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5 ways for retailers to improve the customer app experience in a COVID-19 world

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A year after COVID-19 first hit, overwhelming uncertainty about the future lingers on. Businesses have begun to reopen but there’s still a long road ahead, of economic restructuring and digital transformations to adapt to the new era. Although the pandemic affected every industry and business, in recessionary periods, it’s undoubtedly the retail sector that’s in the eye of the storm.

All sectors of the retail industry – from apparel & footwear, consumer durables & IT, jewelry & accessories, home décor & furnishings, to beauty & personal care – collectively face a downturn. Executives have been trying to understand what the future of retail looks like by implementing changes to their supply chains, inventory volumes, product prices and cost margins. But the instability of the pandemic makes it hard to make predictions. Harvard’s Research team noted that one-time interventions won’t be enough to control COVID-19 prevalence and without appropriate intervention, they fear the current scenario may drag on until 2022.

It’s not only the virus that’s adapting, but the consumer’s personal values have also evolved in a number of ways. In interacting with brands, their obsessive search for speed and personalization has been replaced by a desire for security and safety. The pandemic has driven people to look inwards to find aspirational meaning in their lives and a better understanding of their own identities (less about material possessions and status). Many consumers expect COVID-19 will have a negative impact on their finances for at least another four months. Resulting in a shift of their spending largely to essentials, such as groceries and household supplies, while cutting back on most discretionary categories.

Challenges for Offline Retailers

What’s the major challenge for retailers without an online presence? The ability to make customer experiences hassle-free, safe, intuitive, and easy-to-use with instant access to customer support. Large retailers like Walmart and Target reported stellar earnings during the pandemic, thanks to their earlier investments in ecommerce. Walmart saw a 97 percent increase in ecommerce sales in its last quarter. Both retailers also invested in online grocery, with Walmart today offering grocery pickup and delivery services (through its partners).

You don’t have to be a big-box retailer to see the kinds of results of Walmart and Target achieved. The key is creating a seamless omnichannel experience. Retailers need to stay relevant across multiple touchpoints, including their own website, ecommerce site, brick-and-mortar stores, multi-brand stores, combined with a first-class CRM system to foster trust through communication and offering incentives for first-time shoppers.

But most importantly, retailers must realise that it’s not enough to simply have a digital platform (website or app) anymore. Unless you’re a tech powerhouse like Apple with a cult-like consumer following, it’s impossible to build customer loyalty at a time when every retail brand is fighting for attention online. And so, having a rich and engaging customer experience (CX) is vital to the success of your online business.

WHAT IS CX?

Wikipedia defines CX as “the sum total of cognitive, affective, sensory and behavioral consumer responses during all stages of the consumption process including pre-purchase, consumption and post-purchase stages”. But it’s not as intimidating as Wikipedia makes it sound! It’s simply the overall perception your customers have of their interactions with your company.

A research by American Express found that 86 percent of customers are willing to pay more for a better experience. Additionally, the Temkin Group’s study found that companies who earn $1 billion annually can expect to earn, on average, an additional $700 million within three years of investing in customer experience. That’s a 70 percent increase in revenue within 36 months.

Given these benefits, I’ve outlined five things retailers can – and should – do to improve the app experience in a COVID-19 world.

1: Take A Data-Driven Approach

Funds might be limited for customers now, but they do have a surplus of time. It’s why digital platforms are recording all-time-high levels of engagement. A recent review of web analytics reveals a four-fold increase in Google searches for “data plan upgrade”. People need more and more bandwidth and there’s a real scope for retailers to shine.

We’ve seen scientists publish countless amounts of pandemic-related data on lost jobs, industry impact, the shape of the curve, latest predictions and more. The data keeps changing and the models keep evolving – and so should your strategies for decision-making. Consumers face unique challenges and the only way to provide them with a mind-blowing customer experience is by first understanding what their new needs are. Consider investing in data, technology and the systems required to deliver exceptional experiences by anticipating customer sentiment and customer value.

2: Trust Employee Insights To Solve Problems

Employees are a company’s eyes and ears. So, it’s advisable to start collecting employee feedback towards customers’ feelings and daily interactions. Sadly, this source of insight is the most underrated.

Another initiative retailers should consider undertaking in the next few months is mobilizing employees to share possible solutions whenever a customer flags an issue or expresses disappointment. Each individual brings a unique perspective, and it helps generate more ideas to respond to changing customer needs. Essentially, retailers can kill two birds with one stone. Delivering an exceptional customer experience and engaging with employees on the devices and in the channels they’re actively using.

3: Build Safety Into CX

As soon as the pandemic began, grocery stores designated special hours for elderly shoppers, clinics established drive-through service for fast, safe COVID-19 testing and car repair services started offering repair services and vehicle collection via mobile.

Companies that cared enough to make these adjustments clearly understand their customers’ needs and have adapted the app experience to match customers’ behaviours. Since the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, now is the time for retailers to rethink their customer experience strategies and implement contactless commerce. This move instantly puts customers at ease and increases their satisfaction by boosting safety across products and services.

4: Prepare For A Post COVID-19 World

According to a survey by McKinsey, in China there’s a 55% increase in consumers intending to permanently shift to online grocery shopping, and an increase of three to six percentage points in overall e-commerce penetration in the aftermath of COVID-19. Globally, once customers get used to digital or remote business models, chances are that they won’t want to give up the convenience of digital, low-touch retail.

So, retailers should be prepared to look at digital transformation as more than a stopgap solution to the current pandemic. It’s possible to capture lost sales volumes by leveraging mobile and geospatial data to optimize omnichannel options, such as buy online and pickup in store. Some retailers may also consider going ‘dark’ and using physical outlets for product fulfilment only.

5: Don’t Pause Innovation; Stay Agile

Since things are still shifting directions rapidly, it’s impossible to accurately predict the future of retail just yet. This means that retailers can’t afford to digitally transform and get lazy. If you want to be in touch with consumer needs and remain their favourite brand, you’ll have to accelerate the time to market for new apps, release innovations in their minimally viable condition and iterate without hesitation – rather than waiting to get them perfect.

The takeaway here is that customer experience is a game of grace. Much like a gymnast, if a retailer is nimble and sensitive to its consumers’ needs, it can build iron-clad relationships that will endure any future crisis.