From small local boutiques to iconic department stores, no corner of the retail sector has been untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the separation between winners and losers has never been so stark. For every mall chain declaring bankruptcy, there’s a competitor that’s quickly responded to the new normal and is reaping the revenue benefits.
It’s not all chaos, though. There are key customer experience (CX) trends lurking within the turmoil. Adapting to them can mean the difference between thriving or becoming yet another retail casualty of the coronavirus.
Offer Order Pickup Flexibility
"Contactless" has become one of the major retail buzzwords of the pandemic, as almost every brand rushed to put in place options for order pickup that doesn’t require shoppers to enter a physical store or have face-to-face contact with an employee.
Even prior to the pandemic, buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and buy online, ship to store (BOSS) was rapidly growing order fulfillment options, with 90 percent of retailers planning to implement some form of BOPIS in 2021. Now, they’ve become the new retail table stakes, with BOPIS usage rates growing exponentially over the past year.
Effective communication is often overlooked, but a tremendously important aspect of flexible pickup capabilities since the processes and specifics (e.g., whether dedicated parking is available and where to go) vary widely. Customers need clear and timely communication tied to each step of the process.
Mobile buying is also up (by some measures over 40 percent), and customers coming to a store to pick up a package are definitely on their mobile device. Therefore, communication optimized for mobile experiences, such as automated chat instead of website navigation, is also key.
Make Order Tracking Easy
With on-time shipping rates for the major carriers declining significantly year-over-year, shippers and retailers alike saw the writing on the wall and began beating the drum about anticipated 2020 holiday order delays back in October.
While consumers have grudgingly resigned themselves to waiting longer for orders, in return, they’re expecting real-time order lookup information that allows them to track and plan for deliveries. While simple tracking updates (Your order has shipped!) used to be the norm, the bar has been raised and brands offering robust, cross-channel order support and communications are leading the pack.
With split shipments growing significantly (many retailers are seeing split shipments in excess of 20 percent), much higher fidelity communication is critical. Information about the package isn't sufficient; retailers need to communicate about what's in the box and its relationship to the entire order.
Get Returns Right
The pandemic has dramatically accelerated an existing shift toward e-commerce and away from in-person shopping.
This means the need to control the volume of returns and make the return process as seamless and user-friendly as possible is critical — not every purchase is a winner after all. And since there are more changes and disruptions to the shipping process than ever before, providing your customers with timely, updated information on their return status via their channel of choice is the best way to avoid frustrated shoppers flooding your call center with inquiries.
Flexibility in returns is also important. For retailers with stores, consumers may find returning to the store more convenient and less expensive than shipping. Making that process easy and allowing the consumer to change her mind at the last minute creates a solid customer experience that will lead to long-term value for the retailer.
Support Deep Pre-Purchase Discovery
With returns becoming more complicated and in-person browsing curtailed, shoppers are relying more heavily on pre-purchase research before pulling the trigger on their shopping list. Add to this high unemployment and an increased consumer focus on saving over spending, and brands need to go the extra mile to answer shoppers’ questions upfront to earn the sale. Smart retailers are identifying ways to meet a demand for more robust pre-purchase discovery. This means the ability to immediately answer detailed product questions (not FAQs) online without having to navigate product pages (on-site, artificial intelligence-driven webchat tied to the product catalog) and innovations like “virtual fitting rooms."
Understand Digital-First is Non-Negotiable
The pandemic has drawn a line in the sand between retailers that have put e-commerce first (and thrived) and those that haven’t (and struggled). Those that have embraced digital, like Best Buy, Target, Lowe’s, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, have seen huge year-over-year growth while competitors shuttered their doors.
Analyst firm Forrester recommends retailers that have been delaying a much-needed overhaul of their digital operations move quickly. It advises these retailers to act decisively by focusing resources on their brand’s core competencies in digital and outsourcing everything else to trusted vendors.
To refer to the pandemic era as “unprecedented times” has almost become a cliche, but that makes the description no less true. Within the retail sector, brands have been challenged with responding to rapid, real-time shifts in consumer behavior and expectations without the luxury of the typical strategic planning horizon. Those that have risen to the challenge have invested with speed, agility and creativity, intuitively understanding, responding to, and, in some cases, anticipating the trends that are reshaping the post-COVID CX landscape.
Improving Data Quality
When customer data lives in multiple tools and systems, you’re bound to uncover duplicate data, discrepancies and errors. Amending the data in order for it to be useful can be a tedious and involved process — not to mention, often manual. Creating a single customer view eliminates the need to manually deduplicate, cleanse and fix your data prior to using it.
A conversational layer can connect disparate systems for a seamless service to the consumer and provide structured and detailed information about consumers' queries, needs and journeys.
Durk Stelter is the chief revenue officer of Linc Global, a CX automation platform delivering pre-built, world-class customer experiences at scale.
Related story: 5 CX Lessons Learned in 2020 to Be Applied in 2021