With the holidays fast approaching, global supply chain disruptions are threatening to cast a shadow over the peak shopping season for both brands and consumers. COVID-19 related shutdowns, production delays, rising materials costs, labor scarcity, shipping container shortages, and port congestion could all leave retailers short of products to sell, and consumers without gifts to give.
That’s troubling for both digital and traditional retailers who rely on final-quarter sales to drive their revenues. For direct-to-consumer merchants, though, it isn’t all bad news. Despite the challenges, direct-to-consumer merchants have a real opportunity to leverage their brand equity, weather the storm, and come out ahead by capitalizing on supply chain disruptions this holiday season.
That’s partly because DTC sellers have less risk exposure than marketplace merchants or real-world retailers. More than half of Amazon’s sellers, for instance, are now based in China, meaning the marketplace could be especially hard-hit. Besides global shipping issues, China is also facing widespread power shortages that could curtail manufacturing operations and leave Amazon facing tremendous shortfalls in inventory — both for Chinese sellers and for U.S. sellers that import Chinese-made products into Amazon’s FBA network.
Traditional physical retailers face similar challenges. Their geographical footprint requires a multiple-step distribution process, creating greater costs, slowing down delivery times, and heightening the potential impact of logistical logjams and labor shortages. Full-truckload shipping is especially tough, with drivers in such high demand that high schools are now training teenagers to drive 18-wheelers. Inventory shortages are also likely to be more noticeable in brick and mortar stores, where empty shelves will impact customer experience and could dissuade shoppers from entering stores in the first place.
By comparison, DTC dropshippers have a much simpler task. Like any ecommerce operation, DTC brands have significantly lower fixed operating costs than brick-and-mortar retailers. That’s especially significant when inventory runs low: if nobody has products to sell, it’s far better to be on the hook for small, manageable hosting costs than to be stuck paying a sky-high commercial lease.
Better yet, DTC brands don’t just have lower costs and less risk exposure — they also have more control over the customer experience. While marketplace sellers have little option other than to simply remove listings for out-of-stock products, and real-world retailers are left with bare shelves, DTC brands can respond more creatively — updating their websites to guide shoppers to available products, say, or reducing SKU count to create a more focused browsing experience.
This agility, combined with deeper brand equity and a more loyal fanbase, gives DTC brands a path to generating revenue and deepening customer relationships even in the face of product shortages. The best approach will vary from brand to brand, but a few key strategies include:
Be honest with your customers. Many will have read about global supply chain issues, but they may not be aware of how acute they are or how they are impacting your brand. While consumers will get frustrated by marketplace sellers or real-world retailers that don’t have the products they’re seeking, they will tend to be more sympathetic toward DTC brands that communicate about the challenges they’re facing in purposeful and honest ways.
Start by reaching out via your customer email list — an asset most marketplace sellers and real-world retailers lack, or fail to actively maintain — and follow up with a posting on your website. Strike a forthcoming and optimistic tone, and avoid defensiveness, and you’ll find your transparency will increase your credibility with your customers.
Because DTC brands often have lower SKU counts than other retailers, the impact of a single product being out of stock can be disproportionately large. To combat this, merchants should leverage their brand equity and promote available product-adjacent and brand-extension items, such as branded merchandise or related products and accessories.
Taken to excess, this could dilute your brand — but executed tastefully and in a way that’s still aligned with your core brand, it can be an effective strategy. Bringing new temporary products to market requires some additional research and investment, but it’s also an opportunity to learn more about your customers, and potentially identify new SKUs to incorporate into your permanent product lineup.
Given the likelihood of shortages and delays, try to drive engagement by running one or more promotions. Easy options include gift cards and credits, discounts for late delivery, and freebies such as accessories and merchandise. You could also offer free gift-wrapping or small personal touches such as notes of thanks to customers whose gifts arrive later than expected.
The key is to offset late delivery or other inconveniences with an elevated experience — something that marketplace merchants simply can’t offer, but that can be a great option for DTC brands shipping high-value, high-demand items.
When supply issues cause order volumes to drop or COGS to rise, the easiest way to make it up is by increasing prices. This is harder to do in marketplaces where competitors’ products are only a click away, or in brick and mortar settings where overhead is higher, but DTC merchants with strong brand equity are better-placed to command higher prices this holiday season.
If you pursue this strategy, distribute increases across your best-selling items to reduce the effects of price elasticity, and be forthcoming about why prices are going up to preempt sticker shock and underscore your commitment to transparency. Alternatively, consider pursuing a more aggressive bundling and up-selling strategy, including tailored product recommendations and checkout up-selling, to increase AOV without increasing item price.
Control your destiny
Of course, how well these recommendations will work for you depends on your brand and your customer base. The most important thing, though, is to realize that as a direct-to-consumer brand you have far more control over your destiny than pure-play marketplace sellers and traditional retail brands.
If there was ever a time to use the strengths of the direct-to-consumer model to your advantage, it’s now. The global supply chain disruptions will undoubtedly affect sellers of all kinds this holiday season. That makes it all the more important to use every tool in your arsenal to face these challenges head on, and to leverage your brand equity to strengthen customer relationships and drive revenues in the months ahead.
Remington Tonar is the Chief of Staff at Cart.com, the first end-to-end ecommerce solutions provider delivering a fully integrated and owned suite of software, expert services, and infrastructure to scale businesses online.