Rebuilding Retail with Customer-First Experiences Online and In-Store

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Covid-19 has devastated countless retailers—not just small businesses, but also major chains with a national physical footprint. But we can’t lay all the blame on the virus. In 2019, well before the pandemic, there were over 9,300 brick-and-mortar stores that closed. Over the last holiday season, department store sales dropped by 5.5% compared with the previous year.

There’s so much discussion around returning to the old normal, but retail’s future depends on getting as far as way from normal as it can. Retailers need to seize the opportunity and reimagine the experiences they provide—and create the next normal. 

What would this look like? As a guiding principle, retailers should be finding ways to put the customer first in the experiences we provide. 

Use digital to enable a better experience at your physical locations 

The pandemic has forced retailers to think creatively about the potential synergies between digital channels and physical locations, including tactics that may remain popular long after the crisis has passed. Curbside pickups aren’t exactly new, but they’ve become far more widespread as customers seek to limit physical contact. 

On a basic level, this can be as simple as taking orders online for curbside fulfillment. More sophisticated retailers have gone further, using their app on the customer’s phone to detect when the shopper has arrived at the store—and even where they’ve parked—so the item can be brought out promptly. It’s a new level of convenience, and there’s expectation that it will remain popular for the long term

And that’s only the beginning. Is a customer placing a curbside pickup order for an especially large item, like a piece of furniture or an appliance? Use proactive guidance technology to offer pop-up details on its dimensions so they can make sure it will fit in their car or through their front door before they make the trip. 

Is a customer about to pay for shipping when the item they’re ordering is available for free same-day pickup just a few miles from their current location? Can they exchange a product more quickly and easily at a nearby physical location rather than taking the time to do it through UPS? Are the items they’re comparing on your site both available locally for an in-person evaluation? By letting them know how to make better use of your physical locations, you can improve their experience while getting more value out of your stores. 

Make your website as customer-friendly as a retail store 

Decades after the rise of e-commerce, most retail websites are still just a little more than digitized catalogs. Customers are welcome to page through the offerings on their own, but the retailer offers little, if anything, in the way of guidance. It’s the digital equivalent of walking into a store with no associate in sight. Many customers would simply walk out if no one is there to greet them, much less help them find the products they’re interested in. No savvy retailer would be so careless with their in-store experience—so why are they surprised to find high abandonment rates and lagging sales for websites with an equally indifferent experience? 

The mark of a good in-store associate—one who drives sales and builds good customer relationships—is one who reads a shopper’s needs and takes the initiative to meet them. The same applies for digital experiences. A visitor’s site behavior can tell you if they’re comparing two items, searching for details on sizing or shipping, or checking out your returns policy. Use contextual guidance technology to turn that understanding into personalized help delivered in the flow of an individual shopper’s needs. By setting triggers based on specific behavior—flipping back and forth between two pages, lingering over the fine print of your product details—you can offer the kind of help the customer is most likely to need before they even have to ask. 

Similarly, use what you know about the customer to offer a more tailored shopping experience. Does their current location offer an opportunity for localized product offerings or promotions? Do the items in their shopping cart suggest good cross-selling opportunities? Give them the kind of attentive, intuitive experience they’d get from an in-store associate, and they’ll be more likely to stick around long enough to make a sale. 

Spare customers the need to ask for help 

A call center contact is in some ways an admission of failure—for both the customer and the business. The customer has been unable to figure something out on their own, and the business has failed to enable their success. It can also lead to an even bigger failure. The vast majority of customers won’t even bother to reach out via email, form, chat, phone, or whatever other channels you offer. Instead, they’ll give up and leave, taking their business—and their cash—with them. 

Don’t let customers get to that point. Use your site analytics, along with call center logs, to identify the most common struggle point on your site—typically things like item inquiries, confusion about promotion codes, and order status updates—and proactively address them by improving your site content and navigation. Similarly, if customers are searching for certain types of information about your physical locations—changes in policy due to Covid, where to park for curbside pickup, holiday hours, local delivery availability—take steps to surface that information more effectively. As a complement to personalized contextual guidance, this approach can help shoppers successfully complete their transactions both online and at physical locations without the need to reach out for assistance. 

Both online and in-store, the same principle holds true: Pay attention to your customers, and they’ll pay attention to your business. 

Tara Sporrer is SVP of marketing at goMoxie.

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