Originally published on Techonomy.
It is no longer a revelation that COVID-19 has deeply impacted the retail and experiential landscape. The retail industry has seen staggering declines since March, brought on by mandatory store closures and decreased consumer spending. Despite the impact, pockets of retailers who were already ahead of the curve in digital transformation have sustained strong sales. It’s clear that COVID-19 has and will continue to demand unprecedented acceleration in the digital experience and virtual excellence. Retailers are at a critical juncture, where they must invest in solutions, and future-proof their brand, to flourish in this new environment. The way forward will require much more than a short-term remedy, because the “new normal” of retail isn’t temporary: It’s here to stay.
Trends We’re Seeing Across Retail
Transformation of the retail landscape is a daunting reality. Identifying where, how, and when to engage with the new normal is the only way to win the trust and loyalty of employees and customers. Rational has been tracking these changes and using these unique trends to influence and drive impact for our clients. Some retailers have already begun to adjust the way they earn and maintain the trust of their customers, and of those, many have already seen measurable benefits. Among the emerging consumer tendencies unfolding across the industry are radical housekeeping, a demand for virtual interaction with products, and customer satisfaction guarantees.
- Not only are retailers taking this time to clean their stores, they are also taking the opportunity to audit the current state of their digital transformation, thanks to the rapid utilization of the technology they have necessarily employed during this period. As retailers have begun to conduct these evaluations, Rational has observed an average of five technology redundancies discovered within internal marketing technology and operational systems. Digital transformation is about finding the right tech solution for your brand and industry and layering in efficient employee operations to drive a meaningful customer experience.
- As virtual retail has skyrocketed, so has the desire for virtual interaction. According to recent research by McKinsey, consumers increasingly intend to shop and engage online, particularly in the US, India, South Korea, and Japan. Providing a strong virtual presence strengthens the engagement with consumers whose behaviors during the pandemic may become permanent. Retailers that offer a robust digital experience have reaped the biggest rewards of this skyrocket in virtual retail.
Customer Satisfaction Guarantees
- Consumers are looking for stability and safety, not just in the physical retail space, but financially, too. To encourage customers to shop, companies have begun to offer purchase assurance, free return shipping and extended timelines, and contactless or curbside drop off for returns and exchanges. Findings from a report by PYMNTS and Cover Genius suggest that 48% of consumers would buy more if they were offered insurance coverage at online checkout. Retailers that promote an updated sales guarantee, whether through a warranty or revised return policy and procedure, will likely see an increase in sales conversion rates.
The Evolution of the Retail Customer
It’s clear that customers have responded to the crisis and are driving the way forward now more than ever. It’s critical that retailers have a clear picture of who their customers are and invest in the customer experience now to stay in the game. As quarantine restrictions are relaxed and stores begin to reopen, customers will require a new model of interaction that is dependent on their level of comfort and the shopping preferences they have developed in response to the pandemic. While there is no “one size fits all” approach to the new landscape, there are three emerging personas that retailers can use to help guide engagement strategies.
The first, Persona A, craves a sense of “normalcy”, cannot wait to get back into stores, and will be willing to engage with store associates. This persona represents the minority, but it should be noted that they will be more willing to interact with a demo device or compare products and services in person. Consider Persona B: They are more hesitant to engage in physical spaces, and thus will require a different solution. Perhaps Persona B has an aversion to touching devices in the store but is receptive to an in-store QR solution that allows for a non-tactile experience. Then there’s Persona C, who has shifted almost entirely to online shopping. While they no longer seek in-store experiences, they might readily embark on a virtual store tour customized to their retail preferences.
For Personas B and C, retailers should consider virtual mobile stores and virtual concierge desks. These solutions would enable them to stay connected to the brand with peace of mind, while having access to new services, products, and store activities that they just don’t get through traditional online shopping. A scan-and-go model, where customers can self-scan with a mobile payment option, would be a viable solution for Personas A and B, allowing a space for them to continue to visit stores, but with an added convenience option that accommodates the social distancing element required by Persona B.
To navigate the way forward, it’s crucial that retailers understand their customers and work to provide experiences that meet them where they are. As they continue to build on their digital transformation strategies, retailers should consider new ways of thinking about line management and point of sale, engaging with customers when they do step inside the store, and even AR experiences. By understanding each of their customers and their unique needs, retailers can create experiences that will engage each in a meaningful way at every point of their shopping journey, ultimately inspiring trust and confidence in their brand.
The new era of connecting digital and physical is at a critical tipping point, and customer solutions are just the beginning. Consider the broader opportunities that emerge as retailers invest in digital transformation and the customer experience:
- Grow brand loyalists and community: Connecting all customers to the right products, answers, and support shows how much a brand cares about their customers. This breeds a sense of comfort and builds confidence for consumers who re-enter the in-store retail landscape, consumers who engage virtually, and those who are somewhere in between. This level of care and impactful customization of experiences creates lifetime brand fanatics.
- Protect the brand: Brands can avoid a crisis by being part of the solution. Just five negative engagements can easily reach millions of people and grow to reach millions more. With strong customer experience management, negative sentiment can be mitigated before it ever has a chance to erode the brand.
- Enable data-driven decisions: Data derived from virtual and in-person touchpoints enable real-time modeling, reporting, and trending.Touchpoint data will allow brands to identify the extent to which consumers are comfortable interacting in physical environments, using demo devices, and having in-store experiences. It’s critical to monitor these changes in order to make informed decisions about what solutions to invest in moving forward.
COVID-19’s presence has served as a constant reminder that the future is uncertain. Among the few things we can know for certain is that customers will not revert to their old ways, and consequently, neither will the retail industry. The current shift in landscape represents one moment in time, and there’s no guarantee it won’t be followed by other disruptions. If brands are not ready to adapt to the rapid changes as their customers do, they will be left behind.With a retail model rooted in the customer experience, sales, traffic, and engagement will continue to build and gain traction. The opportunity is here, and now the question is: Who will be willing to take it?