Trading goes on: Retail in the endemic

Woman placing a customer order in a shop
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Over the past two years we have heard the phrase ‘new normal’ reiterated time and time again. Despite the term being repeated ad nauseam, we’re moving to a stage where a new normal has well and truly been forged. The curtailing of Plan B measures, and the Government lifting social restrictions, means we’re entering an ‘endemic’.

About the author

James Stokes is Enterprise Team Lead for UK and Ireland at Infobip.

The ‘endemic’ will be characterized by two things – the fact that COVID will cast a shadow over society for a long time, and second, that there’s now a corresponding acceptance of its presence, and a keenness to recreate an atmosphere of 2019 ‘business as usual’. One sector that has and will continue to adapt in tandem with these societal shifts is retail.

Revamping retail for the new normal

The high street has become a symbol of the pandemic in many ways, with images of empty shopping parades when restrictions initially took hold, followed by views of bustling retail centers when lockdowns eased. Now, to ensure the long-term health of retail, retailers will be looking to diversify offerings.

2022 will be a year of concerted investments from retailers into developing technology and improving online and physical in-store offerings. One Gartner survey found that 95% of retail CEOs plan to increase investments in digital capabilities, and this will funnel into the emerging hybrid approach. Customers are using a blend of digital and physical channels when buying their items. With this in mind, more retailers will be looking to enhance and enrich retail experiences through digitalization, for example, directing people online when they can’t find what they want in-store, or being able to return purchases made online using QR codes.

Whether a customer prefers in-store shopping or online browsing, those brands enabling a hybrid shopping experience will reign supreme. In this article, I will discuss how retailers should look to provide a holistic customer experience (CX) by managing interactions on digital platforms, keeping on top of proactive communication, and providing long-term customer support to help with post-purchase wants and needs.

1. Using tech to prep

When uncertainty is the only certainty, preparation should be a key focus for retailers. Brands need to apply the same vigor to digital channels as they do to beautifying window displays of flagship stores. So, what does this look like? It’s about having strong digital touchpoints in place. This can be achieved by enabling things like email subscriptions, simplifying signups, and growing excitement with advance notice of, and early access to, discounts.

Studying your customer journey is key. Find where there’s a risk of customers dropping off by examining things like a high bounce rate on the checkout page. Use technology to build resources around these drop-off points to re-engage them. This could be as simple as activating an AI chatbot on your website, capable of managing a simple FAQs or assisting customers with a transaction, but that also gives access to live agents, should a query require human support. Or you could even expand your communication channels to WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, providing customers with conversational support on the channels you know they enjoy using.

2. Proactive, personalized communication

Personalization, natural communication and the ability to move conversations between channels is what makes a high-quality brand experience – and setting this up off-peak enables you to scale it during your peak seasons. We know that interactions across digital channels are only going to increase – in fact, Infobip’s communications platform processed an unprecedented total of 2.28bn interactions across all channels including SMS, voice, email, push and Chatapps on Black Friday last year, a 62% increase from a normal working Friday.

To ensure they’re prepared for such a significant influx in traffic over these key shopping periods, retailers must arm themselves with the best customer engagement and CX tools possible to drive sales and acquire new customers. Sending consumers cart abandonment notifications and wish list reminders, for example, will help promote discounts before the sale ends. And once a consumer makes a purchase, automated confirmation emails and shipping notifications should be used to maintain loyalty.

It goes without saying that customers also look for a personalized experience where retail brands demonstrate a strong understanding of their needs and individual context. But according to our research, 74% of shoppers still see disjointed, depersonalized communications from brands – the reason as to why more than 1 in 5 people switched brand allegiance during the first COVID-19 lockdown. The main culprits for poor CX are siloed customer data and independently managed digital channels. They make it impossible to achieve a centralized view of the digital CX, which is essential for providing contextual experiences at scale. An omnichannel strategy, where all communications across channels are managed from central platform, is the only way.

3. Long-term customer support

Post-purchase digital support is more complex than when it was in-store. After all, there weren’t hectic shipping systems or aftersales advice to navigate – customers would simply take their purchases home, and they could speak to you in person if they had any questions or complaints.

The key to strong online support is pre-emptive communication. Let’s say a customer found a fantastic deal on your site, enjoyed a smooth checkout process, and is ready for their delivery. But then their purchase doesn’t arrive on time. To rescue CX from ruin, often all it takes is sending out a short SMS or email explaining the delay or staffing channels like Twitter direct messages so customers can quickly query their order.

Multi-channel communication should also be used for customer returns, surveys and sales. Imagine receiving a WhatsApp message telling you that the item you missed out on during the sale is now back in stock—and that you have priority access. It’s these personalized touches that take brands from a customer’s favored to a customer’s favorite. This will set your business up nicely ahead of purchasing peaks later in the year.

These tactics should be accompanied by a range of customer support options – especially as different demographics will have different preferences. Younger generations might be happy interacting with a chatbot to check product stock, while older consumers may prefer speaking to an adviser over the phone.

Learning from the past

The retail landscape has changed as much in the past year as it has over the past decade, with technology at the fore for any brand who wants to ace CX. Keeping up with customers on every step of the buyer’s journey is vital, while offering support and help online is the new MO.

As we enter the ‘endemic’ era, brands must step up their customer offerings on digital channels, to promote convenience through services like home delivery, alongside the availability of strong high street experiences. It’s not about digitalization for its own sake, but about what tools businesses can invest in to improve the buyer’s journey and nurture brand loyalty in the here and now.

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James Stokes is Enterprise Team Lead for UK and Ireland at Infobip.