A third national lockdown has put renewed pressure on retailers with stores as they look to keep customers onboard until a hopeful return to normality in the summer.
While an expedient move to online has salvaged the bottom line for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that the human factor isn’t lost in the retail online offering as a company’s greatest asset will always be its people and nowhere is this more accurate than in retail.
The modern consumer wants to be able to shop their favourite products online while enjoying an approximation of the in-store experience they have become accustomed to. And even after the pandemic is over it will have made a permanent mark on future retail with consumers now expecting a higher and more nuanced level of customer service as the online and offline shopping worlds become indelibly merged.
For those retailers who get their ‘phigital’ offering right the prize will be renewed customer loyalty but those who are off-the-pace may find themselves adrift in the post-pandemic world.
Fortunately, the industry’s tech innovators have risen to the challenge all over the world to provide the digital tools to enable retailers to bring the in-store human experience to their online offering.
In Russia, for example, footwear retailer Ekonika reacted to having to close their stores due to COVID-19 by launching a remote selling project designed to keep customers engaged, while also harnessing the product knowledge and sales skills of in-store employees to continue driving sales remotely.
It used customer behaviour data provided by Mercaux’s clienteling solution to encourage store associates to send highly personalised emails to their customers, featuring bespoke product recommendations and styling suggestions.
The emails were based on insights from Mercaux’s clienteling capabilities, including the customer’s purchase history, personal wishlists and their previous online and in-store interactions with the brand.
Mercaux says: “The pandemic has given retailers a digital wake-up call, with many rethinking the role of their physical stores and how these stores can accommodate the changing demands of consumers and the opportunities that the digital world brings.”
Each Ekonika team member had a daily target of 40 customers, resulting in 6,400 personalised emails. Within a week, the results revealed that this kind of remote 1-2-1 engagement was highly effective at both driving sales and keeping customers engaged.
Mercaux adds: ““The Connected Store isn’t just the next store format, it's a way of conducting business. Connecting your stores to the digital world allows you to provide customers with impressively personalised experiences in-store and online, integrating the human element into all interactions and capturing and leveraging customer behavior data across all channels”
In the UK, luxury beauty brand Charlotte Tilbury partnered with Obsess to create a 3D virtual store on the Charlotte Tilbury website – a full-page, fully visual portal that customers can navigate through and interact with products.
To humanise the experience, an avatar of Charlotte Tilbury herself welcomes customers inside the virtual store and leads them through each of its three rooms. The store is localised to all of the brand’s markets and is fully integrated into the ecommerce system.
In all four corners of the globe, retailers are embracing these and additional innovations such as live chatting, video consultations and community platforms to create a hybrid physical/digital or ‘phigital’ experience.
So does all this mean we’re heading for the end of high street after the pandemic? In a word - no.
As Nathan Hudson From multicloud solutions expert Rackspace says: “The online experience can’t reproduce the touch, the feel, the fit of the product that many shoppers desire when buying clothing for example and the insatiable appetite to do it there, then and now. Yes, there are augmented reality technologies and other technologies that can be leveraged to imitate some of the in-store experiences consumers have become accustomed to that may bridge the gap, but the social interaction gained in bricks and mortar stores and the end to end journey of those days at the mall are incredibly important to the human psyche.”
So what will be the lasting legacy of the supercharged digital transformation of retail during COVID?
Rackspace believes as consumers have become more familiar and comfortable with engaging brands online that they used to only visit physically, they will develop greater trust. This will then present an opportunity for retailers to stay front of mind with their consumers and personalise the experience as they learn more about their behaviours, their preferences, their interests as more data is captured.
Hudson adds: “As these methods gain momentum and consumer trust increases, it opens up the opportunity to strengthen the integration and consistency across channels, a true ‘phygital experience’, as consumers share their location on apps to benefit from in store offers.”