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Marketing in the COVID-19 Era

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The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life around the United States, with most of the country ordering citizens to stay at home and closing all but the most essential facilities and services. That meant and continues to mean that shopping centers — and the marketing of them — were upended, too.


Because ShopCore Properties operates grocery-anchored centers, their projects remained open. But the marketing of them shifted dramatically. Even as some retail property managers were cutting back on marketing, they ramped up their efforts and reallocated dollars for the new reality. Their pre-COVID goal of attracting more guests to their centers was reversed to keeping them away physically but connected emotionally.


Technology was the key. ShopCore ensured that their websites were optimized and searchable, and employed search engine marketing (SEM) by strategically purchasing digital ads to boost the visibility of their properties’ sites. Fortunately, more time at home meant that most people were spending more time on social media. That became the focus of their communications, helping them personalize messages and continue forging bonds with their shoppers. Tone was important. The goal was not to encourage contests, “likes” or frivolity, but instead offer usable information, comfort, and a sense of community. Their property-specific Facebook and Instagram pages were regularly updated with information about store hours and services.


But the ShopCore team knew that more direct communication was needed to let their guests know that the majority of stores at the properties did not close. To communicate with those not on social media, they employed targeted third-party email lists in each of their markets so they could send messages about what stores were open, what restaurants were serving takeout and delivery, and how they could access services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats. ShopCore also let them know about their new Curb Collect program, which helps mom-and-pop tenants offer the same car delivery options (within designated areas of our parking lots) that anchor stores have provided during the pandemic.


ShopCore also adopted other techniques to make sure they are connecting with their guests in the right way. Their team has been utilizing geofencing for some time to market to their shoppers — but that doesn’t work when the shoppers aren’t on site. Instead, they started working with geo-retargeting. With this, they created a virtual fence around the properties, obtained data from two to three months earlier, and geofenced around that.


The results were dramatic. Overall Facebook page impressions in April rose 91% over 2019, and reach rose 196% year-over-year. Instagram impressions increased by a staggering 509% from April 2019 and account reach by 2,686% (that is not a typo). All during a pandemic.


ShopCore also reached out to the community in another way — assisting first responders. Every week, they have chosen a different police station, fire department or hospital, and delivered breakfast, lunch and dinner, which ShopCore coordinated with existing restaurant tenants. They were able to provide support for those on the front lines — and support their tenants, too. The notes of gratitude they received made all of the effort worthwhile.


For example, after donating 400 meals from BJ’s, Edible Arrangements, Hop & Vine and Jason’s Deli from their Alamo Ranch center in San Antonio, Texas to Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, the West Police Substation and Fire station 45, they received the following messages:

"Thank you so very much for this generous donation. Our associates are saying a prayer for all of you today in gratitude and for your health, safety, and prosperity through these trying times."

Tamara Boehme, Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, Westover Hills

"I again want to express our extreme appreciation. The lunch was amazing, and our officers were very thankful. It is this type of community partnership and support that makes the job we do all worth it."

Sergeant Michael Ross, West Police Substation

During a pandemic, the hospital was praying for ShopCore. That’s community.


The marketing team also had to shift their annual Bracket Battle challenge to raise funds for CoreGiving to an overall campaign that distributes 100% of the donations to over 20 food banks around the coun-try. Done within days, it continues to raise much-needed funds (over $725,000 as this article is distributed) to help children, especially those who relied on meals from now-closed schools for their nutrition.


Another critical audience was ShopCore’s tenants. Though their grocers remained open, service providers and mom-and-pop specialty stores were shuttered and needed help. They created a COVID-19 resource page on their corporate website, with videos offering information and advice, and links to federal and state agencies.


Even as they did all of the above, ShopCore was looking to a happier future, creating a plan to reintro-duce on-site shopping when restrictions are eased and lifted. ShopCore is doing this through a detailed “30/60/90 Day Back to Business” marketing plan that sees their stores (and communications to shoppers) ramping up incrementally. For the first 30 days, ShopCore plan for properties to be at 25% capacity, increasing by 25% every 30 days until they are at full functionality. Because situations at each center can vary, this is a working plan that can be adapted as circumstances demand.


ShopCore will still run events, including outdoor group fitness classes, with the required social distancing guidelines put into place. A concert in the park can be made safer if they place decals on the grass to indicate where people can sit. And there will be more to decide and offer, based on community needs.


That, perhaps, was the most significant marketing lesson reinforced in the age of COVID-19. ShopCore Properties is fortunate in that they market and operate necessity retail. Most of their businesses remained open, albeit greatly altered, and as a result, have provided goods and services during a time of uncertainty and tragedy. As their shopping centers begin to reopen, ShopCore hopes their shoppers believe that their properties are part of the fabric of the community, there for them in bad times, and in good.

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