Building digital ecommerce experiences post covid

29th Jun 2020

ecommerceBricks & Mortar returns as ecommerce demand jumps

From mid-June, shoppers have been shopping again, as England's high streets and retail parks reopened following a three month lockdown due to Covid-19.  It is an important time for the high street, who have lost out on significant revenues since the lockdown began.  

However, during this period, from an ecommerce perspective, online retail sales grew by nearly 24% year-on-year in April, a 10-year high, according to the IMRG, which was a significant spike compared to March.  This demonstrates a “seismic shift in purchasing patterns” as consumers adapted to life under Covid-19 lockdown. Despite the gradual opening up of the high streets, digital channels continue to be strategically important. 

The impact on non-digital businesses could be long lasting 

Many non-digital businesses are now overcome with existential fear. These organisations entirely depend on people being outside, and even as retail opens up, I expect many shoppers to remain primarily inside for the foreseeable future, and to be venturing out to shop less. In a recent report from Gartner, “Industry Vision: Commerce to You” (2019), a survey revealed that many customers expect to have all options remain available to them, both new and old.

  • "79% of retail and brand professionals surveyed have implemented or have plans to implement ‘buy online, pick up in-store’ (BOPIS) by the end of 2020, and an additional 10% have plans to implement within the next three years.”
  • “69% of US adults say it’s important for a retailer to offer online visibility into items that are available in the store, and 31% are less likely to visit a store if the retailer’s in-store inventory isn’t visible online."

Traditional retail will return alongside some of these newer options, but we’ll still miss the enjoyment we get from the in-person interactions that were the status quo. Given our yearning for these live experiences, the question is, how many actual human experiences can be replaced by the digital experiences that carry no risk of virus transmission?

Digital is front and center

451 Research explored this topic in March, in research entitled: “Digital experiences are front and center in coping with coronavirus.”  The research argued that “the future of digital experiences must focus on building trust, transparency and retention.”  The author recommends the steps that companies must consider, as they work to ensure that their offerings are able to survive and thrive: 

  • Measure digital performance
  • Use this moment as a catalyst for digital improvements
  • Use virtual assistants to ease capacity issues
  • Focus on retention by moving to subscriptions
  • Ensuring you are able to take mobile orders and deliveries
  • Here’s my take on these five steps and how retailers can take action to continue moving forward. 

Don’t rest on your laurels, measure & evolve

Many organisations have spent decades perfecting their unique in-person experiences. As things open again, how will organisations know if they are making the right offers to the right consumers? How can they feel confident that their digital channels can replicate real-life experiences? Retailers who are operating on the same old assumptions of customer behaviour are being put to the test by an unpredictable future. 

For example, if conversion and AOV are deviating from the trend, is it a function of a new marketing event, a recent UX change or improvements to search? Or something totally out of our control like a global pandemic? What is clear is how critical every single customer session is to maximising revenue, and most traditional ecommerce metrics are not actionable; they’re high level and removed from context which makes it difficult to trace back to drivers and evolve strategy. It isn’t safe to assume behaviour; be sure that you can analyse data in real-time and quickly adapt to meet changing customer preferences. 

Make better recommendations

Gartner predicts that “by 2022, at least 5% of digital commerce orders will be predicted and initiated by artificial intelligence" (Industry Vision: Commerce to You, 2019). Truth is, most retailers don’t have the capabilities to understand customer behaviour and automatically personalise digital experiences. "Despite the importance placed on improved customer satisfaction, survey participants also cite the ability to execute on those desires as the No. 1 challenge they face."

One of the first places to invest is in data collection and machine learning. Capture each and every customer interaction as a digital moment – a signal about the customer’s intention, needs and preferences. Customer interactions include things like searches, clicks, views, purchases, bookmarks, likes, and reposts of content. We call these user interactions “signals” because they signal a user’s intent and interests. 

The most meaningful experiences will be informed by a data-driven context. By using a combination of machine learning models and analytical reporting, digital merchandisers can meet this moment with new products and go-to-market strategies that fit customer behaviour. This is an optimal time to capture digital signals from your customers and prospects about what they want, and these signals can later be used to deliver the most relevant recommendations as usage patterns evolve.

Unburden support staff

According to the research from 451, forty-seven percent of consumers prefer using a virtual assistant, if it can save them time.  The author says: “The purpose of self-service is twofold: first, to provide customers with easy access to information when it is most relevant to them, and second, to deflect as many service interactions as possible away from expensive live-agented help and toward automated systems.” 

During Covid-19, businesses are seeing increased site traffic–especially to customer support channels. By empowering users to resolve their own issues, you can deflect more support calls and helpdesk tickets and better care for customers when they need you most. Consider investing in chatbot enhancers that use natural language processing (NLP) and AI to support customers. Smart chatbots can help customers help themselves, while relieving call centers and cutting support costs. 

Double down on new omnichannel options 

The report states that with the increasing prevalence of the subscription economy changing the long-term economics and relationships between brands, retailers and consumers, new approaches to engagement models will now emphasise loyalty-building and retention exercises. Turns out subscriptions aren’t just for magazines anymore, and they’re just one of many options to keep customers engaged. 

Covid-19 restrictions forced retailers to double down on different ways to stay connected with customers, with options like curbside pick-up and BOPIS, plus completely new digital offerings for businesses like restaurants that are traditionally in-person only that are now offering ready-to-cook meal kits you can order online. Businesses shouldn’t be afraid of testing out some of these new omnichannel options and customer touchpoints. It could be the difference between keeping a consumer engaged during restricted shopping times and sending them to your competitor.  

Make sure you’re mobile 

Kingstone reports: “With 64% of millennials already frequently using mobile order ahead, compared with only 8% of the over-65 population, expect adoption of new digital-native services to dramatically alter the way people experience things in 2020 – even for the digitally delayed.” An easy-to-navigate mobile option gives your customer instant access to your store, no matter where they are. 

Retailers should factor in location as one of the many signal types that machine learning can use to personalise search results for mobile users. When retailers know where their customers are, they are able to offer store hours and product results best suited to their location. For example, if I’m shopping on my phone and add a pair of sneakers to my cart to buy online and pick up in store, I don’t want to wait until I get to checkout to realise that the sneakers are only available in a different location that’s 30 miles away. 

Moving forward together, digitally and otherwise

To digital or not to digital is not the question. We are already moving between both, on a daily basis, and once this pandemic ends, we will be hungry for whatever experiences have been put on hold during this time. Until then, retailers must prepare to deliver all the experiences shoppers will want after this lockdown comes to an end. 

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