As the coronavirus continues to spread, businesses of all kinds are scrambling to offer new services in an effort to stay relevant when shopping is the last thing on consumers’ minds.
Summersalt, a swimwear startup, is transforming its regular customer service channels into an opportunity to provide emotional support. On Tuesday, the three-year-old brand opened up a free text message hotline—which it’s calling a “Joycast”—that will allow people to reach out if they need something to lift their mood. In response, someone from Summersalt’s “customer happiness” team will send over a 10-minute meditation video, self-care ideas, or a puppy GIF.
Lori Coulter, Summersalt’s cofounder and CEO, recognizes that this is a bold move for the brand, given the seriousness of the pandemic and the likelihood of a global recession. But she also sees how lonely and isolated people are starting to feel, as companies have moved to remote work and public spaces have closed. Coulter says she feels confident this is the right move, partly because many employees on the customer service team happen to have expertise in mental health.
“We have a lot of grad students getting degrees counseling or [who] happen to have degrees in counseling,” says Coulter, who points out that this overlap makes sense because the skills you learn in counseling—like empathy and communication—are also relevant in customer service. “Of course, other members of the team don’t have this background, but we felt like we had enough expertise to be helpful to our community.”
Coulter says that if they get a text or an email from someone that suggests a more serious mental health emergency, a team member will flag it and direct that person to an organization that can provide the help they need, such as the National Institutes of Mental Health.
Summersalt is based in Saint Louis, Missouri, and has a staff of 40. Its 17 customer service employees are located around the country and worked from home even before the crisis. The Joycast service just launched a few days ago but has already been used by dozens of people, the company says. Summersalt plans to keep the text line open indefinitely.
Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin, who cofounded Summersalt with Coulter, says the hotline was an effort to meet customers where they were. On the brand’s social media channels, they had noticed customers saying they were feeling down and looking for ways to alleviate some of their anxiety. “My personality is to be optimistic and to solve problems,” says Chamberlin. “We saw our customers reaching out on social media, looking for some levity in this time of stress and crisis. So we saw an opportunity to respond.”
Joycast was also an effort to get creative during a period that is likely to bring unprecedented challenges to startups in the direct-to-consumer industry, which has grown in the years since the last recession. Most brands in this arena haven’t experienced the kind of fiscal crisis or economic downturn that experts say is around the corner. During this period of social distancing, many DTC brands expect to see a reduction in sales, and efforts like these allow them to stay on consumers’ minds, even when they’re not in the mood to shop.
Summersalt is among many brands pivoting their models to provide virtual resources. Bandier, an activewear brand that also hosts classes with fitness influencers, is offering live classes for free every day at 4 p.m. through its Instagram channel. FabFitFun, a quarterly subscription box that also has digital content, is making its shows free to nonmembers.
It’s clear that retail brands are going to be hit hard by this period of social distancing. While Summersalt doesn’t have any brick-and-mortar stores, many other direct-to-consumer brands, including Away, Everlane, and Casper, have expanded into physical retail extensively over the last few years. Many of these locations have shuttered and will likely remain closed for months. On top of that, many of those companies have raised significant amounts of capital and have been encouraged to prioritize growth over profits, a model that will prove especially challenging in the coming months.
Meanwhile, as consumers are stuck at home and anticipating a recession, they’re less likely to spend money on apparel and swimwear. Swimwear sales generally go up before the summer months, as people make plans to go on holiday. With so much uncertainty around the coronavirus, travel plans are expected to take a big hit. Chamberlain says Summersalt will emphasize how its products—which also include loungewear—can be worn even when stuck at home. “We’ve always said that our suits are just as fun to wear in the backyard as on vacation,” she says.
Summersalt, which has raised more than $20 million in venture funding, says that it hasn’t yet seen a decline in sales. But Coulter concedes that the future looks uncertain, and it’s unclear exactly how the coronavirus will impact Summersalt in both the short and the long term. “We’re taking it one day at a time,” she says. “We’re going to focus on staying engaged with our customers and meeting their needs any way we can.”