How Retailers Can Succeed in the Era of COVID (2022)
You survived 2020. You did your best to keep spirits and sales up in 2021. Then 2022 arrived, and the pandemic is still going strong. It can be discouraging, no doubt, but there’s also an abundance of opportunities to differentiate your company and show customers which brand cares about them most during this time.
What Differentiates Retail Superstars During the Pandemic
“The retail sector outperformed many industries, but the gap between sector leaders and laggards has grown,” reports McKinsey. In the US, five retailers “generated more than 80% of all the [retail] value,” while in China “four players drove a staggering 98% of gains,” it adds.
According to McKinsey, these companies belong to four categories:
=> Home economy, because many people used their quarantine time to upgrade their homes.
=> Value retailers, because consumers were more mindful of their finances as nothing felt certain.
=> Online specialists, because even people who were used to shopping in-store started shopping online during lockdowns and afterwards, trying to stay safe. In May 2020, two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID to be a pandemic, “US ecommerce spending grew by 93% year over year… More money was spent online in the US between April and May than the last 12 Cyber Mondays combined,” reported a MasterCard study.
=> Platform players, because a diverse business model that went beyond retail, to cover supply chains and advanced technology, or at least had a strong integrated ecosystem, drew investors.
How Retailers Can Succeed Online in the Era of COVID
As mentioned above, eCommerce usage accelerated during the pandemic. But you’re in retail, so you probably already knew that. The question then becomes how to create digital experiences that matter to customers.
Personalized Ecommerce Experiences for Everyone
Here are a few ideas to differentiate your eCommerce experience beyond great visuals and product descriptions:
=> Accessibility: 1 in 4 US adults manages “a disability that impacts major life activities,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Only 1-3 of every 10 websites comply with accessibility regulations, according to accessiBe, who studied 10 million pages. These are the “percentage[s] of all pages scanned that failed to comply with the requirements for menus, images, pop-ups and so on,” it explains about the following graph. By serving these needs, your company can easily stand out.
=> Personalized omnichannel experiences: Customers are everywhere, and wherever they go, they want to feel like they’re continuing the journey they started with you. First, enable customers to buy and get customer service wherever they want – your website, chat, email and social media channels (alongside your store and contact center, of course). Second, ensure these don’t feel like fragmented experiences. Customers need to feel like they’re talking to the same person, with the same brand characteristics, who already knows their entire history with your company every single time they connect with you.
=> Easy checkout: Give customers a variety of options to take control of their own checkout experiences. Allow them to buy directly on the product page, directly on social media, with one click when they go to their cart, etc. Don’t require sign ups or log ins that draw out the process unnecessarily. Instead, consider rewarding them for signing up or logging in. The reward can be activated in the current purchase, or be saved for next time.
When Customers Order Online and Pick Up Offline
Whether they opt for a curbside pickup or an in-store pickup, the experience customers have as they head to get their products is essential to their feelings about your brand.
=> Real-time inventory updates: Verify you have the technology you need to keep up with inventory management across locations. Update it in real-time, so what customers see online is what’s actually available to pick up in their nearest location. This is important in eCommerce too, but even more so when customers make the effort to pick up products themselves.
=> Pickup convenience: Allow customers to choose their most convenient pick up time, and provide alternatives ahead of time if products they want are missing after all. For example, offer other products they can get instead, or let them know which branch does have what they want. In addition, if you offer a pickup window (say, from 5 to 8 PM), make it easy for them to check in a bit before arriving, so you can verify you get their order prepared before they arrive.
Immersive, Personalized In-Store Experiences Matter More than Ever
Ecommerce might be what everyone is talking about, but retailers that want to keep thriving can’t forget that many customers still want to come into stores, try products out, and experience some human connection. Here are some key aspects of an immersive in-store experience.
=> Location data: Understanding customer preferences across your different branches can help you tailor experiences to each customer segment’s needs. Therefore, analyze foot traffic, demographics, psychographics and buying behaviors in each location before proceeding with strategy planning.
=> Localized experiences: As more companies expand internationally, keep in mind that each country and region has its own culture and shopping behaviors. Partner with consultants or technology vendors that can help you get to know your different target audiences, so that the shopping experiences you provide feel seamless to their everyday lives. Alternatively, if you decide to stand out by emphasizing aspects of your own culture, do so intentionally and sensitively, taking your audience’s culture into consideration.
=> Personalized clienteling: Some app products let you recognize who’s entering your store, so you can know what they need before they tell you – or at least understand their history with your company, so you can customize recommendations. It will also make it easier for you to continue nurturing the relationship once customers leave the store. Sales associates will be able to keep track of customers’ desired products and alert them when these products, or others that they might like, are in stock.
=> Blend two worlds: In our article about immersive in-store examples, we covered a brand that blended luxury fashion with arcades to surprise and delight its customers. In another example, we covered a smart dressing room mirror. Among others, the mirror allows customers to request that sales associates bring different sizes to their dressing room, imitate different room atmospheres to verify the outfit fits the occasion, and with the help of additional technology, add in-store items to their online wish lists.
Step Up Your Technology to Give Customers What They Actually Need
Customer experiences that stand out are all about humanizing the brand-customer relationships with the help of smart technology that scales them to the next level. Following are some great technology advancements that can help you do that.
=> Mobile POS: A mobile POS lets you exchange long lines with efficient, personalized experiences, because you can finalize customers’ purchases anywhere in the store. Plus, often, mobile POS systems give you access to customer data, so you can recognize loyal customers, make personalized product recommendations, and figure out how they can get products that aren’t currently in stock in the specific branch they’re visiting.
=> RFID: Usage of RFID readers and tags is one of the key retail trends this year. Using this technology, you can automatically scan customers’ in-store carts during checkout, then verify they paid for everything when they walk out the store. Back in the warehouse, you can scan your inventory, to easily keep track of which products are shipping, what you have in stock, and what requires ordering.
=> Connect everything with data: According to an Oracle and Forrester study, 75% of marketers and advertisers believe that customer engagement data is important for improving customer experiences. In addition, companies that use customer data platforms (CDPs) “effectively are 2.5 times more likely to increase customer lifetime value.” However, the study also revealed that “only 11% of brands can effectively use customer data.” Make this year the year you finally prioritize data collection, analysis and usage, and you’ll find it easier to give your customers what they actually need.
Only 11% of firms can effectively use a wide variety of data types in a unified customer profile.
Source: Oracle & Forrester
What Happens After the Purchase is Just as Critical as Generating Sales
We’re all about celebrating every part of the process, yet once you’re done celebrating the next sale, verify the sales cycle is actually completed in a way that encourages repeat purchases and advocacy.
=> Last mile experience: All the hard work you’re putting into nurturing great relationships with your customers can disappear in a heartbeat when packages aren’t delivered, when service by delivery employees is far from outstanding, or when there are unexpected surprises at delivery (like extra charges that weren’t explained during the purchase). The solution is to invest in your last mile technology and employees. Remember that last mile employees are often paid and appreciated very little. Show them you care about their wellbeing, so that they’ll carry that care toward your customers.
=> Returns experience: As much as we wish every customer will love every purchase, product returns are part of doing business. Almost every single customer will buy from you again if you provide a great return experience. Therefore, it’s critical to look at the entire lifetime value of the customer and not just the current purchase.
As Always, it’s About Putting Customers’ Needs First
The pandemic brought in a wide variety of challenges – lockdowns, quarantine, increased health risks, vastly changing customer behavior and preferences, and… it’s still not over. As you train your team and choose new technologies to implement, remember that one thing will likely never change:
Retail brands that stand out are retail brands that stay open to adapting with changing times, as they wholeheartedly put customers’ needs first. When you authentically put customers’ needs first, they feel it, they come back and they tell their friends.
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