Corporate holiday giving, just like pretty much everything else, will be scaled back significantly this year, but giving remains a way to connect with consumers in what has been a harried year for many.

Brands as agents of change, the importance of social impact causes and the holiday retail landscape in the COVID-19 era were among the issues discussed during a ShoppingGives-hosted virtual talk Tuesday.

ShoppingGives founder and chief executive officer Ronny Sage moderated “The Future of Retail and Holiday Strategy in the COVID Era” roundtable. The participants included Ken Natori, president of the Natori Company; Tina Bou-Saba, founder of the Big Future Fund; Alexa Buckley, cofounder of Margaux, and Jeff Laub, executive creative director and cofounder of Blind Barber.

Last year, ShoppingGives surveyed 650 direct-to-consumer brands about their social impact for holiday to see who was participating and how they were communicating that across their channels to customers. Sixteen retailers or about 2 percent featured give-back messaging in their e-mails and 39 companies — about 6 percent — had messaging on their homepages related to Giving Tuesday or other initiatives. ShoppingGives expects that to increase to nearly 5 percent for e-mail initiatives and more than 15 percent for their homepages or other properties.

Bou-Saba noted how the penetration continues to be quite low compared to the broader retail landscape. “What a tremendous opportunity this is for brands and retailers to take that step to be a leader with that messaging,” she said. “For legacy companies, this is a totally different way of thinking because traditionally those businesses have been very apolitical. They’ve been trying to remain neutral. They may encourage employees internally to do volunteering or perform charitable acts, but it hadn’t been messaging that they have generally led with externally except for one big effort here [or there.] On the other hand, you have direct-to-consumer companies that have a one-to-one relationship with their consumers. They know these are the things their consumers care about and this is how they can connect with them.”

Acknowledging the really big opportunity for differentiation that exists, the investor said, “One thing that I see in my portfolio of brands is sometimes there is a little concern around getting it wrong. Some things that we saw, for example, this summer there were questions whether certain acts were performance versus authentic. Thoughtful brands are really being mindful of what’s appropriate and what will resonate with their consumer base.”

Looking ahead to holiday giving, Natori said, “Like with a lot of things, it’s not necessarily doing more things. It’s just communicating more and addressing the need of customers to know more about what we’re doing. Frankly, our partnership with ShoppingGives, very clearly on the bottom of all our e-mail blasts, talks about how customers can have Natori donate a portion of their order to the charity of their choice, or any of the other charities that we’ve chosen to support. Whether it’s our e-mail blast, on our home page, our PDP or our checkout pages, we’re amplifying much stronger that we’re partnering and it’s very easy to use.”

As for the business forecast, Natori said, “Clearly, we all went into this year thinking that e-comm would grow ‘X.’ That number post-COVID-19 is going to be a multiple of ‘X.’ Everyone universally agrees on that. We all know e-comm is going to grow a lot. Whether that goes to the big guys or the independent brands is the more interesting question.“

As a privately held company, each year it becomes increasingly challenging “with a small team and a limited budget to compete with not just the nordstrom.coms and the saks.coms of the world, but on a bigger scale with the Amazons,” Natori said. “Clearly everyone probably envisions that 20 years from now, Amazon is going to dominate the world completely. For independent brands, selling direct is going to be much more challenging. The bigger question is, ‘How can these independent brands with smaller teams and smaller budgets remain viable as dot-com sites? One way is to foster that relationship with the customer whether that is through transparency, giving or storytelling.”