“If she’s going to be on Zoom every day, she needs lots of outfits and she needs lots of jewelry that’s affordable. So we’ve seen that product shift.”

COVID-19 upended the retail industry, with brick-and-mortar stores of all sizes suffering from limited in-person traffic. Brands and businesses were forced to come up with creative ways to adapt. One of those brands was REBECCA MINKOFF. Rebecca Minkoff, designer and founder of luxury handbag and fashion brand of the same name and member of the Director’s Council of the Wharton School’s Baker Retailing Center, spoke to undergraduate and graduate students at this year’s virtual Baker Retailing Center’s Fall Executive Speaker Series.

Here are five ways her brand pivoted to survive, then thrive, during the pandemic.

Interview Highlights

1. Acknowledge the problem, then move on to the solution.

“The first month was truly the worst moment, as an entrepreneur and as a founder, that my brother and I have ever experienced with regards to the uncertainty: department stores closing, canceled orders, 70 percent of our business essentially evaporating overnight. Then what followed — the furloughs, the layoffs that we had to do to stay alive. I felt at times I was letting go of true family members.”

“When that dust sort of settled, we said, ‘We want to survive this. We need to pivot. We need to figure this out. What are we going to do to innovate and stand through this as a challenge?’”

2. Meet your customers where they are.

“We were about 20 to 30 percent direct-to-consumer as an organization with 70 percent of our business prior to COVID being wholesale. That’s where our focus went every day. We were trying to optimize those relationships, that business. When that went away, we focused all of our attention on our own site and on our customers 24/7, because that’s all we had. We saw huge growth, and now it’s about 80 percent of the business.”

3. Cater to new, and even unexpected, trends.

“We’ve seen a bump in certain categories that we had not anticipated at all. We had a very small jewelry line and all of a sudden we were selling out of jewelry. For handbag brands to do that, that was crazy. We saw that anything that had a great puff sleeve or strong shoulder was beginning to move massive units. Finally I was like, it’s Zoom, right? She needs a great earring and she needs a great shoulder because that’s all you’re seeing these days. If she’s going to be on Zoom every day, she needs lots of outfits and she needs lots of jewelry that’s affordable. So we’ve seen that product shift. We’ve optimized our product offerings on the go-forward as we see this continuing.”

4. Identify the need-gap and don’t compromise on your standards.

“We launched masks on Saturday. We sold over a thousand in the first few hours and we’ll be doing different prints for each season. It took us a bit longer than I wanted to get into masks, but we wanted to do it sustainably. We wanted chemicals that were earth-friendly and non-toxic. We wanted you to be breathing in a hundred percent cotton versus some of the microplastics that are in these things, if they’re polyester. It took a minute, but we’re happy to be here.”

5. Work with your competitors.

“All of a sudden we had to find a way to get a new audience and new eyeballs. What about cross-promotion as a brand? I contacted anyone that I knew or had a connection to and said, ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.’ What it resulted in was a 70 percent lift in organic traffic to our sites, which correlates down to sales and we were seeing a ton of new customers. Then launching giveaways, which I had always been hesitant to do. Do they sign up for the giveaway and then quickly unsubscribe? But we’ve added almost 120,000 new emails, so let’s say you lose 100,000 of them. We have 20,000 new customers and all I had to do was give away a couple of bags. I’ll take the risk.”

Minkoff also emphasized two pieces of advice for current business students:

1. “Right now is where innovation is going to be taking place in an incredibly sped-up way. You see that, with every recession, the companies that come out of them have begun to dig under the covers and find ways they can advance and support and really innovate and make change for the customer. So let this student body be the group that brings the next round of innovation, the Airbnbs, the Ubers. All these things that have dramatically changed how we operate. Let yourself go, ‘Okay, it isn’t what COVID is doing to us, it’s what it’s doing for us in terms of business innovation.’”

2. “We can’t let the students get into this mindset of: ‘Why me? I didn’t get my senior year.’ If we look at history, my grandparents had to flee the Holocaust, or people in the sixties had to March for the right to not go to war, or in the fifties, integration. So put your boots on, and just see what you can do to be part of the change.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: December 4, 2020

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