French companies see new ways to drive sales

Two rounds of Covid-19 lockdowns have taken the road for French merchants, who are looking for innovative ways to increase sales in the fourth quarter. Some of these changes are likely to last long after the pandemic is over.

Like so many sectors in France, retailers have struggled to survive among Covid-19 barriers and new sanitation measures that limit the number of customers that can be in a store at any given time. With the internet as the only lifeline, many are developing new ways to attract customers – or developing an online presence for the first time.

It has been a major step for the country’s smallest independent retailer – those with one or two employees – of which only 32 percent had any web presence at all before the health crisis, and only 9 percent could sell goods online, according to Lionel Saugues, vice president of the French Federation trade associations (FFAC).

Without more personal shopping, these companies faced an adaptation-or-die moment, but many had no idea how to build a digital presence, especially at short notice and in difficult circumstances.

Go to Google France. In partnership with FFAC, on November 9, Google launched “My Online Shopfront” to lend a hand to SMEs (those with less than 250 employees), which make up 99 percent of companies in France, according to government statistics.

The program will provide traders with personal coaching, either by phone or video conference and available six days a week, a website where they can get advice and interactive training resources. Although the program is too new to be judged for success, early signs indicate that companies are eager for help: 2,000 companies participated in a recent webinar, Saugues said. Hundreds of participants usually attend such events. “There is real demand,” he stressed.

The initiative continues after the lock-in has been lifted. Whenever possible in connection with the health crisis, teams will go to places around the country to provide personal help, Saugues said.

The French government is also starting to act. On the same day that Google and FFAC announced their initiative, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told BFM TV that French companies needed to speed up the transition to digital commerce. Can merchants do it on their own, creating their own websites? “No,” he said. “From January, the government will help small businesses build and launch their 500-euro websites,” he said.

It’s not just small businesses that had to play their games. Major non-essential merchants were also shut down, and while many of them already had a web presence, they did not always prioritize their e-commerce. Lockdown forced them to find new ways to get in touch with customers as well.

The experience in the store, at home

Ironically, companies with a strong online presence have turned to personalization to increase sales. Given the limitations of personal shopping, whether they come from closed stores or new restrictions on how many customers can be in a store at any given time, retailers have tried to replicate the live retail experience at home.

For example, the home decoration company Madura offers personal guidance via video conference. You submit photos to your bedroom or living room and their experts will provide design concept boards to help you choose decor. “In our business area, support and advice are crucial,” says Madura’s CEO Vincent Rey.

Similarly, when buying textiles, feeling is often as important as appearance to customers, so Madura will send fabric samples to help the decision-making process. The goal is as much as possible to “replicate the experience you can have in a store at home,” Rey says.

The approach seems to be paying off: Since the start of the second shutdown in France, the number of visitors to Madura’s website has doubled.

The glasses chain Optic 2000 started its home care service at the end of 2019, where an optician will go to a person’s house with all the equipment needed to fit a client for glasses, but it has grown rapidly during the health crisis (despite being an important companies and had to stay open during the second lock, they saw a dip in store visits). Initially, the company had one such request per week from its five stores in Dijon; last week it was 24. “It’s growing fast,” says Olivier Padieu, CEO of Optic 2000 Group. About 84 percent of companies nationwide, or 920, offer the service.

They also do their best to replicate the service in the online store. With your computer camera, you can practically try out frames in their virtual locker room.

Other companies are seeing similar growth in their online business, says Emmanuel Le Roch, CEO of Procos, a business commerce group. In 2019, e-commerce accounted for 9 percent of all retail in France, says Le Roch. By 2020, that figure is likely to be 14 or 15 percent, he said.

France was already among the leaders in Europe in terms of e-commerce spending per capita, although its digital market is less than half the size of the UK, according to the e-commerce foundation. An initial shutdown emerged in the online market, according to a study by Adobe. They found that 88 percent of those surveyed had shopped online at least once during the first containment, and 49 percent did so regularly. More than half – 55 percent – said they bought something online that they do not normally buy in stores.

Consumers say they plan to keep their new habits. In a GlobalWebIndex survey conducted in April, 23 percent of French Internet users between the ages of 16 and 64 said they expected to shop in person less often, even after the pandemic is over.