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 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, our projects remained open; however, our marketing of them shifted dramatically. Even as some retail property owners were cutting back on marketing, we ramped up our efforts and reallocated our dollars for the new reality. We reversed our pre-COVID goal of attracting more guests to our centers to keeping them away physically but connected emotionally.
Technology was the key. We ensured that our websites were optimized and searchable, and employed search engine marketing (SEM), strategically purchasing digital ads to boost the visibility of our properties’ sites. Fortunately, more time at home meant that most people were spending more time on social media. That became the focus of our communications, helping us personalize messages and continue forging bonds with our shoppers. Tone was important. The goal was not to encourage contests, “likes” or frivolity. Instead, we offered usable information, comfort, and a sense of community. Our team regularly updated our properties’ Facebook and Instagram pages with information about store hours and services.
But we knew that more direct communication was needed to let our guests know that the majority of stores at the properties did not close. To communicate with those not on social media, we employed targeted third-party email lists in each of our markets so we could send messages about what stores were open, what restaurants were providing takeout and delivery, and how they could access services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats. We also let them know about our new Curb Collect program, which helps our mom-and-pop tenants offer the same curbside delivery options (within designated areas of our parking lots) that our anchor stores can provide during the pandemic.
We also adopted other techniques to make sure we are connecting with our guests in the right way. We’ve been utilizing geofencing to market to our shoppers — but that doesn’t work when the shoppers aren’t on site. Instead, we started working with geo-retargeting. With this, we created a virtual fence around the properties, obtained data from two to three months earlier, and geofenced around that.
The results were dramatic. Our overall Facebook page impressions in April rose 91% over 2019, and our reach on the site 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, which essentially devastated retail.
ShopCore also reached out to the community in another way — assisting our first responders. Every week, we’ve chosen a different police station, fire department, or hospital, and delivered breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which we coordinated with our existing restaurant tenants. We were able to provide support for those on the front lines — and support our tenants, too. The notes of gratitude we 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 our Alamo Ranch center in San Antonio, Texas to Christus Santa Rosa Hospital, the West Police Substation and Fire Station 45, we got the following messages.
During a pandemic, the hospital was praying for us. That’s community.
The marketing team also had to shift our annual Bracket Battle challenge to raise funds for CoreGiving.org, LivCor and ShopCore’s foundation dedicated to ending child hunger, to an overall campaign that distributes 100% of its donations to over 20 food banks around the country. Done within days, it continues to raise much-needed funds (nearly $700,000 when this article gets posted) to help hungry children in need, especially those who relied on meals from now-closed schools for their nutrition.
Another critical audience was our tenants. Though our grocers remained open, service providers and mom-and-pop specialty stores were shuttered and needed help. We created a COVID-19 resource page on our website, with videos offering information and advice, and links to federal and state agencies.
Even as we did all of the above, we were looking to a happier future, creating a plan to reintroduce on-site shopping when restrictions are eased and lifted. ShopCore is executing this through a detailed “30/60/90 Day Back to Business” marketing plan that sees our stores (and communications to shoppers) ramping up incrementally. For the first 30 days, we plan for our properties to be at 25% capacity, increasing by 25% every 30 days until we’re at full functionality. Because situations at each center can vary, this is a working plan that can be adapted as circumstances demand.
We will still run events, including outdoor group fitness classes, with the required social distancing. A concert in the park can be safer if we 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. We are fortunate at ShopCore Properties in that we market and operate necessity retail. Most of our businesses remained open, albeit substantially altered, and as a result, have provided goods and services during a time of uncertainty and tragedy. As we reopen, we hope our shoppers believe that our properties are part of the fabric of the community, there for them in bad times and in good.