We are not the same people we were one year ago. Living through a pandemic has changed the way we think, feel, and behave for good. However, it’s also true that we were going through major changes even before the pandemic hit.
Retail is no Different
This same theory applies to retail, an industry that is witnessing one of the most accelerated digital disruptions in its history. Pre COVID, we had already started seeing some signs of this disruption in the form of e-commerce (take consumer electronics as an example) and the desire for a more personalized and authentic experience for businesses such as cafes, consumer goods, and others.
It’s no secret that all of these underlying factors were already happening to businesses, but when the pandemic came around, it served as the final push for many. The global pandemic acted as a catalyst for e-commerce growth – online sales grew by as much as 70% across categories such as groceries, sports and wellness, and personal care products. This presented huge opportunities for digitization. The message to retail was clear: disrupt or be disrupted.
We can only hope that the pandemic will be stopped in its tracks eventually, but we have to be ready for its continued impact on our lives and businesses. In the short term, companies have to think about how to remain relevant to their customers, how to cover running costs to sustain themselves and, how they can best support their people and their extended communities.
In the long run, businesses have to think hard about the innovations they need to incorporate to stay relevant. One of the first questions they need to ask is: Where does our value as a business sit, how can we improve how we deliver it, and the customer experience around it?
For some businesses, it will be a matter of changing or improving the product or service they provide. For others, it might be a complete revamp of their environment and the customer journey or the business model itself. If we take a closer look at the types of businesses that will require digitization and change, we can classify them into three categories:
- The Essential: these are businesses that we have to go to, such as clinics, salons, and certain public service establishments. As soon as lockdowns are lifted, people will start flocking to them again. Such businesses have to go out of their way to make sure they are safe environments for visitors. Adapting technology mainly in the form of remote services will enable these businesses to succeed.
- The Leisure: these are businesses that we enjoy visiting. As restrictions are eased, people will want to visit their favorite restaurants, cafes, shopping outlets, and others, albeit more reluctantly than before the pandemic. Visitors will choose the most trusted locations after checking safety measures, cleanliness, and other factors. Online shopping and delivery might have helped these businesses get by, but they won’t be able to survive without a serious change in offering or branding. Technology can be crucial for these businesses to complement and provide a safe, out-of-the-box offering that the customers of the future are looking for.
- The potentially obsolete: There are several offline businesses that we would rather never physically visit again. Think about banks, travel agencies, and bookshops. All of these will need to transform their businesses and digitize or they will be made obsolete in a few years.
Thriving Post COVID-19
A new, fresh approach is needed for companies of all stripes to thrive in the post-COVID-19 landscape. Here are some steps that these businesses need to take if they want to succeed in this new era:
- Staying nimble and agile, testing new business models quickly, and shuffle their teams if need be.
- Creating an environment of innovation and taking a leadership role in relevant industries.
- Taking advantage of what digitization can offer to complement the offline and physical experience of a brick-and-mortar business.
- Creating and working within an ecosystem of partners. Relationships are important, and no one can succeed working alone.
Reimagining the Customer Experience
When it comes to customer experience in the world of retail, brands have to focus on how to deliver the core retail experience while leveraging digitization in order to improve the delivery of their product or service:
- Relationships: Digitization and automation will help brands develop intimate and customized relationships the same way a small shop would remember every customer’s name and “usual order”. Technology will enable businesses to do this at a larger scale through analytics and AI coupled with user profiles and location-based services. It is worth mentioning that this will bring security and data privacy issues into the limelight, which is why businesses will need to continue to adopt high standards in protecting data in a fully digitized retail environment.
- Discovery: While online remains the easiest way to discover a brand or a service, businesses should not forget to incorporate curated physical inspection capabilities. Where fashion stores suggest that you shop additional items to finish the look, music streaming apps categorize music playlists by mood and introduce listeners to new artists.
- Engagement: Retail is more than shopping for a product. It is also about the shopper’s experience, the conversations they have in store, the help they receive from the specialist, and other engagements they experience inside a physical space. Technology can help businesses introduce engaging experiences and interactive memories during a customer’s journey.
- Information: In the digital age, shopping is no longer just picking up a product off the shelf because we saw it in-store or watched a commercial about it. Research plays an integral part in the behavior of the modern shopper. While we’re in a store, we often look up information about a product on the spot to check the origin, reviews, how to use it, and other useful information. It is not always easy to find all the answers we need immediately, so technologies as simple as Wi-Fi and QR codes with curated content can play an important role in facilitating this process, especially for impulse buying as opposed to pre-mediated buying.
While digitization comes in to help every step in the consumer journey, businesses should not forget the important role that marketing plays. Brands need to stay relevant mainly through a strong online presence but that’s not the only factor they need to keep in mind. They will also need to be grounded, humble, and sensitive. While the world goes through a pandemic, companies should not be viewed as profiteering or taking advantage to sell their services and products.
Creating customer membership groups or “tribes” will outplay loyalty programs because they create a unique rapport and shared responsibility between a brand and its customers, rather than limiting the relationship to point collection and redeemables. At the end of the day, we are all in this together.