Why It’s All About Respect, Consistency, and Communication in Post-Pandemic Retail

Post-pandemic retail photo of shopper looking at phone

This article was contributed by Judy Mottl from Retail Customer Experience.

Editor’s note: Consumer expectations are changing, but the fundamentals have stayed the same. The interview below talks about why communication is increasingly important for shoppers, and with the right tools, like email marketing, loyalty programs, and the ability to text and email customers directly, it can give you a better chance to give people what they need. Learn more about how to connect with customers using the trends below in our Future of Retail report.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the biggest change to retail in many decades, and consumers are emerging from the year of big tumult with changed behaviors, different shopping habits, and greater expectations when it comes to product access, information, delivery, and the customer experience overall.

On the retail front, initially everyone called it the “new” normal, but it’s far from normal as retailers struggle to regain shopper traffic in the store, gain deeper loyalty online, and are now dealing with a worker shortage that puts customer service in a crisis mode.

Margot Bloomstein, the author of Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap and Content Strategy at Work: Real-World Stories to Strengthen Every Interactive Project, believes that while consumers are eager to return to the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, the physical retailer may not yet be ready.

We reached out to Bloomstein, principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy based in Boston, to get insight on what consumers and retailers want and need and expect in the post-pandemic shopping environment.

Q. The retail landscape has changed in the post-pandemic environment. So how would you define today’s retail consumer compared to who or what they were pre-pandemic?

A. Consumers expect more flexibility, control, and content in shopping and taking delivery of products, and they shouldn’t have to compromise in the level of support to which they’ve grown accustomed.

After a year of shopping online and enjoying the ease of curbside pickup, home delivery, and free shipping both ways, many consumers don’t want to give up those features. Curbside pickup isn’t just a benefit to quarantined people; it’s also a boon to parents with sleeping babies or energetic toddlers or anyone in a rush. Smart businesses recognize that they can better serve a broader range of customers by keeping a range of shopping options.

Customers shopping online are able to easily compare products and self-educate with robust product descriptions and quantitative details. Temporary store closures drove showrooming to its logical conclusion: consumers have grown to appreciate both starting and completing their transactions online.

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As stores reopen, they may confront a harsh reality: physical stores and roaming sales associates don’t always offer the same level of product knowledge, volume of information, or the ability for customers to consume information at their own pace. “Infinite aisle” experiences can support consumers’ needs, but if they have to compromise on access to information just to browse in a physical space, they’ll likely go elsewhere.

Q. Is the fact loyalty is changing so dramatically due to the year of not engaging, interacting with store associates, and a brand “in person”, or is it the lure of all the technology people are using to shop, or a mix?

A. The past year has given consumers the opportunity to think critically about their shopping habits, needs, and brand preferences. Stores and restaurants that retained customer loyalty did so because they could offer flexibility, convenience, home delivery, or access to information so that consumers could self-educate — possibly more than they ever could in person. Consumers are shifting their loyalty and trust in exchange for that value.

Brands that come out on top support consumers’ needs for safety, convenience, and confidence that they can make good decisions and feel good about the decisions they make.

Q. What should retailers be doing right now to retain customer loyalty, and what do they need to be doing a year from now?

A. If you’ve maintained a customer base over the past year by continuing to deliver convenience, confidence, and customer service, ensure you’re not inadvertently divesting from those efforts now. If your audience appreciates curbside or home delivery, don’t cut back. If they’ve maintained confidence by being able to learn more about your products from a robust website, ensure that in-store content is just as detailed — and make sure product knowledge and promotions are consistent across all channels.

Most importantly, in a time of so much social upheaval, help your customers know more about where you stand on the issues that affect them and their community. After all, if they’re your target audience, it’s your community too. Issues of diversity, inclusion, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo offer businesses an opportunity to engage thoughtfully, act as a force for good, and differentiate from competitors.

As your business looks into the future, develop a clear vision for how you can address those issues, both internally and externally. The old thinking was that businesses should stay out of politics, but that position reflects a privilege that likely isn’t shared by your customers or employees. Retailers such as Penzeys Spices, Old Navy, Sephora, and Michaels are leading the way in partnership with organizations like Open to All to demonstrate how business can be a force for good and offer consumers more than just products and services.

Q. So how do voice, volume, and vulnerability bring consumers closer and drive brand engagement, and what does the “vulnerability” speak to?

A. Brands earn loyalty by empowering their audience and by helping consumers feel more confident in both their purchasing decisions and the companies they choose to patronize.

Your brand can fuel confidence by engaging consumers with a voice that’s consistent and cohesive, visually and verbally. Now isn’t the time to overhaul your brand, revamp your site navigation, or push new jargon on your audience. A consistent voice can elevate content in the right volume, or amount and level of detail, to further drive consumer confidence. Give people enough information to make good decisions and feel knowledgeable, whether they can see diagrams at the appropriate level of detail, enough images in a product gallery, or product descriptions that eliminate guesswork.

Voice and volume are core to good, brand-driven content strategy and user experience design; it’s through vulnerability that brands can further differentiate and resonate with their audiences. Vulnerability refers to the risk inherent in transparency. Consider how your organization can make its values visible, offer insight to the product roadmap or supply chain, or communicate more clearly when you need to acknowledge challenges or apologize for missteps.

These moments offer opportunities to draw your audience closer and help them champion your evolution, converting critics into customers and customers into fans.

Q. There’s been growing attention around “empathy” when talking about customer retail experience — what’s driving that and why is it important to retailers?

A. Empathy is how we relate someone else’s experiences to our own in order to express compassion. For example, maybe you more effectively address the needs of a frustrated customer if you’ve experienced a delay in shipping or complicated return process too. But empathy is a buzzword that obscures a bigger challenge: customers, employees, and anyone engaging with your brand deserves respect before judgment, and many businesses have a hard time just doing that. Sunny marketing messages fall apart when businesses implement policies like racial profiling, locking up black hair care products, forcing employees to work on holidays or amid the pandemic, and steep restocking fees.

But when consumers can easily take their business elsewhere, and take to social media with video and details of their experiences, it’s bad business for companies to perpetuate policies that lack compassion and respect. Social media and more retail options both put greater control in the hands of consumers to expect respect from the places where they choose to spend their money.

Smart businesses realize they benefit when they respect their consumers — and with respect and compassion, they can learn to more effectively meet their needs too.

This article was written by Judy Mottl from Retail Customer Experience and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.