It would be an understatement to say that retail has changed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In the last few months, the disruption brought about on a global scale is not only prompting retailers to become more innovative to stay relevant; it is also making them reflect on a ‘Plan B’ in such unprecedented times.
While many malls, hotels and restaurants resumed operations on June 8, the ‘new normal’ is anything like before. These centres of hustle and bustle now wear an empty look, unlike earlier when they were teeming with activity.
The crisis has left a lasting impact on the customer, who is now hyper-aware about getting sick from everyday activities that he took for granted earlier. Shopping in a mall, eating at a cafe or just meeting people is a distant dream now.
The global threat from the pandemic might eventually pass and business operations will begin to return to varying stages of normal, however customer experiences and interactions will be vastly different.
This makes it imperative for retailers to devise out-of-the-box strategies to win customer trust and loyalty, and stay in the game.
Safety is Priority
Retailers have the added responsibility of serving a customer who has not only been financially impacted by Covid-19, but also emotionally and psychologically. Living under the perpetual fear of contracting the infection, customers now want superior ‘contactless’ experiences, whether in-store or otherwise.
Unless we get a vaccine, shoppers will be less likely to try on makeup from shared sample products, try on clothes, or even taste food samples at supermarkets. They are also constantly looking for reassurance from stores that they have been thoroughly disinfected, and touch screens are cleaned frequently.
“The first thing to bring back a customer to the store is the entire concept around safety, which does not just have to be visible at the store, but has to be communicated through social media to the customer. Safety must be from outside to inside the store,” shared Amit Manna – Partner Consumer, Retail and eCommerce, KPMG with The Blue Circle.
Outside the store, the process has to start with thermal screening, details of every customer being noted down and once the customer enters the store, there should be clear communication around the norms for social distancing.
“There are some stores that follow a 6-feet distance for the customer, while others follow different norms. If it is a very big store, 20-25 customers at one time is good. Accordingly, you need to scale down based on your store size. Also, the distance between cash tills is very important, because even cashiers need to maintain distance. But even if you have safety norms in place, there is no guarantee. Customers are still going to be hesitant to come to the store, “ admits Amit.
IKEA India has resumed its online operations, and introduced “Click and Collect” – a safe and contactless shopping experience. The Click & Collect service ensures minimal contact between co-workers and customers during the delivery of the products from the store. Customers can order Ikea products on its website, make the payment online, and collect the items from the store’s parking area.
Ace fashion designer Rina Dhaka, who has her designer store at Emporio Delhi feels that malls are stepping up their efforts to ensure safety is in place. Yet, it will take some time for customers to step out from their homes and go shopping.
“Bringing back customer confidence is going to be about a feel-good, feel-safe environment. The times are different now – shopping will be more about new occasions, not so much day-to-day use,” Rina told TBC.
Spotlight on Speed and Availability
When it comes to food and grocery, the focus is primarily on ‘essentials’ rather than non-essentials. And for these needs, people are now heavily relying on their local kirana stores that have become more agile and supple.
The unprecedented demand of groceries and essential items during lockdown has also led to a resurgence in hyperlocal delivery of food and groceries. Many online players have tied up with local kirana stores to deliver essentials to Indian homes.
“The neighbourhood grocer has suddenly rediscovered himself in the last three months. You are not rushing to the supermarket to buy things, and you’re not ordering fresh products online. Your local guy is supplying through a telephone order. He was not doing this with this intensity earlier. He has now realised he is better off than the Bigbaskets of the world because of speed, and this is where he is scoring,” says Aseem Soni, CEO and Board Member, Modern Foods.
He added that the cash and carry model is also in rediscovery mode, but it is the classical supermarkets like Big Bazaar, More, Spencer’s and the like that need to amp up their innovation drive.
“No longer is the game about shopping convenience, which is what these people bring to the table. It is about speed of delivery or online service, and you want to rather go to a neighbourhood shop at this point, which is also following all the safety protocols,” shares Aseem.
Amit feels that the other thing that’s extremely critical is the availability of products. It would be pointless for a customer to walk inside a store, and not find items he’s looking for. Instead, stores can operate with a fewer number of items, but maintaining stock is important.
Omnichannel is Key
Xiaomi has recently launched an offline-to-online (O2O) solution called Mi Commerce for its retail partners. This service allows people to locate nearby stores that are either run by Xiaomi or those that have tie-ups with the company.
Similarly, the shoe brand Bata also announced that they will now be exploring home delivery of footwear, something that they have never done before.
Five-star hotels are now doing delivery of food and even home furnishings. Marriott Hotels have put their home furnishings – mattresses, pillows and even curtains – on sale, something that has never happened before in history!
As people change their behaviors, retailers will need to react accordingly. Instead of thinking of a separate physical experience and a digital experience, they’ll need to pursue one, holistic approach – an omni-channel experience that customers can use whenever they want.
“Every brick and mortar store needs to be part of the omnichannel journey, whether through its own platform or through any of the marketplaces. That’s going to be the new normal. You need to be where the customer is. Since the unconventional is happening, every retailer needs to think out of the box,” underlined Amit.
Clear Communication Through Social Media
All relationships have an emotional component, and that holds true for the connection between people and brands. A business’s relationship with customers is built over time, nourished by experiences along many online and physical touchpoints in their journey, and fortified through consistent interactions.
In this digital word, fostering a strong relationship with customers can happen through social media. Apart from focusing on messaging that clearly states the safety protocols that the brand is adopting, it also needs to work on the aspect of interpersonal storytelling that builds trust and loyalty.
Regardless of the scenario, several truths are beginning to become clear for retailers as they look ahead to conquer challenges in a post-COVID-19 world. Companies further down on the path of digital business transformation will be better equipped to handle this disruption.
A blend of physical and digital retail is likely to be the new reality, because customers would like to go to stores for some items and order others from home or they would also like to browse at home before stepping out to buy. Offline to online and online to offline buying is going to be the way of life and the entire customer discovery process will predominantly become digital.
Strategies such as promotions will also help elevate brands in the mind of customers – driving continued loyalty and customer retention through strengthened brand affinity.
(Edited by Anu Choudary)