Evaluating Consumer Trends in a Post-Shutdown Holiday Season
The 2021 holiday season brought with it several trends and surprising changes to consumer habits that were unexpected across the retail industry. After nearly two years of sporadic lockdowns and social distancing, it’s unsurprising to many that, for the first time in history, brands experienced a year-over-year decline in online sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday as shoppers seemingly chose to venture to brick-and-mortar locations rather than utilizing their devices from home.
Among the more ubiquitous trends were the challenges businesses faced when it came to supply chain issues and staffing shortages for much-needed customer service and support roles — two problems that unfortunately went hand in hand.
While the holiday season has always delivered an influx of customer inquiries, this year’s inventory issues and delivery delays had call centers and support teams seeing an unprecedented increase in outreach. This rise in activity, coupled with a severe worker shortage, had many businesses on the ropes as they desperately tried to maintain an acceptable level of customer service.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 10.1 million job openings in June 2021 —and that number continued to escalate throughout the year. As worker demands and expectations continue to rise, employers have had to rethink their hiring tactics, with some businesses turning to incentives such as hiring bonuses, flexible schedules and attendance incentives.
Unfortunately, many customer support teams haven’t seen an increase in budget or resources over the past year to adequately facilitate these new tactics. And with seasonal work often being temporary, their efforts to entice new talent have fallen short.
To combat this lack of labor, many businesses have set their sights on leveraging automation within their customer experience (CX) strategy. This approach has a number of benefits beyond just cost savings.
From intelligent automated chat tools that deliver in-depth product knowledge and eliminate barriers in the buying process, to holistic post-purchase order support that transcends traditional track-and-trace, businesses that utilize these modern solutions are not only winning over new customers but retaining them as well.
That’s because these solutions give customers the freedom to interact and shop the way they want to. With a variety of self-service features that allow customers to facilitate their own returns and exchanges, 24/7 on-demand support for both product and policy questions, and a natural agnosticism for the conversational channels where this communication takes place, brands are finally delivering service on customers’ terms, not theirs.
This effective communication via proactive notifications and two-way conversation has been an especially notable differentiator for consumers who opt for in-store fulfilment options, such as buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) or buy online, ship from store (BOSS).
A report by Coresight Research stated that 26 percent of shoppers in 2021 planned to leverage in-store pickup options, but that 73 percent of retailers found that form of order fulfilment difficult to facilitate. This was largely due to improper communication methods that made it difficult to orchestrate these pickups. That’s where the proactive notifications of modern CX automation solutions come in..
This year alone, brands saw opt-in rates for these service notifications increase dramatically. Subsequently, the ease at which these brands were able to facilitate BOSS, BOPIS and buy now, pay later (BNPL) fulfillment improved in tandem.
The experiential difference between brands that utilize automation and those that don’t isn’t just obvious to industry insiders; consumers notice it as well. With consumer expectations at an all-time high, retailers can’t afford to deliver anything less than a stellar customer experience.
In time, CX automation will be the biggest competitive differentiator when it comes to consumer loyalty. And those that already utilize automation are leagues ahead of their less savvy competitors.
Fang Cheng is the CEO of Linc, a customer experience automation platform.
Related story: The Evolution of Post-Purchase Solutions to Create a More Holistic Customer Journey
Fang Cheng is the CEO and co-founder of Linc Global, a customer care automation platform that helps brands differentiate themselves with automated services and experiences across the channels shoppers prefer. Linc Global has served over 15 percent of U.S. shoppers, creating a competitive advantage, reducing customer service costs, and turning service interactions into new engagement and revenue. Linc Global's clients include Carter’s, eBags, Stein Mart, Lamps Plus, JustFab.com, Tarte, Hugo Boss, Vineyard Vines, and P&G Shop.
With a passion and relentlessness for improving the customer experience, Fang brought together a seasoned team of technologists and product-minded people to empower brands with the ability to serve and engage shoppers and to drive profitable growth in the face of rising competition and customer expectations. With a Ph.D. in bioinformatics from NYU, Fang previously co-founded a business acquired by Amazon, and prior to that, she worked as a hedge fund manager.