How to Retail During the COVID-19 Crisis

Retail Doctor Bob Phibbs offers steps for lighting retailers to take immediately during this economic downturn in a Webinar session “How to Retail in COVID-19” provided by the American Lighting Association (ALA) for its members.

Noting the unique circumstance the global pandemic has forced upon the lighting industry, Phibbs advises manufacturers, retailers, and sales agencies alike to “embrace the ambiguity, the possibilities, and the awkward especially when it comes down to financial stimulus…since it is very fluid and changing all the time. ”

Developing a healthy mindset is another tool that will help. “If you’re still smarting from the economic drop and saying, ‘Why me?’ I invite you to see the other side,” he says, sharing the perspective he received years ago from a psychotherapist. “He asked, ‘How long do you want to feel bad about this?’ I realized I had a choice: Do I want to move forward. or do I want to wallow? I’m here to tell you that now is not the time to wallow. Now is the time to be thinking about where we’re going because the clock is ticking. Are you going to be in a different mindset when we return [to normal life]? We have to rally,” he emphasizes. “Retail sells hope — that’s what we sell, and that’s what we need to give to our customers.”


“First of all, you have to realize that you’re going to have to sell your way out of this, whether you are closed or open right now, and even after things return to normal,” Phibbs states. If showrooms are able to stay open, offer curbside pick-up or home delivery in addition to taking online and phone orders. If allowable by the local municipality, have a limited number of people in the store at one time.

People are still buying things, and they are doing that for two reasons,” Phibbs outlines. “One, to get them through their day. [They want] things to make their life better now or to help them escape from their day…little pleasures and fun things that are going to bring them joy. Don’t think that just because you might sell ‘non-essential’ items that no one’s going to buy them,” he advises. “One of my customers had their highest-ever boat sales last Saturday, and that’s not necessarily a bread-and-butter item, right? People are ordering flower deliveries just to make themselves happy and beautify their space at home. They are buying all sorts of things, and by selling them in an accessible way, you are brightening their day. You are helping them out; you have to believe that. If you have anything to sell right now that could make someone’s stressful life better, then I say sell it and market it.”

One thing Phibbs does not want showroom owners to do is feel bad for being open in these tough times. “Don’t hide in your store and feel guilty for selling right now. You’re not taking advantage of a crisis by operating your business. You’re meeting a need and a desire. Sell your merchandise as best you can and be a positive force in the world – that’s what people need right now. I personally believe we are on the cusp of a new hedonism at the end of all this as long as we can keep ourselves focused…at the end point, this pent-up demand is going to come back to us. Many of you are open and selling and you might be feeling like you’re flying by the seat of your pants to change the way you operate and I commend you for that because you are the rock stars.”

Admittedly foot traffic will be down by a lot these days, as consumers are being told to stay in and distance themselves. “It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be different, that’s all,” Phibbs explains. “Customers have always liked to shop because it gives them a sense of control. There’s a reason why people have stocked up on toilet paper right now because it’s something they can control.”

For showrooms that are open, put up a sign in the window that details what you’re doing and how it will work. He shared one retailer’s window sign: “Open for Orders & Pick-Ups, Closed for Browsing. You can also order online and have [products] delivered to your door or to the store for curbside pick-up. Thank you for supporting your community in these difficult times, and stay well!”


This is a great time to build trust and gain leads for the future, according to Phibbs. “Be of service. Do whatever you can do to help people out at this time, but don’t stop marketing,” he advises. “Make sure people know how they can order from you whether by phone, or website, or app. Know what curbside looks like for your business and promote it. Look at your website. Does a stranger [to your site] know what you want them to do? Should they click here, should they read that, do you have a guide for them?”

If your website is lacking, start researching competitors. Write down what you like about the shopping experience on their sites and what caught your attention. “A lot of us have been saying, ‘Oh I’m too busy; I don’t have time for that.’ Well you have time for it right now, and the clock is ticking for when we’re going to be back to normal,” he says.

“If you have a monthly newsletter, I applaud you,” Phibbs remarks. “If you don’t have one, now is the perfect time to start. Why do we gather everybody’s email addresses if we’re not going to use them? Come up with a compelling subject line, such as ‘What to Do When You’re Working From Home’ or ‘It’s Too Early for Wine, What Can I Do to Lighten My Mood?’ You decide. Start off by acknowledging that there are a lot of ways to feel about this [situation], but we’re in this together, and we’re here to help. Suggest something they could do without buying your products — and if they want to [buy], then suggest what they could do with the products you sell, such as ‘5 Ways to Relight Your Bedroom.’ Or maybe there’s something else you can show them in a live video.”

Phibbs pointed to some recent social media campaigns retailers are using to have a fun dialogue with their audience, such as a book store asking customers to post their favorite book. “Get people to feel engaged,” he comments. “When it comes to lighting around the home, there’s a Honey Do list you could be talking about. Your messaging is more important than ever when marketing.”

When creating marketing messages, be sensitive to the current environment and pandemic situation we are in. “Don’t show a picnic or a large crowd and say, ‘We’ve got great lighting for that next gathering!’ Don’t use photos images of people hugging or holding hands. You want to be conscious of which images you use to go with your advertisements. And if you do show pictures of employees in your store, it doesn’t hurt to show them wearing cleaning gloves or something with a visual cue that shows that you are taking sanitation seriously,” Phibbs remarks. “Ultimately, we’ve got to get people to trust and feel it is safe to buy from you right now. I think when we’re out of this, it’s going to be a lot like after 9/11…when it took a while for people to feel safe flying again.”


The goal is to drive any demand you can to your website. How do you do that? Through social media. “People are using social media like crazy, so don’t feel like you’re putting out too much content,” Phibbs advises. “The more content, the better. Just make sure it’s focused and that you’re not just putting up product. I went on several lighting showroom websites recently and some haven’t posted on their Facebook pages in years or in months. And I’m telling you, if anyone is a winner out of all of this, it is Facebook because people are connecting with their families and their friends – and they’re talking more than ever on social media. You need to be a part of that,” he urges.

While posts with an image are great, there is something even better. “I believe in using live videos; you can also use it on Instagram and feature a product someone could use in a project. Make sure you feature what’s relevant right now,” Phibbs states. “Be creative, and understand that people who are worried about their pocketbook may not be jumping up and down to buy an expensive product from you – and that’s fine. Be of service now to sell later. Think of your content as a type of entertainment that gets your name out there in a positive way. If you can find a way to laugh or smile or relieve boredom or the sense of isolation with a video, do it,” he continues. “Live videos are best because Facebook rewards them by sharing them with more people. If you put a live video on Facebook, you can boost it for maybe a penny or two, whereas if you put a recorded video up, it might cost you 50 or 75 cents. It makes a lot of sense to do Facebook Live from your store, showing the merchandise you have for delivery or showing employees packaging orders. Basically, you are letting people know that you’re open because they might assume that you’re not. If you’re open, tell them.”

Phibbs recommends emphasizing the various ways customers can work with you — from Facetime video and email to phone calls, online orders, one-on-one appointments, and home delivery. “The more ways you can tell people that it’s business as usual at a time when it’s not business as usual, the better,” he says.

Among the creative examples Phibbs shares are a photography store holding a virtual photo contest in place of its usual in-store classes and a music shop holding a #playnowchallenge where people can upload a video clip of themselves playing 20 seconds of a favorite song. “How can you do something like that? The goal is to bring hope. That’s what we want to see,” he notes. “How can you take them out of what they’ve been watching online and on the news? Maybe you can go do a lighting challenge; give them ideas.

Potential Topics for Live Videos

  • How to Program a Smart Home Remote
  • How to Clean a Chandelier
  • Design Tricks With Mirrors
  • How to Light Your Home Office
  • How to Light a Living Room With No Overhead Light

“You already know how to do these things,” Phibbs states. “The goal is to put these ideas out there in a new way to engage your customers and social media followers.”


  • Clean – everything from carpets and floors to racks, every light bulb, and even the goods in the back room that are dusty.
  • Assess visual merchandising – “Look at your displays, do you need them all? Whatever has bugged you about the space, now’s the time to be thinking, ‘What would I do if I were to open this store for the first time? Would I put all of these things together in the same way? Does the counter make sense here? You can address all that. Looking at the future and planning is going to help you get through this time to say, ‘We’re going to be better than we were.’ Move fixtures around to make the space look different so when people return, they feel like things moved forward,” Phibb comments.
  • Update your back office – Take a physical inventory, even if you just did it a few months ago. “It’s always a good idea to have a barometer of where you business is right now,” Phibbs suggests. “It’s time to address delayed orders, is it time to cancel those? What about the automatic re-orders? You don’t want any surprises.”
  • Mine your data – “It’s time to look at those reports that you said you were too busy for,” Phibbs comments. “Find your low-margin items; do you really need all of them? Find your duplicate items; are they necessary? Understand that big ticket items may not [happen] as we inch our way back to normal. Figure out what shoppers are going to need when they re-emerge. Your goal is to always be thinking about getting ahead of all this and not waiting.”
  • Increase training – Take the time to train your employees. “Let’s get rid of the ‘no time to train’ excuse,” Phibbs says. “Concentrate on the customer experience. We have to engage customers in a new way. They’re going to be cautious when they first come in. We have to discover what they’re really wanting and not what they tell us they are looking for. You could do role-playing with them, even at six feet away if you are doing social distancing in your showroom. Keep their minds activated. Training is really important.”



How can you make up for lost ground? “I can’t say it enough, ‘Be of service.’ It’s worth researching how your products and service might be shifted once this is under control,” Phibbs remarks. “If you approach it as helping your customers now, it will help you be less nervous. You’re here to help, and if you can hang on and assist people with that, then the money will come. Where are customers going to be in two to three months? That’s where we need to start. There are three things that are important for retailers, according to Phibbs.

“First, you can’t put off addressing technology shortfalls,” he advises. “Ultimately, you’ll have to make up for that. If your POS isn’t up to speed or you don’t have an online site, if you’re having to download a spreadsheet on one side and compare it with another spreadsheet, that’s time that you won’t have when we get back to business.”

The second take-away is acknowledging that internet sales will be getting the larger share of commerce.

“Number three is that social media is the darling that is going to reinvent the way that we talk to our customers ― and you need to jump on that right now,” Phibb states.


“Plan how you’re going to get through the coming months,” Phibbs comments. Write down your fixed expenses and your variable ones. “Let’s face it; most of us aren’t going out anymore and we’re certainly not buying a lot, so that could give you some room [in minimizing those variables]. Check the available balance on your credit cards; that could be a tool for survival. Review your plan and make sure you are operating lean without going into a panic mode.”

Naturally, Phibbs suggests talking with your manufacturers about negotiating payment terms, but he also recommends contacting your other vendors. “Are you getting the best available rate on your janitorial, phone, and internet services? They would rather keep you than have you switch,” he comments. “Talk to your landlord. Now’s the time to talk about a rent reduction in April, May, and maybe June. Propose paying that difference over the rest of the year.”

With the recent stimulus bills passed and enhancements to the Small Business Association (SBA), Phibbs recommends monitoring your state, federal, and local programs daily as the news is continually being updated. “Don’t assume you won’t get or need [SBA help]. Apply for all of the programs. Go online from 7p.m. to 7a.m. when there is less activity than in daytime. Talk to your local bank about a bridge loan,” he adds. “Always start locally and see what they can help you with because people are understanding about the economic consequences of what we’re going through.”


Even if you must shut your doors for the time being, Phibbs recommends performing the steps mentioned above to be prepared for when business starts up again. “Don’t get angry that you don’t have the answers right now,” he states. “We understand the answers are going to be slow to come. You only want to close if you have to, but maybe people can take vacations early or share burdens by reducing hours or going into rotating weeks off. Keep your employees informed of your decisions and have empathy for what it means for them. Don’t promise anything you might not be able to deliver.”

 Before locking the doors for awhile, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. “Address your security systems – not just your alarm, but your cameras, recordings, and motion detectors,” Phibbs advises. “Are your sprinkler systems and smoke alarms in good working order? Make sure you talk to your police and fire departments about their recommendations. Are you going to let everyone keep their keys? How are you going to deal with your service companies that arrive on a regular basis, such as FedEx and UPS. What about your mail and your trash pick-up? What about the normal supplies you get like copy paper and bottled water? Another aspect of security might be your POS system and your employee records. Just make sure you think of this as security is everything right now.”


Phibbs suggests meditating daily and shares what he calls his 5-5-5 Rule: “When you go to bed each night, count five things that you were grateful for that day. Don’t do three…it takes longer to come up with five. After that, start thinking of five things that you are looking forward to tomorrow. Before you get out of bed in the morning, think of five things you’re looking forward to that day — and they’re probably going to be different from the five you thought of on the night before. That doesn’t matter; you are re-tuning your engine to say ‘I am grateful,’ and I can guarantee that when you build up this gratitude, you will be ready for the battle. I think gratitude brings hope.”

Besides examining all funding options, Phibbs says his mindset – if he were a retailer – would be on planning for the showroom’s reopening and how it’s going to be and look different. “I would [anticipate] doing even more to engage the customer and brainstorm ways for staying in front of my customers on a daily basis that can be fun and interesting. Your workplace is going to be different after this…and it might even be better! What will our customers do after self-isolating for all of these weeks? I want to be there when they do come out of self-isolation. You have to be the calm in the storm right now for your customers.”


An audience member asked Phibbs what independent sales reps should be doing at this time. “You’re in this together,” he advises. “Your retailers are panicked. You want to be of service first. What would be of help to them?  Would you go and help them inventory, or go and help them clean? Could you brainstorm with them on a newsletter or write an article for them? Don’t think ‘I have to sell right now.’ It’s going to take a little bit until people feel that there’s hope and normalcy. Call your top 10 customers and say, ‘We appreciate your business, and I’m here for you.’ Give them a couple of ideas of how you could help, and if they say yes, go for it,” he says, adding, “The other thing I might do if I were a sales rep is send customers a 30-second video email that just says ‘hey, I’m here’ and offers one thing you can do for them.”

Want More Advice?

Bob Phibbs has put together his own training module Customer Experience During COVID-19 available for purchase on his Retail Doctor website

If you are an ALA member, you will have access to more educational Webinars for free during this COVID-19 crisis. If you’d like to become a member, visit

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