In the beginning, consumers stayed inside, parked their cars, mothballed their stilettos, ordered in dinner and binged on Netflix—and franchises with drive-thrus and those deemed essential thrived while others tanked.
But with the post-pandemic stage tantalizingly close, operators face a new dilemma: How can they attract consumers as behavior changes radically yet again, and in unpredictable ways? We asked franchisors in different sectors how to speak to consumers now.
1. Let the good times roll.
“People want to people again,” is how Darren Keeler, VP of marketing for Shuckin’ Shack, put it, and he laughed when challenged for using “people” as a verb. “I know it sounds dumb, probably not the right grammar to use,” but “you can only see your wife and your kids for so long,” he said. “With people sitting at home for however many months, they finished Netflix, they finished Hulu, they’re done with it. They want to go out and experience life again.”
That’s where Shuckin’ Shack’s 16 restaurants will come in, he said, which emphasize the experience of having a “good shuckin’ time,” as its tag line goes. Third-party delivery didn’t help the brand much during the pandemic, with items like wild-caught salmon and peel-and-eat shrimp not traveling well, not to mention oysters on the half shell.
Franchisee sponsorship of local charities and sports teams helped keep ties strong and by late April they were seeing comparable-store sales higher than 2019, he said, without offering specifics. His mantra: “Let’s experience life again when this is all over, and it looks like we’re on our way.”
2. But remember the suffering.
Dippin’ Dots and Doc Popcorn stores based in malls took a massive hit during COVID-19. “The malls were technically open, even though nobody was allowed into them,” said Steve Rothenstein, senior director of franchising. Those problems were offset because the brands offer a variety of ways to do business: ice cream trucks, catering and the like.His social media folks tried to keep “fun” messages going out. “If we could put out some funny content, amongst the un-happy and un-funny, that’s what we tried to do with our social media posts,” he said. And now, they’ve just done a grand opening in Manhattan for a co-branded location that was “phenomenal.”
But he urges walking a fine line, based on each region. “The biggest challenge I have now, you want to market, to put smiles on people’s faces, but so many people” have been through such hard times. “You have to tow that line,” he said.
“So if I’m going to market in Florida, I’m going to be very excited and open.” Same goes for other states where restrictions were lifted much sooner than others. “But if I’m marketing in California, New York, Michigan, you have to be very concerned about what the focus is. It’s not from a political perspective, but there does seem to be a regional difference in feel.”
3. Combat COVID burnout.
“COVID cowboys.” That’s what Jeff Gill, CEO and founder of Germinator, calls the slew of companies that jumped into sanitation services without any background for it. “It’s important to note that Germinator was started before the pandemic. We incubated the company since 2015,” and then began to franchise the mobile disinfecting concept in December 2019, when “there was no talk or knowledge of COVID.”
“We had a nice thing going. Then COVID hit and blew the whole thing to smithereens,” he said. “The curse was, it brought a lot of uneducated people into the market that just wanted to do a cash grab, and take advantage of people’s lack of knowledge, their fear, and just buy a sprayer and buy disinfectant and get in the business.”
Gill relies on Germinator’s website, which features loads of information about products and techniques used, as well as describes the franchise’s scientific advisory board. “We also spend a lot of time educating our franchisees so they can spread the word,” he said. “It’s not easy, because we’re at a stage now, and actually I find this interesting, people are burnt out.”
His prescription: “OK, if people are sick of talking about COVID, let’s not talk about COVID any more. Let’s go back to Germinator’s main principles, let’s talk about creating healthy living environments,” he said. “There’s still going to be colds, there’s still going to be stomach viruses, and there’s still allergies,” he said. “And people, they’re open to that.”
And if another pandemic comes along? “We’ll all be better prepared. We’ll do better. And if we don’t, just absolutely shame on us.”
4. Amplify new services.
Rob Price, CEO of music education franchise School of Rock, learned some surprising lessons during the pandemic. “We have this remarkable circumstance of a year ago, questioning our viability,” but now coming out stronger. “There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make that happen,” he said.
“Our product positioning was performance-based music education and of course that was disrupted. But what it revealed to us is the relationships between our students and our instructors was actually more important and more potent than ever,” he said.
New programs and capabilities established in light of COVID, such as remote learning, live-streaming performances and even “synchronized jamming,” will continue because they are very popular with students, and School of Rock is making technology enhancements to support those items.
5. Create new reasons to visit.
Batteries Plus has a new partnership with Samsung, becoming the first independent retailer certified to repair Samsung devices. The chain put about 2,500 employees through a process to become WISE certified, and it promotes those designations in stores and on its website. CEO Scott Williams calls the new offerings a great way to attract people into the stores. “We have people coming in under the Samsung program, who then discover the range of services,” he said, which will be important as other stores not deemed “essential” during the pandemic come back in service.
6. No touching, please.
A pizza portal, a heated cabinet developed at Little Caesars in 2018, rose to great utility during the pandemic, so people can come in, grab their order and never touch a soul. “Little did we know it would be just a critical piece for us during COVID,” said Craig Sherwood, head of U.S. development for Little Caesars, when the brand known for its $5 pizzas emphasized “safety of our products, safety of our delivery methods.” Even post-pandemic, customers in many cases will want to keep it clean and touch-free.
7. Well, maybe some will want to.
Heyday Skin Care began franchising just last September, emphasizing from the beginning the education of consumers with objective research. A skincare quiz, for example, advising customers on which products and routines would work best for them, has been a big hit, said Sean Bock, chief development officer.
“Our business is not about beauty, it’s about wellness, it’s about taking care of your skin,” he said, although he recognizes an additional truth about post-pandemic customers. “The last year they’ve been cramped in their homes, and they’re ready to go out and date again. Seventy-five percent of our customer base is under the age of 35. We know they’re going to go out, posting more on Instagram,” and with any luck, incorporating Heyday’s program into their routine.