The looming second lockdown over the Winter months is threatening business continuity in the retail sector once again. Businesses are scrambling to be able to reach their consumers no matter what restrictions are put in place. If we are confined to our homes for the second time, with only essential shops to remain open — there will be little respite for those businesses that didn’t prepare or rather, digitise effectively after all the warning signs and the move in shopping behaviour was so clear.

Consumers are using this point in time to figure out which retailers are going to serve them best during the pandemic. This is according to a recent McKinsey report which found that more than 75 percent of consumers have tried new brands, places to shop or methods of shopping so far during the pandemic. The businesses who are prepared for this ‘land grab’ are going to come out of this pandemic stronger than they went in.

Those that are prepared have focused on meeting customers where they are. At the bare minimum, this means being able to serve customers whatever the restrictions. That means enabling them to purchase and browse wherever they are looking — whether it be through Instagram, an online store or a direct link in YouTube. However, in this difficult time, it is also essential for businesses to remember that just being present won’t draw customers in. Brand identity and building loyalty have arguably never been more important. Getting both of these things right is key for businesses to be ready for now.

Finding opportunity in the chaos

With businesses needing to streamline and prioritise what works and cut what doesn’t, it is the perfect time to reassess brand identity. Put under the pressure of the pandemic, retailers have been presented with an opportunity to rethink the way they operate, engage with customers differently and constantly reinvent how they reach their target market.

Retailers must demonstrate their awareness of the current environment and align their marketing to the values that matter most to consumers. Forward-thinking retailers will already be researching what is important to their customers, so they can see what is working and implement it into their plans. For example, YouGov found that 64 percent of people want to support local businesses and buy local products as a result of coronavirus. As such, smaller brands also have the opportunity to convey more personal messages to the local communities that rely on them.

Whatever the approach, retailers must have a smart process to data in order to gather the insights and flexibly roll out new messaging and services to match the demand. With customer insight at the core, businesses can continue reinventing themselves and identifying new sales approaches to ensure a satisfying and safe customer experience.

Short term problem, long term solution

It is all well and good capturing consumer attention, retailers must also be able to fulfil demand effectively too. Many businesses have spent the pandemic frantically getting their front-end touchpoints online so they can at least continue to serve customers. This patchwork approach to digitisation isn’t going to be sufficient in the long term. Ultimately, businesses who have stitched together a rudimentary online store without re-evaluating their more fundamental processes will be found wanting when the next consumer habit takes hold.

The need for flexibility in systems and approaches is not a short term trend either. The retail industry has been moving towards Omnichannel selling for years. It is difficult for businesses to survive without being able to sell wherever the customer wants or needs to. The pandemic has just accelerated this trend. Physical stores will continue to be important in the long term, even with localised shutdowns putting pressure on them. However, businesses are having to learn to be flexible in the use of these locations, and the way inventories are managed as well.

ASDA provides us with a great example of this in action. In April, the UK supermarket rolled out its Scan & Go Mobile programme to 200 additional stores in a bid to reduce contact with checkout staff, meaning that the technology was readily available in the majority of its stores. Shoppers can use either a handset or an app on their phone to scan goods, and providing customers a display of the running total cost of the goods scanned. 

This isn’t just a patchwork solution to manage customer engagement over the pandemic, it is part of a long term plan. When customers can once again go to stores without a high risk of infection, this technology will prove its value from a general customer experience perspective. It is also worth noting that this will help shoppers to budget and keep tabs on their spending in a financially difficult time as well.

We are approaching a pivotal moment in time for retailers. As the ‘new normal’ threatens to change again, retailers need to make sure they are flexible enough to match customers no matter what. There is opportunity out there, but it will take a flexible approach to realise it. Over the coming months, retailers must continue reinventing themselves and changing the way they operate to ensure an engaging and safe customer experience.

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