As customers come out of the pandemic, some of their behaviours and many of their priorities have permanently changed.

The path back to normality for both shoppers and retailers has more or less been set, risk-based derailments notwithstanding, and those with robust recovery strategies will have centred the customer in all of their plans.

The general outlook is optimistic:

  • GfK’s Consumer Confidence Index reports increases across all of their measures. Their Client Strategy Director commented: ‘It’s highly likely this upward trajectory on all measures will build over the next six months and beyond.’
  • Ernst & Young reports that 48% of consumers globally believe post-vaccine life will be better than before the pandemic. According to Silvia Rindone, EY UK&I Retail Leader: ‘As consumers look for a return to in-person engagement and the in-store shopping experience, retailers need to engage customers with store events and activities. They simply can’t underestimate the power of the store and the consumer desire to re-engage with the social aspect of shopping.’
  • Euromonitor’s ‘Top 10 Global Consumer Trends 2021’ backs this up - along with increased interest in sustainability, social issues and post-pandemic changes to behaviour when it comes to safety, convenience and spending, shoppers will be looking for ‘a hybrid of physical and virtual worlds where consumers can seamlessly live, work, shop and play both in person and online.’

Navigating the future

But, despite the positive predictions of business analysts and pundits, it won’t all be plain sailing. All the evidence suggests that, while many are happy to return to in-store experiences, post-pandemic customers won’t necessarily revert to the shopping behaviours they favoured pre-covid – as the Ernst and Young report points out, they need to ‘redesign [their] business around how people live, not what consumers buy’.

In its ‘Connecting the dots’ consumer trends report for 2021, GlobalWebIndex highlights some key areas of concern for retailers:

  • ‘More than lockdown blues’ – preserving mental health and wellbeing is a major motivator for customers
  • ‘It’s a kindness magic’ – they’re more likely to shop with retailers that actively demonstrate kindness and empathy as part of the customer experience
  • ‘A green awakening’ – similarly, they’re looking for evidence of ethical and sustainable sourcing and responsible business practices
  • ‘The digital storefront’ – the pandemic proved to be the perfect incubator for tech-based transformation, and shoppers will expect developments in both online and offline experiences to provide both entertainment and a sense of community

Delivering happiness through choice

The only way to acknowledge and leverage customers’ newly-established behaviours and concerns is to meet them where they choose to engage. Once retailers have committed to putting customer choice at the heart of their strategy, with the accompanying investment in omnichannel processes across the business, the next step towards re-energising retail is to actually listen to what they have to say.

And leading analysts PwC have provided the insight to do just that – in their March 2021 Global Consumer Insights Survey, they asked more than 8,000 shoppers from around the world how they felt, which habits adopted during the pandemic they intended to keep, and which they were going to abandon once a little more freedom was within their grasp.

Broken down by product category, it’s clear that for some experiences, while online filled the gap when shops were closed, customers are happy to leave their laptops, tablets and mobiles at home for the opportunity to engage with an in-store advisor.

  • 53% said they would shop more in-store for health and beauty products
  • 54% chose in-store for homeware and DIY
  • 51% would do more in-store shopping for fashion and footwear

But the effects of the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on what customers expect from their in-store experience – while 65% of respondents reported that they are likely to visit a shopping mall or equivalent in the next six months, their key requirements for returning are:

  • Increased health and safety measures, from controlled numbers in the physical store to protective screens and hand sanitising stations
  • Being able to see and touch products
  • Ability to quickly and conveniently navigate the store to find the products they’re interested in
  • Knowledgeable and responsive store associates
  • Access to the full product range

As Kingston University’s business and consumer expert Dr Patricia Harris puts it, ‘Some shoppers…find it easier and more convenient to go to a physical shop, look at/touch/try merchandise and talk to sales staff than to search for and compare products online. There are significant cognitive costs associated with online shopping – its scope and flexibility are appreciated by shoppers, but it can also be bewildering, leading to frustration, fatigue and a sense of reduced self-efficacy.’

It all comes down to one simple emotion. What shoppers want is to feel happy - with their visit, with their purchases and with their experience, wherever it happens. Delivering happiness depends on being able to offer the best of both worlds – the range, convenience and safety of shopping online coupled with the social, personalised, human experience of shopping in-store.

A good experience is centred around where they feel safe making purchases. Retailers’ strategies for the future must embrace the concept of customer- and clienteling-driven service delivery, from ensuring that store associates have all the tools they need to answer questions about sustainability and social responsibility to providing customers with the same high-quality experience wherever they choose to engage with it.

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This article was also published in The Retailer, our quarterly online magazine providing thought-leading insights from BRC experts and Associate Members.