How can physical retailers

target a post-pandemic

customer base?

Perhaps one of the most prominent perspectives surrounding the pandemic has been the change of lifestyle that the various quarantines and lockdowns have made. For nearly a year, the home has had to serve in almost every possible way for both work and leisure.

And this, of course, has led to some significant changes in shopping habits. People are not just shopping online because they can’t leave the house – shopping for things and among brands they may have never used before – but also for items that help them increase their standard of living at home. 

The data illustrate this change well. Looking back a short way, to January 2021, we can see that online sales in the UK were up 74% year-on-year, according to figures from IMRG, the retail group. Over the course of 2020, ecommerce sales became nearly a third of all sales, up from a fifth the year before (according to ONS figures; incidentally, nearly 40% of this increase in share went to Amazon). The figures for mobile are quite staggering: in January, purchases on mobile were up by 169% (this poses an interesting, slightly tangential, question: why, when they would have access to their home computer, would shoppers use their mobile instead? Possibly, scrolling on the couch and shopping impulsively). There are good reasons to expect that some of these habits will persist after lockdown. 

This presents an obvious opportunity for many digital-first businesses, especially in traditionally bricks-and-mortar areas, like fashion. But what about those businesses, like homeware or gardening, where the physical shop is such an important component of conversion? They have to go where the shoppers go – online. How can all those resources from the shop be manifested in a digital space?

Knowledge is power

Customers are challenged in this moment to make considered decisions on long life or luxury products online: where information like the firmness or colour intensity is harder to gauge. 

This doesn’t mean that people simply are no longer making these purchases. Shopping for homeware online increased 318% during lockdown. Even when lockdown ended, in Q3, that figure remained high: 113% year-on-year, based on data obtained by Salesforce.

To make these decisions, they need the guiding hand of an expert. Shoppers should be presented with clearly signposted opportunities to reach those with the proper knowhow in a moment of doubt. At its most basic, this could be an email address. Depending on the retail area, however, it may be worth investing in a dedicated support team that can be reached by phone or live chat.

This comes alongside providing anything a particular customer needs to make an informed decision: a well-known furniture company started sending costumers swatches on request, and saw request for these double week on week during lockdown.

Omnichannel outreach can be developed through blogging: instructions, recommendations, troubleshooting, creative ideas or crafts. Data from DemandMetric found that companies with blogs saw 67% more leads per month over those that didn’t, and 55% more website visitors, according to Hubspot. DemandMetric also had data on consumer perspectives, which found that they were warmer to blogs as a means of detailing products over adverts.

The idea is then to develop a 360° experience. The challenge will be striking the balance between clean, frictionless UX and enough information for shoppers to make informed and comfortable decisions. 

Expertise and brand activation itself can become its own revenue stream. Nike China, for example, has been offering virtual workouts during lockdown for those people stuck inside and unable to visit gyms. As a result, they had seen almost double the engagement on their app. The company’s CEO, John Donahue, said online sales grew 30% in the first quarter of 2020, and that he believed that came in part from this engagement on the app. 

Recreating an experience

There are options here, too. 

First, a clear goal and feeling for customer experience has to be set. What is the atmosphere and the brand of the physical shop, how can that be communicated through text, images and overall design? Enhanced product photography and information, with clear explanations of the different levels of firmness of a mattress or sofa, help facilitate this. Online offerings need to be reassessed along a new focus of people shopping online: these should be dynamic, fit with trends and offer value to different consumer segments. 

The delivery process is a major opportunity to invoke the feeling of the physical shop. The Perfume Shop, for example, in seeking to redefine their digital offering, sought to make up for the lack of a store experienced by focusing on the experience of receiving the item in the post (and asking people to share the beautiful boxes on social media!). The box was scented, beautifully decorated. It was customisable – not just names, but for special occasions, like anniversaries. They also have an in-house service term to handle any complaints, which provided that much needed extra access to expertise. A stress test of these services founded a response time consistently under 90 minutes. Shoppers can be pretty discriminating when let down: a Christmas-time survey from Accenture found nearly 60% of shoppers would not buy again from a store that had bungled their delivery.

Relatedly, expediency and greater options are huge priorities for consumers right now. A variety of delivery options offer value to different consumer segments. Home and next-day delivery for the need-it-now mindset or value, click and collect as more economic for customers focusing on saving. ASOS, which offers £10 next day delivery and a clear and easy returns policy, was one of a group of winners in the last year who not only survived, but thrived during lockdown – along with other digital-first retailers like Boohoo. Revenue for the British retailer grew 26% over the course of 2019. 

Dr. Martens, which had started 2020 as a mostly bricks-and-mortars outfit (albeit with a strong online showing), is now putting itself forward as a multichannel business led by its digital storefront. From its pre-listing on the London Stock Exchange, it is clear they see this as a suite of offers, with the customer at the center.

A note on payments

Something short should also be said about payments. 

Concerns around the economy’s bounce-back has changed this space somewhat, such that companies like Klarna – whose active user base jumped by 200% in February alone, according to Statista – are becoming ever more popular, whereas alternatives – namely, credit cards – are less so. A variety of options – including payment on receipt – should therefore be offered. Care should be taken over safety and data protection through a trusted payment solutions provider, and this should be well signposted to shoppers so they can trust that their data will be well taken care of.

Cheques, incidentally, are still one of the preferred payment options among older people – 272 million were used to make payments in 2019 alone, although as a trend it is in steep decline – so perhaps worth keeping as an option if it doesn’t present a logistics nightmare.  While offering customers the option to send cheques in for purchases may not exactly be efficient – and has the potential to create an administrative headache – it does raise the issue of accessibility and online shopping for an older generation who do not have the option of shopping in a manner they are familiar with. We’ve written a more detailed article about this problem here

There are two broad things to consider when looking at how to bridge that gap between the physical and digital shop. Clear, purposeful communication – communication that priorities clarity and information – helps guide shoppers in what can be tricky or important purchases. And refocusing on clarity around processes – UI, payments, delivery – will reassure customers. Making deliveries safe, quick and relevant to the brand will help rediscover a little bit of that magic of the physical store.