There is no starker contrast between life now and before the coronavirus pandemic than the retail industry.
Plagued by bankruptcies and empty storefronts, retail is being forced to take a step back and prioritize its approaches to maintain customer loyalty.
However, some employees are ahead of the curve, leveraging Covid-19 by putting a major emphasis on their personal Instagram accounts to sell merchandise in the stores they work in.
But this method of selling is nothing new.
“I started the Instagram account when I started at Saks three years ago,” says Vanessa Jennings. She is a Digital Stylist at the famed department store’s Bal Harbour Shops location near Miami and runs @Shop_Saks on Instagram. “I started getting better and better at taking my photos and people started contacting me. It is a way for people to shop who do not have luxury items around them.”
Nowadays, using the digital sphere to keep customers buying via social media accounts for 80% of Jennings’ sales. As someone who works solely off of commission, this ensured that she maintained a steady income throughout the Covid-19-induced lockdown. Simultaneously, the crisis was putting many other sales associates out of work around the country.
With seemingly endless negative stories about the demise of retail, Jennings is also proof that the demand is still there. Customers want to shop from the comfort of their homes as many remain wary about visiting brick-and-mortar stores.
“I am placing orders every day,” she says. “I either place orders or have the merchandise right in my store. I jump on it because if they want to buy, I want to grab it.”
Jennings was never one to enjoy standing on the floor waiting for customers. Instead, she prefers interacting with them through @Shop_Saks. But before gaining almost 10,000 followers on social media, she was often discouraged from being on her phone during shifts.
“My associates would tell me to get off my phone because I was missing clients,” she says. “But I don’t like standing on the floor and just waiting, so that’s when I started to use the Instagram [account] more and more.”
“It got to the point where I did not have to be on the floor, and I just started to grow on my phone. I would just be in the back working from my Instagram.”
Jennings’ clients agree that using the platform to show what is new and hot gives them fresh perspectives on luxury.
“I have several in-store sales associates, but I find myself connecting directly with Vanessa when I need to purchase things,” says Selena Watson, one of her clients. “I like working directly with sales associates [on Instagram] for the availability advantages. They may post things before they hit the shelves and can pull my size before they sell out.”
Despite the seismic changes created by the digital age, brick-and-mortar retail has tried to survive by personalizing the shopping experience for every customer. But with the coronavirus came a need to streamline the buying process even more by eliminating person-to-person contact.
For Jennings, the lockdown provided her with a new reason to film videos inside her empty Saks store. Devoid of customers at the time, walk-throughs showcased the most buzz-worthy accessories and racks of designer duds. This gave her followers the chance to “shop” without actually needing to be there, and Jennings still does this today.
Benefits like these are what keep Chicago-based freelance personal shopper and active mother Smreti Didwania engaged with the @Shop_Saks account.
“You do not have to leave the house and get exposed to zillions of people,” she says, going on to speak about the accessibility of shopping via Instagram. “Store hours have been changed, and with schools being remote and my being a parent, the stores are ready to close by the time the kids are settled for the day.”
Didwania also highlighted other positives of buying directly from a sales associate. She believes this makes shopping even easier than surfing a store’s website.
“You have access to different sizes and styles,” she says. “I am a size 34 in shoes, and that is barely available on the [Saks] website.”
Looking ahead, Jennings believes that selling through Instagram can be successful in the larger retail industry. The fear of catching Covid-19 still weighs heavily on shoppers’ minds and the simplification of the shopping process reigns supreme.
A newfound importance is being given to the convenience of buying multiple things in one place. Meanwhile, big-box retailers such as Target have seen profits jump since the coronavirus gripped the nation six months ago. This comes as department stores, single points of contact with abundances of products, have been among the hardest-hit by Covid-19.
But the luxury sector is realising the benefits of a one-stop-shop in a post-pandemic world.
Posting about everything from Dyson vacuum cleaners to cupcakes, Jennings is already proving that selling directly on Instagram is a way for department stores to activate their employees. They must pivot to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers who value convenience now more than ever before.
“I also market items that are $50 or $100, not $1,000,” she says. “I had one customer who was able to send her mom Georgetown Cupcakes for her birthday during a pandemic after I posted them on my Instagram. That made me feel good.”
“Someone once told me four or five years ago, ‘If you come up with something that you cannot do from your phone, you are not going to be successful,’” Jennings continues. “Just through Instagram, I am reaching clients who want Chanel that live in Tennessee but have no way of seeing the products. I am so happy to do it for them.”