Salvos: How to transition a 140-year-old brand online during a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about the closure, struggle or restructure for many businesses across Australia, however for The Salvation Army's Salvos Stores, the pandemic brought the opportunity to expand its business strategy digitally. Mumbrella's Calum Jaspan speaks to Salvos customer experience manager Aífe O'Loughlin and Lucas Ferrier, e-commerce manager to find out how the not-for-profit managed.

Salvos is one of the oldest second-hand retailers in Australia having first opened doors 140-years ago. But like most retailers, all of its stores had to shut when the pandemic hit.

For many, e-commerce has been part of the norm for the best part of the 21st Century. Transitioning online as a charitable organisation that sells reused goods however, is no easy task.

The first thought for those in charge at Salvos when the reality of the pandemic hit was how they could transition that support the stores provide, online.

“When Coronavirus actually hit, one of the first things we did was set up a closed Facebook group to support our customers in providing them with the sense of community that they would get in store, online,” says customer experience manager Aífe O’Loughlin.

“We know that our customers love the sense of community they get when they come and shop with us. At a time with so much uncertainty, and without the ability to come in-store for that sense of connection, we felt it was important to create a space for community online.”

Social media at Salvos is managed in-house by digital customer communications officer, Sophie Crombie. The Salvos Social Sircle group was established at the time stores were closed as a way to keep the community of customers, donors and volunteers connected. The group currently has 2,7000 members and is kept active by customers and team members sharing their newest Salvos store finds.

Throughout April and May last year Salvos ran a series of online events – style, sentiment and stitch – which gave the online community structure. “We had three days a week where we had something happening on there, whether it was a crafting session or something to do with sustainability,” says O’Loughlin.

At this point Salvos also collaborated with brand ambassador Faye De Lanty to provide weekly style tips.

“We got a bit crafty for our stitch segment and importantly called on one of our Chaplains to go live in the group each Friday to provide the opportunity for our community to connect with him around any concerns they had,” adds O’Loughlin.

Salvos works with The General Store for digital media strategy and larger campaigns throughout the year.

“All our above the line activity is focused on cost effectiveness,” says O’Loughlin. “BVOD [broadcast video on demand] has proved to be an effective above the line initiative for us in terms of cost effectiveness and reach. That said, most of our in market activity is below the line and has proved to have the best return on investment for us at Salvos Stores.”

Following the onset of the pandemic, and leveraging an engaged online community via social media and direct marketing, led Salvos to create an online e-commerce platform in 2020.

“It almost feels like we were a little late to the game,” O’Loughlin tells Mumbrella. “The reality of it is, it’s sort of a mammoth task, figuring out how you can mobilise a network of stores, to create an online e-commerce experience with plenty of products.

“Because the last thing you want to do is go to an online shop and find that there’s only five or ten items. You want to be able to have a browse through plenty of pages and get plenty of options.”

Being a charitable organisation, advertising the transition online was a top priority. But with little funding, the solution was to leverage an existing rewards program digitally, to keep hold of that established customer base.

“For us, naturally enough, budgets tend to be quite tight and when you’re introducing something new, you kind of have to make very little go a long way,” says O’Loughlin. “We have an online email database of about 190,000 people through our in-store rewards program. We let them know about it on that closed Facebook group and by email, and about ten minutes later, our website had crashed because there was overwhelming support from our community to go on and check out what it was.”

To ease the transition, Salvos used online shipping software ShipStation, to aid the transition for its workers into the e-commerce marketplace.

Since the e-commerce launch 12 months ago, Salvos has shipped more than 50,000 packages countrywide, and continues to add thousands of items each week to the e-store. This equates to more than 32 tonnes of second hand items being re-homed by Salvos.

So, having taken the first leap into online, the op shop chain has since established a partnership with eBay for some of their bigger ticket items, collectibles and high value pieces, which are not suitable to be sold in stores or on the e-store, according to Ferrier.

Additionally, there has been a trial partnership ongoing with Gumtree Australia. However, Ferrier says the brand is still mainly focused on building its proprietary e-commerce channel.

“It’s very exciting to have our own channel, and to be able to serve for some of the nuances that come with shopping in our stores, like our coloured tags, to indicate 50% off and on certain weeks. These are the things that customers love in store, and these are the things that we can also have through an e-commerce channel.”


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