As Pandemic Continues, Retailers Need to Meet Shopper Expectations

Following a better-than-expected holiday shopping season driven by robust online sales, retailers and brands are trying to figure out how to keep the momentum going. Here, Nikki Baird, vice president of retail innovation at Aptos, discusses trends that emerged during the pandemic, and what brands and retailers should consider in the year ahead.

WWD: How has the customer’s shopping journey changed this past year?

Nikki Baird: It has been a rough ride for shoppers, between safety and health, economic uncertainty, and changing restrictions and rules to follow. Consumers went online in unprecedented numbers this past year as nonessential stores closed for lockdowns and essential retailers ran out of everything. Consumers have stayed for the convenience. They broke loyalty with longtime brands that they could no longer find and tried new retailers that offered them contactless conveniences.

To say it has been disruptive would be an understatement. But there are bright spots to be found: consumers might’ve shifted from work clothes to sweatpants, but [they continue to need and buy sweatpants]. And while they couldn’t go out into the world the way they wanted to, they haven’t done too badly in bringing the world home to them through home cooking and investments in home goods.

The real question is how many of these shifts will stick around when the pandemic is over. One thing to keep in mind — the longer it takes, the harder it will be to break new habits.

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WWD: As COVID-19 further drives online sales and greater demand for curbside pickup and buy online, pick up in store, what do retailers and brands need to do to create a seamless shopping experience?

N.B.: My best advice: over-communicate! And make it easy for the consumer to find someone to help if things go wrong. Everyone does a reasonable job planning the happy path, but no one spends enough time trying to imagine where things will go wrong. It’s frustrating to go to a website to order and not be sure whether they do curbside pickup, or, to arrive to the parking lot and not know where to go, or to end up waiting for 20 minutes not knowing whether someone is working on your order or whether you need to call them — and there is no number to be found anywhere.

Nikki Baird Devon McKenna

Tell people how it works when they order (BOPIS or BOPAC [buy online, pick up curbside]), tell them in the confirmation email, tell them when their order is ready, tell them on the signage when they get there, and remind them of their options on the receipt for next time. Everyone does it differently, and consumers are confused.

Don’t forget that the person looking for the pickup sign may very well be a driver who has to keep their eyes on the road, too — which could make the one tiny sign at the parking lot entrance totally insufficient. Put yourself in your shopper’s shoes and experience it for yourself!

WWD: How has the in-store experience changed? What do customers expect?

N.B.: The in-store experience of today is not going to be the in-store experience that will exist after the pandemic. Retailers and consumers both still need stores; consumers find value in going to stores, even if it’s only for the entertainment value. Right now, consumers expect to know the rules of engagement, to stay as safe as possible, and to touch as little as possible. In my personal shopping experience, many consumers also want to feel they’re doing their part in keeping employees as safe as possible, too.

The only thing I will add here is that while there will be a period of uncertainty as we transition through to achieving herd immunity, once we exit that, consumers will certainly still expect good hygiene and will have new expectations of cleanliness when it comes to things like payment devices.

However, I don’t think that will translate into continuing to want store experiences that are over-indexed on convenience to the detriment of entertainment and browsing and just gathering with friends.

WWD: And what should brands and retailers do to improve the experience?

N.B.: Whether consumers are ready or not, we see retailers looking to invest in more mobile experiences. Mobile for employees so that they don’t have to serve a long line at a cash wrap, and mobile for consumers like consumer mobile scan and go from their own mobile devices. I think both of those are investments that will not go away once the extreme need for convenience and safety dissipates.

And at this point in the pandemic, those are the most sensible investments to make — they improve on consumer expectations today but are also likely to continue to do so even after the pandemic is over.

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