but in such extraordinary times there’s every case for drawing on grants.
It’s also worth looking at low-interest loans which are guaranteed by the Government - but do watch out here, as some banks sneakily require personal guarantees.
Financial assistance currently includes:
- Furlough (extended to March 2021 )
- Job retention bonus
- Welsh resilience fund
- Extended time for paying back deferred VAT
- Coronavirus bounce back loan
More details can be found on the Federation of Small Businesses website.
10. Get the best prices
In these extraordinary times, it’s even more important to get the best prices for your product as you can.
Over on our wholesale arm, Orderly Distro, we have slashed prices on hundreds of products. In fact, you’ll find that many of them are the best price you can get in the UK.
Why not have a look at our current listings and see how much you could save…