Many of the changes to consumer behavior that occurred at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis now appear to be permanent. Even as vaccination rates climb and in-person events resume, the habits that consumers developed over the course of the pandemic remain. In order to deliver optimal customer experiences in this “new normal,” businesses must adapt to these changes, which have created both new constraints and fresh opportunities for leaders who aren’t afraid to experiment.
For retail and consumer goods companies specifically, the upcoming holiday season will be perhaps the first big chance to test new engagement tactics and operational models in the quest toward differentiation. Data from Mastercard suggests that retail sales in the U.S. will grow by 7.4% (excluding automotive and gas spending), indicating a healthy uptick in demand. And though recent research from Google and Boston Consulting Group reveals that only 35% of consumers feel that COVID-19 will affect their shopping behavior this year (compared to 53% in 2020), businesses still have to account for the lasting impact that this health crisis has already had on the way customers search for and purchase items.
Those that can get things right in the months ahead stand to gain years of future traction with consumers who are starting fresh and a significant lead over the competition as the new normal unfolds. With that in mind, here are four tips to help your company deliver better customer experiences during one of the most anticipated shopping seasons in recent memory:
1. Focus on both in-person and online shopping experiences.
Among all the changes spurred by the pandemic, the transformation of the consumer journey—which has become increasingly digital—is perhaps the most important to consider as you look for ways to deliver optimal customer experiences. Prior to the pandemic, customers often made in-store purchasing decisions, leading retailers to emphasize in-store promotions, shelf placement plans, and other point of sale tactics in their overall sales strategies.
Now, the purchasing decision process looks markedly different. In-store experiences are more solitary, and consumers used to conducting research and making purchases online tend to do more planning before heading to the supermarket or shopping mall. CEO and co-founder of Breinify Diane Keng believes that a more thoughtful, deliberate consumer is less likely to be influenced by loyalty to a particular brand, whether they’re shopping in a store or online. “Consumers are able to switch brands faster, conduct more research on their purchases, and are more aware of the digital experiences that brands are providing across channels,” she says. “If you’re not providing optimized experiences, consumers are quick to switch to another option—regardless of how good your products might be.” This year, brands must focus on both online and offline touchpoints if they hope to capture some of that pent-up consumer demand.
2. Optimize your supply chain to avoid inventory mishaps.
The surge in online shopping accompanying the pandemic has created pressure on brands to provide swift delivery options, regardless of where customers are or what they order. Sometimes, however, that pressure isn’t as real as it seems, and it often depends on the products in question. For instance, the Google and Boston Consulting Group study referenced above notes that many consumers report receiving products such as sneakers before they need or expect them. However, more than one-quarter of people shopping for major appliances and similar products have reported frustrating delays in shipping.
If you’re struggling to adapt to the impacts of inflation or to meet surges in demand during peak seasons, don’t wait until the holidays arrive to assess your inventory management processes. According to IBM, roughly one-third of consumers are worried that global supply chain issues—which have created shipping delays throughout the pandemic—will persist into the holiday season and affect their ability to purchase gifts. Prove them wrong by ensuring you have the ability to track and perform fulfillment based on real-time data. With a single inventory tracking system, you can get a comprehensive view of your inventory as well as fulfillment risks and opportunities. This visibility allows you to adjust everything from marketing to hiring and deliver a customer experience that matches or exceeds expectations.
3. Implement contactless payment systems.
The widespread pivot toward distanced payment options was mostly driven by safety concerns, but it has also created many other advantages for retailers. As the pandemic lingers on, stores relying on physical payment systems must go to great lengths to keep them sanitized, sacrificing money and employees’ time. Visa’s president of technology, Rajat Taneja, puts it this way: “As countries around the world continue to increase tap-to-pay transaction limits, contactless payments are here to stay and their adoption will accelerate.”
Plus, by phasing out physical payment methods in favor of touchless options, retailers add convenience and flexibility to the customer experience. Consumers still care about safety and hygiene, of course, but by adapting to the many different ways they’re now paying for products in stores, you’ll also have more opportunities to drive conversions. Plus, touch-to-pay technology masks credit card numbers, adding a new layer of security to the shopping experience. As concerns about data privacy and cybercrime persist in the new normal, ensuring you can keep customer information safe will be critical to staying profitable.
4. Use technology to drive in-store engagement.
Contactless payment systems aren’t the only technology you can implement to improve in-store customer experiences. Using digital channels in-store can be an excellent way to create omnichannel messaging that pushes the customer journey forward. For example, screens displaying holiday promotions and shoppable QR codes will help move shoppers from consideration to action at the point of sale and enhance the look and feel of your store in the process.
According to Bob Marsh, chief revenue officer at Bluewater, the use of in-store technology fits into three categories. “First is the checkout experience, where we’ve already seen big leaps in technology such as self-checkout,” says Marsh. “Second is wayfinding and crowd management, where retailers are using technology to monitor where people are congregating and how they’re moving through the store. Third is high-end fixtures and displays that incorporate technology to help customers make better decisions.”
In the new normal, in-store experiences will increasingly center on educating customers and guiding them toward the choices that most align with their preferences. With the help of technology, companies can make this easier, ensuring that evolving consumer preferences remain aligned with their business objectives—and that their 2021 holiday season is successful.