How the Salvos embraced ecommerce

Customer experience manager details the approach needed to bring a network of charity shops into the digital age

Few retailers would be as far from claiming ecommerce leadership as charity op shops. But when COVID-related lockdowns descended across Australia last year, charity stores were forced to close their doors along with everyone else considered non-essential.

For the Salvation Army, that meant the closure of a network of more than 300 stores that collectively helped raise more than $41 million annually.

“It was a huge thing,” customer experience manager for Salvos Stores, Aife O'Loughlin, tells CMO. “It was the first time in 150 years the Salvos stores had ever had to close our doors.”

But closure meant more than just shutting down their ability to raise funds. Salvos Stores also play a key role in supporting their surrounding communities, including the 11,000 team members who volunteer within them.

In recognition of this, O'Loughlin says one of the first actions Salvos Stores took was to invite customers and team members to join a closed Facebook group where they could connect with each other and with Salvation Army chaplains to discuss events and how they were feeling. The second major action was to bring forward plans Salvos Stores had in place to embark on a more significant ecommerce journey.

“We had always had a plan in place to evolve our ecommerce offering at Salvos Stores, and our first draft of what that looked like saw us planning to go live in July of 2020,” O'Loughlin says. “When all of our stores had to shut doors due to COVID we basically brought that plan up from three months to three weeks.

“All of the profit we make Salvos Stores goes straight back into community programs, so we had to work really hard to do something that would allow us to continue to raise those funds. And we had to sit down and look at ecommerce in a way that could create that impact. We are a very optimistic bunch at Salvos Stores, and after a couple of brief discussions internally and with our partners Annix, we decided we can make this happen.”

Taking an MVP approach

O'Loughlin says the approach taken involved determining the ‘minimum viable product’ that Salvos Stores could bring to life that would offer a positive value-add for customers. Working with its digital agency, Annix, Salvos Stores was able to craft an online offering that launched on 4 May 2021.

“It was by no means all bells and whistles; it was very much the baseline, but it was received really well by our customers at the time,” O'Loughlin says. “Those customers who shopped with us were providing us with feedback on things that they liked to see on the site, and that has allowed us to evolve it into the site that it is today.

“We were really fortunate in our partner that they believed in what we do and support what we do. To be able to look at how they were able to prioritise this project alongside us to bring it to life in that time is no mean feat.”

One of the noted attributes of Salvos Stores is the lack of a centralised warehouse for dispatch, as almost all inventory is carried in the stores themselves. O'Loughlin says a solution was needed that would enable items to be dispatched directly from the stores, which led Salvo Stores to ShipStation. In addition to meeting Salvos Stores’ distribution needs, the ShipStation solution was also easy for the volunteer team members to learn, O'Loughlin says.

“It was about supporting our store teams and giving them something new and exciting to learn,” O’Loughlin says. “We don’t have tonnes of really digitally capable people across our network. They tried their absolute hardest and they give it their best shot. Without the support of our store teams, I don’t believe we could have been as successful as we have been.

“The store manager usually had the ShipStation app on their phone and could keep an eye on what was happening, and make sure that things were ticking along as they needed to.”

Building an ecommerce footprint

Salvo Stores initially launched its ecommerce solution from five stores, and it has now expanded to have more than 200 that are listing items for sale online. Altogether the group has listed more than 80,000 items, of which 61,000 have been sold.

“It has been quite a considerable growth period for us, and we have no doubt that it will be something that will be generating a decent amount of revenue in the very near future,” O’Loughlin says.

Salvos Stores was also able to activate its database of 180,000 customers through an email campaign to alert them about the new ecommerce offering.

“On the day of launched we posted in the [Facebook] group and sent an email out to our customers,” O'Loughlin says. “In 10 minutes our website had crashed, because our customers were so engaged with us.”

One of the benefits of the ShipStation solution is it enables customers to shop specific stores. This means not only are they able to minimise their shipping costs through buying from a single location, they can also stay connected with the same people from whom they have been shopping with in the physical locations.

“They know them personally, and a lot of people were looking at ways they could support them,” O’Loughlin says. “One of the things we do really well at Salvos Stores is look after our people, and that extends beyond our team members into the donors and our customers, and looking at how we can best support them.”

O'Loughlin says her goal now is to continue growing the number of stores that are participating and the total listings, while also investigating how the digital platform might assist with other activities, such as donations. This will also include investments in marketing automation to support ongoing communication with customers who are shopping online.

“We can’t sit still,” she says. “We now have this great ecommerce offering and we need to continue to invest in that and look at the what the market is doing and how we can continue to catch up.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work that our teams have done to support this. It was a big shift for them, and they just got behind it 100 per cent.”

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