Companies that closed or filed for bankruptcy in recent months couldn’t have predicted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for many retailers that were already struggling to engage customers, the crisis was simply the final straw.
Iconic retailers such as Lord & Taylor and Pier 1 Imports shuttered, while those that pivoted toward an e-commerce model long before the pandemic were better positioned for the rapid shift to digital shopping. Retailers must use this period to assess what changes should be made to drive business during the pandemic and beyond.
Rethinking Customer Connections
Although many retailers were hit hard by the pandemic, others adapted their strategies and focused on the channels customers used to engage their brand.
Tractor Supply Co., a brand that services shoppers in rural areas of the U.S., quickly pivoted its customer engagement to offer curbside pickup and same/next-day delivery. The move paid off for the rural lifestyle retailer — its e-commerce growth tripled during the second quarter of 2020. Tractor Supply attributed the pandemic growth to more Americans focusing on the care of their homes, land and pets. By shifting its engagement strategy accordingly, the retailer was prepared for the surge in demand, with second quarter year-over-year sales skyrocketing by 35 percent.
While the pandemic is still an unpredictable environment, it’s also full of opportunities for brands to innovate and adapt. However, if your brand doesn’t modify its engagement strategy to channels customers use in a time when budgets are tight, you could lose out on valuable market share. Innovation cannot stop as we continue moving forward during the pandemic.
Refining Customer Engagement in an Unpredictable Environment
To avoid the atrophy many retailers experienced during the pandemic, you must determine the core elements of success. Taking the steps to identify these components will define how your brand connects with customers — and how it will succeed in the COVID business landscape.
1. Shift messaging to the consumer mindset.
To leverage consumer behavior metrics, tailor your messaging to speak to the shared experience we’re all living.
Ensure your customer acquisition tactics speak to consumers' needs. Let’s say you’re a clothing retailer. With spring coming, emphasize the sale of outdoor gear that can help shoppers stay active, engaging in activities such as outdoor walks or exercise.
2. Lead consumers through new funnels.
COVID-19 forced retailers to adopt multiple purchase options. We saw this earlier in the pandemic when stores like Walmart and Target added new customer funnels such as curbside pickup and grocery delivery.
Your organization should always be on the lookout for new funnels to gain shoppers, especially during a pandemic that has dramatically shifted in-person behavior. Take a liquor retailer, for instance. With the increasing popularity of alcohol delivery, these stores should consider how delivery partners such as Uber Eats and Drizly can help acquire more customers.
3. Make data-informed decisions.
Given the rapid changes expected in the COVID retail era, you should always keep a heightened pulse on where customer engagement shifts. To stay nimble, let consumer data lead your decision making. Where are customers engaging your brand most? What channels are competitors lacking in that your brand could exploit? Analyze this information and use it to alter your marketing strategy.
A great example of data usage lies outside of retail in Chipotle Mexican Grill. When in-door dining abruptly shut down at the pandemic’s start, the restaurant chain quickly pivoted to offer free delivery on its mobile app. Chipotle also doubled down on marketing channels such as Instagram ads, Facebook promotions for free queso on National Burrito Day, and buy one, donate one burrito deals for healthcare workers to drive mobile app downloads. As a result, Chipotle saw its reach skyrocket by 52 percent and 3.5x return on ad spend.
The COVID retail landscape can shift at virtually any time. But by acting with a consumer-first mindset, adapting purchase funnels, and planning with data, you can lay the foundation for your customer engagement strategy and stay relevant during the pandemic.
Drew Kraemer is the CEO at Code3, a company that helps leading brands find, reach, and engage customers, anywhere in the world, on every digital platform.
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