The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly changed a lot about our lives. We communicate in different ways. We’re becoming accustomed to the idea of working from home. How we come together in groups may never be the same. The retail sector has experienced both the ups and downs of the coronavirus outbreak. It has taken some stores to a breaking point and birthed fantastic new opportunities for others. What of the fundamental essence of the retail experience though, the customer/retailer relationship?
What do the next few months have in store for this time-tested relationship and how can stores, particularly online ones, prepare for what will be considered the “new normal?”
People are more cautious
An onslaught of months and months of negative coronavirus news has, quite reasonably, made the average consumer more cautious than ever before. They’re cautious about the danger of ordering potentially infected products online, of the virus breeding grounds that stores have become and the long term financial implications of investing in a big purchase, among many other factors.
There are a lot of reasons for the customer to rightly be cautious of the average retailer, if not outright mistrust them. If retailers were able to retain the same policies throughout this process, or at least give solid reasoning behind them changing, then these stores will be better placed to keep customer trust intact. People understand this is a difficult time, they just don’t want to be lied to. If a business can’t ship a product within it’s usual delivery time it needs to let the customer know as soon as possible. Likewise, consumers want to know return policies are still in place, even if the business is facing difficult times.
The other point that will have a lasting impact is how retailers treated their staff throughout this process. If a business, online or offline, was seen to visibly disregard the safety of their staff throughout lockdown procedures and as the store looks to re-open, then customers could become cautious about their own safety while shopping and question how likely they are to get infected shopping with it.
Content and approach has changed
As reams of sentimentally-tinged coronavirus-themed ads popping up throughout the pandemic have shown us, brands and businesses have shifted their content focus towards creating a sense of togetherness. Although there will be many who look at this as simply an advertising ploy, it signals a change in tactic from some of the world’s biggest retailers. They understand they can’t tell people to flock into their stores right now and are finding alternative ways to keep people invested in the brand. There’s very little to suggest this won’t carry over into the early days of a post-COVID world. When finalizing adverts and creating content, brands will be wary of presenting a world back to normal too early. It would be disastrous and irresponsible for a business to create content that encourages mass shopping while implementing social distancing.
This kind of content could have one of two effects on the customer/retailer relationship. It could provide reassurance that the customer is the number one priority, helping to strengthen this relationship. Or, it could come across as offputting as we come out of the crisis, with uplifting content telling us to shop countering a likely dour, reflective public mood. Advertising approaches by major and small brands alike will need to be re-assessed. Companies will not be able to use the accessibility of hosting and sponsoring live events (which were becoming increasingly good ways for even online brands to build a rapport with their customers prior to the outbreak) as social distancing will remain in place. Physical marketing material will be treated as contaminated. And the idea of drawing people in simply to browse is all but dead for the foreseeable future.
Despite the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic and the long-lasting effect it will have on many businesses, there will still be a considerable amount of competition around. This will affect how people look at their favorite brands and their interpretation of customer service. Many people have taken the pandemic, and being placed on furlough schemes, as an opportunity to branch out and try new home businesses, whether it’s to explore a passion project or make some side cash. This, coupled with the growing popularity of business models such as dropshipping, has created a whole host of competitors for existing companies to fight for market share within the aftermath of the crisis. If a business isn’t ready to go now, it will be in the coming months, with many first-time retailers spotting people’s interest in and preference for ordering products online.
This could change how retailers try and grab mass attention. More competition suggests there will be a larger fight on platforms such as social media for people’s business, with existing brands investing in content and smaller companies looking to draw in customers with unique deals and offers. A new wave of first-time business owners could herald a new type of customer/retailer relationship, with store owners being less experienced to deal with issues while also being able to relate concerns on a deeper level. Retailers could start to appreciate their existing committed base of customers more as the competition takes new ones away from them, adopting loyalty schemes and unique promotional tactics to secure them.
We’re looking at a unique time for the customer/retailer relationship. Businesses cannot rely on blind loyalty in times of crisis and can’t go back to pre-pandemic practices straight away. Whether or not this will be a permanent change remains to be seen, but in the short term things are bound to appear a bit unusual.