Stay-at-home orders and restrictions during the pandemic accelerated the already growing consumer reliance on e-commerce. Demand for online shopping grew across all sectors of retail, especially for items that used to be purchased in-store day-to-day, like household products and groceries. We connected with Mary Fox, general manager, BIC North America, a global leader in stationery products, lighters, and shavers, to learn how the CPG brand shifted during the mass move from in-store retail to online shopping during the pandemic. In addition, Fox offered insights on the trends we’ll see in consumer shopping habits in a post-COVID world, how impulse purchases can be recreated in a digital shopping environment, and much more.
WIRLC: Can you tell us a little bit about your background in retail and your current role at BIC?
Mary Fox: My fascination with retail started at a very young age when the local corner shop’s proprietor in my tiny village in England let me experiment with re-merchandising the store. I watched customers and learned how they interacted with different products to better understand how something as simple as shelf placement can impact a customer’s experience with a product. This passion for how people engage with products guided me throughout my career, which began in-store, and eventually led to management roles behind the scenes with Walmart, L’Oreal and, of course, BIC.
As the general manager of BIC North America, I lead the region’s strategic vision and oversee day-to-day operations. At the moment, I’m very focused on my team, serving our consumers and customers both today and over the next five years. As many things have changed around us in the past year, I’m very proud of how all of our teams have stepped up to deliver strong results, navigating the shifts as well as staying focused on our North Star of being the best brand for our consumers and customers.
WIRLC: How has the increase in online shopping due to COVID-19 affected BIC? How did you adjust to accommodate this shift?
MF: We’ve been focused on online shopping for a number of years, so were ready for the acceleration in 2020. We saw an 18 percent growth in e-commerce last year. We experienced the most shift to online sales in the shaver category, which increased 53 percent over the year. We also saw a very strong performance in utility lighters as people took up more home cooking and grilling. There was also less demand for writing instruments due to e-learning, but sales of coloring products were boosted as people engaged in more artistic and creative activities.
Some ways that we’ve been adjusting to accommodate these online shifts include strengthening our team and capabilities, as well as upping our investment in digital media to support our e-commerce business. In fact, we increased our media investment by 83 percent in 2020 in BIC’s key markets. We also introduced new products like Prevaguard, an antimicrobial pen; EZ Reach, a pocket-sized utility lighter; and continued to invest in our Us. grooming line to meet increasing consumer demand for unisex grooming products.
WIRLC: How do you think impulse purchases (like BIC pocket lighters) can be recreated in a digital environment?
MF: Certain products, like BIC pocket lighters, are famous for being purchased on impulse. Though you can’t physically pick up a lighter at the checkout counter online, the psychology of impulse shopping translates to e-commerce. Merchandising items on the digital shelf in a way that conveys affordability and urgency, as well as introducing it at a critical decision-making moment in the shopping journey, can induce the same kind of behavior to impulse buy online as it would in-store.
E-commerce also provides opportunities to pair items together and make recommendations in even more creative ways than can be done in person, since you’re not limited by physical space. Recommendations based on past browsing activity are an obvious example of this, as well as “often bought together” prompts based on items someone already has in their cart. For example, if a shopper has a candle in their cart, a platform can recommend a BIC EZ Reach Lighter to go with it, anticipating consumer needs to boost their experience and sales at the same time.
WIRLC: Online wish lists have evolved into online shopping lists over the past 12 months. Can you tell us more about that and do you think this trend is here to stay even after the pandemic is over?
MF: There was a time when online shopping was reserved for products that people wanted vs. needed. People would “window shop” online and see a new pair of shoes or a fun phone case. Today, those online wish lists have turned into shopping lists, full of everything from groceries to school supplies. In a way, the lists got bigger and the items became smaller. This trend — buying everything online — began before 2020 in more urban areas, but the pandemic accelerated and expanded it to more suburban and rural areas. People needed to purchase everything via e-commerce for safety reasons, but now they will keep doing it because it’s convenient and anything they want under the sun is only a few clicks away.
WIRLC: What other retail trends are you predicting for 2021?
MF: There will be more emphasis on products that are both sustainable and affordable. Today’s consumers want to reduce their impact on the planet without also breaking the bank. Luckily, they don’t have to since many companies, including BIC, are committed to transforming their operations and making their products more sustainable, whether it’s recyclable packaging, longer-lasting products or reducing carbon emissions at the source.
WIRLC: What do you think retailers should be doing to prepare for post-pandemic?
MF: Though we’re in the midst of an e-commerce boom that isn’t going anywhere, retailers are also focusing on the in-store experience that so many consumers miss and will look forward to returning to when it’s safe again. The winning retailers will blend the best of online and in-person to create a new, more seamless experience that’s the best of both worlds.
WIRLC: If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out in the retail/CPG industry, what would it be?
MF: Go all in, do your best for your customers and your teams every day, and don’t give up or settle for less.