The Covid-19 pandemic has upended the U.K. retail sector. As the government stutters through its attempts to convince the public it’s safe to ease lockdown, the role of rebuilding consumer confidence will increasingly fall to individual retailers as they begin to re-open high streets, retail parks and shopping centres next week. And it’s clear that the businesses that ‘get it right’ are set to reap the benefits in both the short and longer term.
During lockdown, many retailers scrambled to serve customers through digital channels much more quickly than they’d previously planned to or prepared for. The quality of the experience they’ve offered has been viewed as a secondary consideration as the need to sell stock for survival has taken centre stage. But as lockdown continues to ease, and customers nervously return to the physical environment, retailers need to walk in the shoes, and sit at the keypads, of their customers as they develop their post-pandemic propositions. Because make no mistake, customers think very differently than they did only three months ago.
Where should retailers place their focus?
For most retailers, placing a focus on digital, at the expense of physical stores, is a mistake. The physical environment still has an important role to play in determining the success of a brand, initially in terms of satisfying the (more desperate than ever) human need to interact, but increasingly as a vehicle to build online sales growth. After months of isolation, and once confidence levels start to increase, customers will positively look forward to their retail therapy. There’ll never be a better time to tell product stories in store; or for visual merchandising to entice customers to buy ‘the look’, ‘the whole room’ or ‘the recipe’ rather than the single item they came in for. Retailers must make the most of customers’ newfound freedom to visit stores. Barriers to sales such as non-accessibility of changing rooms and quarantine of returned goods must be countered by executional excellence, in which good old-fashioned customer engagement skills will take on new importance. Customers will be looking for experiences they couldn’t benefit from in isolation, and the importance of a human interface will be magnified in their hearts and minds. People have been used to buying without any interaction, so a stronger focus on making them feel safe and welcome, and providing the best products and services available will be key to success. Training store teams to use digital tools and encourage customers to use other channels to browse, learn and purchase will strengthen brand engagement and ultimately grow sales. So that’ll be an important consideration too. But time’s running out for retailers to reimagine their bricks and mortar experience, and ensure it blends with their online experience as the new world of retail is quickly beginning to emerge.
Retailers need to focus on 4 areas as customers dictate the new normal:
Safety-first is the non-negotiable strategy to adopt
We remember the brands that failed to pick up on consumer sentiment, and/or put profit before people as the pandemic started to hit. Their callous actions will live long in the memory as customers cautiously return to their old shopping communities. Providing safe experiences will be critical to alleviating customers’ anxieties and enabling a sustained return to in-person interactions. Retailers must implement policies and processes to enable end-to-end social distancing and the regular sanitisation of hands, surfaces, and products. They must communicate, and regularly reinforce, these ‘safety imperative’ messages clearly and proactively, via signage and the verbal and non-verbal actions of frontline teams. Efficiency of operation will be key in this new physical space, as retailers seek to provide their customers with environments where they can enter, shop, pay and leave as quickly and safely as possible.
Channel-hopping is now the rule, not the exception
Customers simply will not shop using one channel any longer. They’ll utilise whichever channel best meets their needs at any given point along their purchase journey. We know from past experience that for retailers the starting point matters in a crisis. Retailers that can quickly reimagine their approach to create a ‘safe and welcome’, multi-touchpoint customer experience will recover faster from the pandemic. Forrester’s analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 shows that customer experience leaders saw a shallower downturn, rebounded more rapidly, and achieved three times the total shareholder returns in the long run compared with the market average. The message is clear; those organisations that are better positioned to meet and exceed the expectations of their customers in a consistent and repeatable way, and those that possess the agility to adapt to quickly changing customer priorities, will continue to outperform the competition as we emerge from this crisis.
Offering a blended experience will be key to success
Covid-19 has forever changed consumer behaviours across the globe as millions of customers have woken up to the speed and convenience of online retail. Stores need to adapt to bring shoppers back into physical locations and link the in-store experience with digital offers. Click & Collect has enjoyed a huge uptick in popularity over the past three months, and together with doorstep and kerbside delivery it’s here to stay as consumers report high intention to continue using these engagement models as the impact of the pandemic gradually begins to abate. Many retailers had been using their stores to educate customers on product offerings, reinforce their brand’s positioning, and support e-commerce sales before the pandemic hit, and more retailers will need to adopt this approach as they move forward post-Covid. The importance of continued investment in new, high impact retail spaces as part of a blended experience shouldn’t be overlooked. The benefits of doing so are clear, with research indicating that the opening of a new store location can increase traffic to a retailer’s website by 37 percent within a matter of months.
Building trust and empathy with customers will drive store choice
Retailers need to support their frontline teams, ensuring that they feel safe and stress-free in their place of work. It’s imperative that their voices are heard, and any concerns are addressed as working practices are introduced to meet the new needs and wants of customers. The frontline will be well placed to provide feedback, both from their own viewpoint and that of their customers, as consumer confidence returns, and footfall starts to increase. Regular reinforcement of the need to support social distancing measures will be pivotal in building trust and empathy; and ultimately in increasing confidence to browse and purchase in store. It’s become increasingly apparent in the supermarket sector that some staff are no longer complying to social distancing requirements in their movements and actions – often ignoring one-way signage and working in close proximity to customers and each other. The damage this is doing to customer confidence is clear to see on the faces of customers watching in horror as staff interact as though social distancing is ‘yesterday’s news’. And given that in-store hygiene and safety considerations will drive store switching behaviour for the rest of this year and beyond, it will be interesting to see which supermarkets suffer due to diminished trust in their brand. It’s clear that regardless of sector, it will be those retailers that remain focused on building trust and customer engagement that will fare well and strengthen their ties to customers in future.
As we emerge from this crisis, customers will understandably be nervous, but confidence will return. By putting processes in place to ensure that customers feel safe and welcome in store, and developing systems that offer a frictionless and blended customer experience, retailers will be well-placed to benefit from the new retail normal, and grow market share in both the short and longer term.
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