How Your Ecommerce Business Can Thrive When You Don’t Sell Essential Goods

How Your Ecommerce Business Can Thrive
This article was originally written by Steve Chou and published on

If you’ve been following Klaviyo’s COVID-19 Ecommerce market pulse as closely as I have, you’ve likely noticed that global ecommerce sales are growing at a record pace.

In fact, every single ecommerce category from “Apparel & Accessories” to “Office Supplies” is experiencing explosive growth anywhere from 25-200 percent year-over-year!

In Jake Cohen’s editorial on the new normal, he describes a new category of products that consumers are flocking to called the “new essentials”.

New essentials are items that fall under the office supplies, health and fitness, beauty and cosmetics, housewares, home improvement, and toys and hobbies categories.

In other words, new essentials are items that help you feel more comfortable at home and they make up nearly 40 percent of sales among consumers.

But what if your ecommerce store doesn’t sell essential goods? What if your store caters to the event or travel industry?

According to the Visual Capitalist, sales of luggage, briefcases, swimwear, cameras, bridal and formal wear, and party and event supplies are down over 50 percent year-over-year.

How can your ecommerce business survive in a global pandemic if it falls under the above categories? I’ll share some advice based on my own experience as a seller of non-essentials and what I did to pivot my business. 

The Effect Of Coronavirus On My Business

Unfortunately, my ecommerce store, Bumblebee Linens, was a business that was hit pretty hard in March 2020. In fact, my revenue was sliced by more than half when the coronavirus first hit the United States.

My primary products are handkerchiefs for weddings and special occasions.

In addition, I sell personalized and monogrammed napkins for parties, hotels, and airlines. Basically, my store was hit hard on practically every front!

Because of coronavirus, no one was getting married. No one was having parties. And no one was traveling or staying in hotels.

In addition, a decent-sized piece of our business caters to real estate agents. But real estate sales stagnated as well during the crisis.

Anyway, on March 22, my business reached a low point and I started to panic.

How To Pivot Your “Non-Essential” Business

Now my first thought was that all consumers had stopped spending and that every business was in trouble. But the statistics don’t lie.

During the last two weeks of March, 62 percent of consumers reported spending the same amount as usual. And thanks to Klaviyo’s data-gathering efforts, I knew that many stores were thriving despite the pandemic.

As a result, my wife and I began brainstorming different ways to pivot our products to those that were in demand.

After all, no one was getting married or throwing parties but perhaps we could re-market our existing products with a different spin.

Here were the steps that we took to pivot our business.

Step 1: Transform Your Product Into A “New Essential”

As I mentioned earlier, wedding handkerchiefs generate the bulk of our revenue for our seven-figure online store.

But during the crisis, no one was looking to have a wedding reception or throw a party so we thought of ways to transform our hankies into essential goods that people actually needed to buy.

After all, a handkerchief is fundamentally just a piece of fabric and fabric can be molded into practically anything.

So on April 4, we published a tutorial on how to turn a handkerchief into a face mask without any sewing required.

In addition, we gave away a free handkerchief with any purchase specifically for the purpose of making a mask.

Here’s the exact email that we sent to our subscriber list:

This promotion turned out to be a big hit and we sent this offer to everyone on our owned marketing channels including email, Facebook Messenger, and push notifications.

In fact, we plan on running this promotion indefinitely and it generates sales every single day.

Overall, the free handkerchief only costs us about 30 cents. The offer creates goodwill within our community and our customers are now buying our handkerchiefs for a completely different purpose.

Step 2: Find Out What People Are Searching For

After seeing some initial success with our handkerchief sales, we started looking for other ways to pivot our products away from weddings, events, and travel.

My wife loves Pinterest and we often use Pinterest to brainstorm products to sell for weddings and special occasions.

Because Pinterest users are clever and crafty, we did a search for “Quarantine Gifts” and found a variety of interesting product ideas.

Remember, there are many creative people out there and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

By browsing blog posts and quarantine gifts on Pinterest, we pinpointed several fun ideas that we could easily make with our own products.

During the middle of April, we launched our first line of quarantine gifts to the public and they were a huge hit.

Normally, we market our cocktail napkins and hankies to our wedding customers. But since no one was getting married, we created an entirely new category of linens with funny quarantine sayings.

All of a sudden, people started buying personalized hankies and napkins with funny COVID-19 jokes as gifts for friends. We even had one customer spend over a thousand dollars on our “Quarantini cocktail napkins”.

Every product in this new category was an identical product we sold before but framed in a different light and they sold extremely well.

Here’s the exact email we sent to introduce these new products:

Step 3: Create New Product Lines

Even though we saw great success selling handkerchiefs for DIY face masks, we received several inquiries from customers who wanted to buy ready-made masks instead of making them themselves.

As a result, we quickly got on the phone with our Chinese suppliers to see whether we could adapt our existing fabric to create our own line of masks.

In addition, we reached out to existing mask makers to see what we could stock immediately. And in early May, we launched our first line of colorful face masks and promptly sold out within one hour.

To generate goodwill, the profits for our first batch of face masks were donated to two charities, Frontline Foods and No Kid Hungry.

Frontline Foods is a charity that purchases and delivers food from local restaurants to hospital workers.

They help support small local restaurants so they can stay afloat during this difficult time and they also give thanks to frontline workers who are putting themselves in harm’s way.

No Kid Hungry helps get food to kids in need. As schools are closed and jobs are lost, the number of families needing assistance feeding their children is expected to grow.

Here’s the email we wrote to introduce our new masks:

In any case, because we sold out of our first batch of face masks so quickly, we plan on carrying masks in our store going forward.

In addition, we are leveraging our existing infrastructure to offer personalized and monogrammed masks for our customers.

Step 4: Take Care Of Your Existing Customers

Even though we de-emphasized weddings in our marketing copy, we didn’t ignore our existing wedding buyers.

A typical wedding customer will monogram the bride and groom’s name along with the wedding date on their handkerchief as shown below.

Because most weddings were canceled or postponed due to COVID-19, many people were stuck with personalized merchandise with incorrect dates.

As a result, we preemptively contacted these customers and offered to redo their hankies at 30 percent off.

Because of this promotion, customers who were reluctant to pay for new hankies ended up coming back and ordering more.

Leverage Your Owned Marketing Channels

If you sell products into a non-essential niche like I do, your sales likely took a hit during the quarantine. 

But there are always interesting ways to increase your revenue. You just have to take action and be creative.

I’m happy to report that our sales are back to normal and on the rise.

However, none of this would have been possible without leveraging our owned marketing assets like email, Messenger, SMS, and push notifications.

For example, both Facebook and Google prohibited the advertising of masks online. As a result, we were forced to use our own channels to market our new product line.

During this period, Amazon also suspended shipments of nonessential items to their warehouse which prevented us from restocking our sold-out goods.

Without our customer list, recovery would not have been possible and we would have been in deep trouble if we relied only on Amazon for all of our sales.

Right now, the world is at an inflection point where ecommerce is becoming the new normal for sales.

In April, online shopping overtook retail sales for the first time ever. And ecommerce as a percentage of overall retail sales is projected to shoot up to over 18 percent.

Even if you don’t sell essential goods and you’re worried about the fate of your business, rest assured that now is the best time to be in ecommerce. A rising tide lifts all boats.

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