This article was originally published in Advertising Week 360 @ advertisingweek360.com and American Marketing Association @ ama.org
You don’t have to look far to understand the impact the pandemic has had on the retail industry over the past few months. The terms “curbside pickup” and “contactless delivery” are now in the everyday lexicon for major cities and rural towns across the US. COVID-19 has forced shoppers to change their purchasing habits and, in turn, the retail industry has had to rethink its approach almost overnight.
With consumers mostly confined to their homes this spring, online shopping increased 77% year over year, totaling $82.5 billion in May alone. This forced change in behavior will lead to a permanent change in consumers and have a lasting impact on the retail industry. One-click purchasing, price comparisons in seconds, and new platforms for shopping are just the start. Here are three key trends successful retailers have embraced during the pandemic—and how we all can stay ahead in this ever-changing landscape.
Rethinking customer experience
- What’s changed: More than ever, consumers are looking to make a connection. Successful retailers stand out in how they’ve optimized their online experiences to include immersive websites and bridge the human connection remotely. For example, Kiehl’s is offering digital consultations for skin care, and Gucci has created on-demand video calls, where in-store employees track in real time what customers are browsing online and virtually share the items with them over a call. And retailers carrying larger-ticket items, like Best Buy and West Elm, are relying on socially distant, in-person appointments to allow customers to better interact with the product and have one-on-one experiences with sales associates.
- What’s next: Retailers will rethink customer service and personalized experiences at scale. Machine learning technology will be used more broadly to offer online chat support, similar to Walmart’s Ask Sam employee tool. Augmented reality will be readily available to help picture what a dining room set could look like in a home or to upload measurements and virtually try on a pair of jeans.
- Why we’re paying attention: Customer expectations and technology are moving fast—and the brands that put top-notch customer service and innovation first will succeed.
Rethinking customer experience
- What’s changed: Consumers are now spending more time with screens than ever before and companies are capitalizing on this trend. Sales via social media platforms are increasing and video platforms are becoming shoppable. Google recently launched Shoploop, where creators post shoppable 90-second videos. Similarly, YouTube is now featuring browsable product images below their videos that drive to the product site. These features are not unlike what’s rolling out this year on Facebook and Instagram, where related products can soon be featured at the bottom of a live video. To help retailers launch online stores during the pandemic, Facebook is expanding Shops so that a user can shop, chat with customer service, pay, and track a purchase all within the platform. Retailers will even be able to integrate their CRM. In stores, Apple recently acquired Mobeewave, which makes payment easier by turning iPhones into payment processors, without the need for a card reader. And later this year, CVS is expanding its touchless payment options, using QR codes in partnership with PayPal and Venmo.
- What’s next: Reducing the barrier to purchase further, TV will become shoppable to a mass audience, starting with the introduction of NBCUniversal Checkout, where viewers can select a featured product in a video and make a purchase all without leaving the video. Post-purchase, expect auto-replenishment ads and notifications to be the norm.
- Why we’re paying attention: More data on shoppers via social media enables marketers to pull from enhanced insights for more specific ad targeting, personalization of suggested products, and, ultimately, increased sales.
Redesigning for flexibility
- What’s changed: With more consumers buying online, retailers have had to find ways to ship the same day or next day to meet increasing expectations. To compete with Amazon Prime, Walmart Plus will soon offer a lower annual membership fee, same-day delivery, and time-saving perks for in-person checkout. Retailers are offering convenience by shipping products purchased in-store to customers’ homes or cars, or delivering products purchased online via curbside pickup. These enhancements rely on a diversified supply chain not only focused on fulfillment centers but also on shipments from stores. To compete, leaders are focused on more robust supply chains, like Amazon’s investment in Reliance Retail—India’s largest retail chain—and its interest in turning American malls into fulfillment centers.
- What’s next: Mass availability of hyperlocal delivery across the globe. With major competitors already investing heavily in this technology, Walmart launched Flipkart Quick, which boasts 90-minutes-or-less delivery across 2,000 items in the suburbs of Bangalore by sourcing products from neighborhood stores and warehouses. With the increased demand for hyperlocal delivery during the pandemic in the US, we expect to see similar trends in India, but optimized to account for grocery essentials and perishables.
- Why we’re paying attention: Speed wins in the ecommerce era and these new innovations will surely be tested during the holiday season this year. Customer expectations will increase not only when it comes to delivery times, but across all aspects of the retail marketing space.
The monumental changes in the retail industry will impact how consumers come to expect their entire journey with a brand’s customer service, purchasing options, and flexible delivery needs. The most successful brands will be those that adapt to the pandemic-induced shifts that have invariably transformed the retail landscape.