Covid-19 crisis & omnichannel experience design in retail
The pandemic has brought about tectonic shifts in consumer behavior.
The Covid crisis has upended the entire retail industry, forcing many physical retailers to permanently pull down the shutters. These sudden shifts in the supply logistics side have given rise to a new hybrid form of an effective retail channel that serves customers through multiple touchpoints, aka, a digital-first omnichannel experience.
What is the meaning of omnichannel experience in the retail industry?
An omnichannel customer experience in the retail domain refers to a seamless connection between diverse customer touchpoints, including both offline and online, allowing customers to pick up where they left off without any discontinuity or interruption.
With the onset of the pandemic,digital-first omnichannel retailers have pivoted to the new set of customer needs more effectively compared to only physical retail stores. Research reveals that retail brands and organizations that can swiftly transform their omnichannel response to create a unique customer experience are the ones who will emerge stronger from the current crisis situation.
It’s a known fact that CX (customer experience) leaders show higher resilience during catastrophic situations (be it the pandemic or 2008 financial crisis), facing shallower troughs and experiencing faster recoveries.
To stay relevant in such trying times, it’s important to embrace a digital-first approach for the retail omnichannel experience. And this journey begins by understanding the whole new dimensions along which the needs of an average retail customer have changed.
Pandemic and evolution of the new consumer
The concept of omnichannel experience in retail is not an entirely new concept.
Many retail brands have already undergone some level of digital transformation which has helped them stay afloat in the current pandemic phase. However, what the pandemic has unleashed before us is the evolution of a new kind of retail consumer.
The purchasing behavior of users across the globe has been altered to the point that a new breed of retail consumer has emerged. The kind that not only relies heavily on online shopping. But also who refrains from visiting the store unless they have a huge & compelling reason. As long as the virus continues to circulate physical visits to stores will continue to be a risky affair.
This implies a digital-first omnichannel retail experience is here to stay.
Retail brands have to operate by reimagining their entire business strategy against this backdrop. They must take into account the
- Evolved needs of a typical consumer
- Carefully chart user journey throughout the purchase process
- Address the needs arising within each channel
- Design a comprehensive & connected experience for their users
How to design for omnichannel experience for retail in a pandemic-hit world?
A distinct mark of a successful retail business is the presence of effective omnichannel strategies. The kind that seamlessly integrates physical and digital channels. And the one that keeps their consumers engaged on their platform. What has been observed lately in the retail industry is that
In-person interaction frequency has plummeted, completely taken over digital engagement
E-commerce sales in areas such as beauty, apparel, and department stores have increased by 10%, globally speaking.
E-commerce penetration in the grocery segment has increased from the pre-covid levels of 2-3% to a current 8-10%.
Keeping in mind these major (& minor) shifts in consumer behavior topped with a generous serving of pandemic-induced alterations, your retail business must work towards including these in your strategy.
Omnichannel experience design with a digital-first approach
How to make digital retail design the real MVP in your entire omnichannel experience?
Drive traffic to your digital assets & touchpoints
In order to compensate for the reduced foot traffic dial up the digital traffic acquisition game for your retail brand. This implies increased investment towards your digital channels and marketing bringing about online customer behavior changes that influence buying decisions. From paid searches to stunning social media marketing channels with improved “shoppability” (clickable content) are going to set the trend.
New & improved digital channel engagement
Be it a seamless mobile app or efficient POS experience design, around 40-50% of retailers have heavily invested in making their retail brand’s omnichannel experience reach out to a wider audience. You can see leading B2C brands today building strong online communities and engaging with their audience in a non-formal, humane, and conversational way. And it’s not just about social media banter. From virtual workout sessions to open QnA to a diverse range of online contests, your retail brand should work on building a strong & engaged digital community through shared values.
A friction-less digital experience
Site speed, stability, & delivery times, and more - your customers are evaluating your retail experience through many such factors. To keep up with the rising demands of an omnichannel retail experience, retail brands must foremost work towards building high-speed websites/web pages optimized for a seamless shopping experience. These must be high-functioning pages with a strong and consistent marketing message throughout.
Innovation in the retail omnichannel experience
The aim of the omnichannel retail experience is to bring together the best of both worlds - online and offline together to create a synergistic experience. You can accomplish this by -
In-store experience to the digital channels
The best example of this is personalized sales appointments via virtual platforms through videoconferencing and live streaming events to engage customers by providing thorough experiential content. Building, engaging, and sustaining a loyal digital audience through a massive online community is the key to building a loyal customer base in a time where people cant spot your products/brand on a billboard or shopping mall, or a brick-and-mortar store. Another important way to bring the best of the in-store experience to the digital world is by de-risking online purchases. For example, a lot of buyers are unsure how a particular piece of clothing or jewelry would look on them. In such cases, the retail brand can blend tech such as 360-view, view in 3D, AR/VR, etc to give their customers a real-life store experience.
Have a diversified delivery model
COVID-19 has increased the need for safe delivery modes, including curbside pickup and aggregator delivery: around 22% of American consumers now rely on delivery services more than they were before the crisis. Retail stores also have to rethink the way they are collaborating with 3PLs to accelerate the entire delivery process without compromising on accuracy. These models can be based on the niche - fast fashion or FMCG or electronics and address the specific needs of the industry.
Foster strategic partnerships
Partnering across retail delivery channels will give you a chance to add convenience and boost revenues. These powerful, synergistic ecosystems will help you exploit the potential of established networks. And gain access to new logistics capabilities such as same-day delivery or COD.
Aim for SafeX, aka Safer Experiences for omnichannel retail store experience
We are living in an era where safety and physical distancing are of utmost importance, more than ever before. Even if your customer is opting to walk into your retail store, they must be able to enter and exit the store ASAP. This means you have to design for Safer Experience or SafeX in your physical store.
This begins with strict adherence to all covid-19 safety guidelines. Right from safe distances across the store, frequent sanitizing of surfaces, as far as possible touchless payment methods, and more.
In addition to the SafeX protocols, retailers must focus on reducing overall costs. These are associated with heightened physical safety guidelines and enhanced operational efficiency. This can be done by shifting the focus towards online sales.
This presents a host of challenges and opportunities for the retail brand to enhance its customer experience while safely trimming down operational costs.
Retail outlets that were shut down during the pandemic and are planning to reopen for the public possess a fresh new opportunity. The chance to reimagine themselves with newer, more efficient systems. The ones that create a new brand image in the minds of the consumers.
Because of physical distancing and other limitations, retail brands have to rethink a lot of processes. These include opening and closing processes, checkout, restocking, and e-commerce fulfillment.
Reimagine physical networks for omnichannel retail experience
This means utilizing data insights to optimize the physical assets of your retail business - starting from the physical stores to the logistics network. Here are a few strategies -
Data to optimize footprint
Utilize data in order to understand the micro-patterns within the traffic you are getting in your store. You can also use these insights to identify and relate the store’s performance w.r.t to internal strategies. Your in-store revenues and profits should be able to compensate for the increased adherence to Covid-19 protocols. This data-driven approach can also help you gauge how your offline sales and performance are going to affect your brand’s digital presence. Retail brands can use these data points to further their omnichannel retail strategies. These include reopening stores, transformation & expansion, reassessing roles, and renegotiating leases, etc.
Physical store transformation
What the pandemic has essentially done is make businesses rethink their strategies and core beliefs. Physical stores are no longer just for customer engagement. These have to be of greater strategic importance with respect to location and other factors for the retailer. Data suggests that there will be a continuation of pre-Covid levels rise in the footfalls within retail stores with immersive experiences. There is also a rise in grey/dark stores for fulfillment. This has worked great for the restaurant industry as it enables swift deliveries.
Build the store of the future
Omnichannel retail store design focuses on transforming the physical outlets into spaces where customers can be educated more about the product offerings. These can also be utilized to reinforce the brand positioning and even drive online traffic and sales. Tech-enabled retail stores such as Amazon Go feature newer & improved store models that are aligned with the customer journey. Another big change required here is the role of sales associates. Instead of being brand advocates, they have to evolve into advocates of the customers to ensure higher customer satisfaction.
Omnichannel retail store experience requires an agile operating model
In the pre-Covid days, digital leaders were in the business of leveraging data insights to improve customer experience. Also to pinpoint footfall trends, enhance satisfaction, and build customized purchase recommendations.
With the onset of the pandemic, these strategies have progressed one step further. Where retail brands will have to rely on near real-time tracking of customer behavior, trends, and changes in buying behavior. Aka, not just data but dynamic data is the key to survival and growth in a pandemic-hit world.
Another key player here is the vibrant world of social media. Your retail brand’s social media channels are yet another significant area that offers critical insights into customer behavior.
Social media numbers can reflect real-time trends. This can help retailers in charting more accurate and informed strategies. Especially in pandemic situations where customer behavior keeps fluctuating more frequently.
Lastly, a major reformulation of retail strategies should include the involvement of the most important stakeholder in this entire chain - the customers. Retailers should include customers in the design process. From sharing feedbacks on new ideas to ensuring any new change is aligned with the user’s needs, customer insights can help in de-risking omnichannel initiatives.
Real-time data insights, qualitative customer feedback, and social media analysis are some of the key methods for retailers. These can be used to recalibrate business models swiftly to accommodate for a pandemic-hit and post-pandemic world.
This agile model of building and maintaining a seamless omnichannel retail experience requires retail brands to be dynamic and flexible enough to process large-scale data insights and design/transform offerings based on those.
Omnichannel retail experience design in a nutshell
Revisiting the key actionable tips on how to design an omnichannel experience for your retail brand. One that brings higher customer satisfaction and increased revenues despite pandemic limitations:
- A digital-first retail experience that is driven by real-time data. Also through key customer insights including an immersive digital presence and strong online communities.
- Revamping the entire retail omnichannel ecosystem. This means bringing in the in-store experience to digital channels. Nurturing strategic collaborations across delivery channels.
- Designing for SafeX, aka, Safer Experiences for your in-store customers. This includes strict adherence to all guidelines for customer and store employee safety.
- Building physical stores of the future with an increased focus on product offerings, brand positioning, and real-time data collection.
- A swift, efficient, and agile retail omnichannel operation model. One that leverages near real-time data, actionable customer feedback, and accurate social media analytics.