Smarter strategies for harnessing digital in post-COVID e-commerce

Now that COVID-19 has shifted many businesses online, retailers are concerned about more competition, a seamless connection across channels and savvy multigenerational consumers.  Stephanie Millner, Vice President of CX Management at Teleperformance shares how retailers can foster loyalty and generate revenue through digital touchpoints.

According to etailinsights, there are 7.1 million e-tailers in the world; 1.8 million in the US. In 2019, these US retailers generated revenues of US$343 billion, making the country the second largest e-commerce market behind China. Then 2020 changed everything. COVID-19 created a new battleground for retail. Lockdown restrictions imposed new online shopping habits; supply chains were impacted by unprecedented demand. Competition took on a new meaning. Retailers that once relied on brick and mortar had to pivot to a new digital strategy, or lean heavily on existing online channels to survive.

Some retailers have struggled to navigate the uncertainty brought by COVID-19, yet others have embraced digital and seen unprecedented growth. The key to this growth? A smarter use of all touchpoints that focuses on meaningful, personalized and value-add experiences.

An industry in constant disruption

As a result of COVID, digitalization has moved exponentially faster in retail. E-tailers are adapting to constant disruption. For the first time in human history, there are five generations all living, working and now social distancing simultaneously. Generations are working in tandem to manage purchasing decisions. Older demographics are becoming digitally savvy. Consumers across demographics want shortcuts. When they spend their time, they want more value for the exchange of time.

In a saturated market, retailers are adapting their online presence to reach more consumers, generate more revenue and offer more goods. It’s a retail race; a fight for attention in an era of brand promiscuity. With purchasing behaviors changing rapidly, the conundrum for retailers is which channels to use for authentic engagement? How can you use these channels effectively to foster long-term loyalty?

Be where the customers are

Essentially, retailers should be where their customers are. It’s easy to jump on the latest social bandwagon or mobile craze. But do those channels make sense for the retailer’s business, and for its customers? Pre-pandemic, mobile apps were in use by one third of customers. Mobile app adoption is forecasted to grow to 38% in 2021, and that growth may be accelerated further due to COVID-19. But apps – like any other customer contact point – aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions for all brands. It’s a similar story for live interaction via voice. While voice is arguably on a downward trend, there are some retailers trying to remove voice completely from the customer touchpoint mix. Voice is not going away! Consumers still prefer this channel for more complex issues or questions related to emotional purchases. Retailers need to ask themselves why a particular channel may or may not be relevant for their business and their customer base, depending on the sector in which they operate, brand personality, mission, values and customer preferences/typical queries. What does the customer want?

It’s also important to recognize that customers bounce from channel to channel depending on the scenario. A working mother may prefer to use chat with her favorite brand as she multitasks at work, but prefers voice when she’s driving her son to school. It’s critical retailers don’t lose the full spectrum of their audience by leaning on the wrong channels, or make assumptions on channel preferences. Just as important, retailers shouldn’t require the customer to move to a new or different channel because they can’t fully service them in the place they began engagement. Retailers need to think about how the channels connect and how that could influence engagement strategies and the content used to reach consumers.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

As well as understanding which channels make sense for the brand and customers, it’s imperative that those channels are used in the most effective way. Retailers need to start thinking beyond simply what’s in their stores, and instead at how consumers are navigating those stores and engaging with the brand. The aim is to simplify the experience – remove friction and provide value-added experiences. But it’s impossible to remove friction if you don’t know it exists.

While recently making an in-store purchase in the technology section of a major retailer, I was asked if I had the mobile app. When I confirmed I did, the brand employee inquired if I knew how to maximize the tool and apply my customer loyalty points towards the purchase. The brand employee then had me show him my app and walked me through how my previous spend had accumulated points that could be applied as a type of “coupon” for a reduced price. I had no idea this was an option! This example of incorporating mobile into the in-store experience tied my eCommerce shopping, mobile app and in-store together for me.

Retailers should be encouraging and prompting more meaningful dialogue beyond ‘did you find everything you need today?’ If the employee had simply asked if I found what I needed, it would have been the end of our engagement. Yes, I found what I needed. What he did instead was to discuss my experience and add value to the in-store experience and as a result, my loyalty.

Retailers need to ask the right questions in order to maximize engagement. Focus the dialogue on to help customers in the future, or what they enjoyed about the experience. Educate shoppers on all of the functions of each channel – how does functionality of the website differ from the app? How do they tie together? Can the customer mark products of interest in an app and easily navigate the retailer’s floor plan through the mobile app location finder once they arrive at the store? Make it as easy as possible for a consumer to get everything they need. Keep it simple.

The Human Touch

Maintaining support, particularly during a pandemic and now the resurges, is critical for a retailer. Keeping customer service channels up and running with lockdowns in place can be challenging, but consumers are far more likely to need support, particularly with reliance on online retail increasing. It’s clear that consumers won’t be allowed to – or are reluctant to – return to brick and mortar stores in the coming months as frequently as they did in the past. Yet, while the sector is heavily relying on digital channels to keep afloat in the current environment, the best brands will blend high-tech with high-touch and emotional and personalized experiences at scale.