Most people are well-aware of the troubles physical retail locations have endured over the past couple of years — exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns. Prior to the pandemic, retailers were concentrating on creating unique customer experiences to make in-store shopping more enjoyable.
Most people are well-aware of the troubles physical retail locations have endured over the past couple of years — exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns. Prior to the pandemic, retailers were concentrating on creating unique customer experiences to make in-store shopping more enjoyable. The no-touch restrictions required during the pandemic put a kibosh on many customer experience efforts. According to fashion and retail journalist Elizabeth Segran (@LizSegran), post-pandemic consumers can look forward to once again enjoying in-person shopping. She reports, “I have exciting news for you. You’re going to love shopping when the pandemic is over — not just because you’ve been deprived of it for so long. … Four experts we spoke with believe that this devastating year has forced brands to cut out the most unpleasant parts of shopping, like waiting in line and replenishing staples in your pantry. When stores do finally come back, the savviest ones are going to focus on the delightful, pleasurable parts of shopping, like discovering exciting new products and enjoying in-store entertainment.”
Customer experience (CX) has always been important. Consumers with bad experiences, whether those experiences are online or in-store, don’t make good repeat customers. Below are some things online and physical retailers are doing to improve customer experience.
Online customer experience. Jeannine Falcone (@JeannineFalcone), Managing Director at Accenture Interactive, asserts brands providing consumers with a good customer experience will be the winners in the post-pandemic retail world. She explains, “At the center of this new paradigm is an essential truth: a company’s most valuable asset is not its built-up brand equity. Instead, it’s the relationship with its consumers and the knowledge of what appeals to them. This is undoubtedly a symptom of the digital revolution, with conversations between brands and consumers now easily facilitated on digital channels, and those channels having more engaged users than ever before. As the pandemic has accelerated the digital revolution, it follows that it will have encouraged its knock-on effects. As The Economist has put it, ‘too many grannies have discovered the joys of online shopping’ for the world to snap back now. What this means is that the digital experience provided by a brand has never been more valuable. It’s essential that a consumer’s path to purchase on digital channels is smooth, enjoyable, and memorable for the right reasons.”
Deloitte analysts, Baris Sarer, Abhi Arora, and Michael Razzano, agree with Falcone that online relationships will continue to be important. They predict these interactions will make personalization even more intimate. They write, “Looking ahead, the third wave of personalization will likely be centered on hyper-personalization based on broader customer interactions across organizations, while AI advances based on real-time structured and unstructured data will enable fully virtualized, end-to-end digital customer experiences that more closely simulate in-person interactions. Deep learning will enable companies to better predict customer behavior and tailor recommendations; wider application of biometrics can enable more natural interactions between people and devices.”
In-store customer experience. I hope you didn’t overlook the fact that Sarer and his colleagues intimated that the gold standard for customer experience is “in-person interactions.” Because in-person interactions remain important to consumers, announcements about the demise of physical retail are premature. Segran notes, “The idea of transforming stores into a place of discovery and entertainment is not new. With the rise of e-commerce, consumers can buy almost everything online. Brick-and-mortar stores that didn’t offer a fun or innovative experience were probably destined for the dustbin of history, even before COVID-19 hit.” With many analysts predicting the rise of “no touch” retail, one could reasonably expect experiential retail to be doomed. Katherine Cullen, head of industry and consumer insights at the National Retail Federation trade association, believes just the opposite. She told Segran, “Experiential retail had been a growing trend, but the pandemic will turbocharge it. Stakes will be higher for brick-and-mortar stores now, because consumers can buy so many products online.”
According to Dan Frommer (@fromedome), founder of retail newsletter The New Consumer, the future of retail is omnichannel. He told Segran, “The mindless shopping is going to stay online. The intentional shopping — the browsing, discovery, socializing, learning — will continue to happen in stores.” Or as Segran writes, “Stores will be reserved for all the fun stuff.” In the future, Frommer predicts physical stores will be a combination of showrooms and fulfillment centers. That might sound a bit like today’s situation; however, Segran explains, “Frommer suggests that the store of the future will be devoted to discovery exclusively. This creates all kinds of enticing possibilities. You might drive to Target and pop into the store to peruse new products while employees fill your car with items you’ve already ordered.” I’m not sure stores will “exclusively” be showrooms for new products. Nevertheless, to make his point, Frommer provides a current example — the grocery chain Eataly. Segran explains, “[Eataly is] a high-end marketplace and food court selling Italian products that has been a runaway success since it launched in 2007, with revenues reaching $559 million before the pandemic hit. Frommer adds, “You’ll get the bulk of your purchases online, so you’ll stroll through the store largely to explore what’s new. There might be a restaurant there and a band playing.”
Sanjay Monga, Principal Consultant for CustomerXM at Qualtrics, insists brands that focus on being customer-centric, rather than customer-led, are likely to be the winners in the customer experience sweepstakes. He explains, “Customer-led companies are reactive, and often end up giving customers what they want — not necessarily what they need.” He argues that great customer experiences create loyal, high-value customers. He writes, “Don’t forget that loyal customers spend more, churn less, refer more business over time, and generally, are more profitable. Innovating the customer experience can help companies accelerate the pace of growth by improving loyalty among higher-value customers. The goal of improving customer experience metrics shouldn’t just be to improve operational efficiency but to fuel that growth.” Sometimes customer experience innovation takes you out of the store.
Samantha David, President of WS Development, told Segran, “We had been seeing how shopping behavior was changing, but during the pandemic the pace of change seems to have accelerated from years to months. People were tired of shopping in generic, cookie-cutter malls. They wanted spaces that feel like they have a soul, because they’re connected to a community and the person who works in the store knows your name.” Segran adds, “David points out that over the past few years, innovative retailers have tried to design stores to be places where people can engage in fun activities with one another, such as designating spaces for lectures, cocktail hours, and free classes. She believes that after an extended period of social isolation, consumers will increasingly gravitate toward stores that create a connection to others.”
Stephanie Nerlich (@snerlich), CEO at Havas Creative Network, North America, observes, “Going forward, brands will need to be ready to adopt a variety of in-store and online measures to cater to today’s shopper. Savvy yet cautious customers expect a safe in-store experience on top of quality service, have a growing desire for personalization, and want an online experience that’s as engaging and humanized as an in-person one. Meeting these needs leaves many brands faced with a massive undertaking in order to survive.” Just because it’s a “massive undertaking” doesn’t mean it has to be tedious. Innovation should be stimulating and exciting. Segran concludes, “If it sounds like loads of fun — well, that’s because it is. Welcome to the future of shopping.”
 Elizabeth Segran, “The exhilarating world of post-pandemic shopping,” Fast Company, 4 January 2021.
 Jeannine Falcone, “In this new world, experience can be a brand’s most powerful asset,” Shots, 14 January 2021.
 Baris Sarer, Abhi Arora, and Michael Razzano, “Now It’s Personal: AI Redefines Customer Experience,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 January 2021.
 Sanjay Monga, “5 Guiding Principles To Rethink Your Approach To CX Innovation,” Forbes, 17 November 2020.
 Stephanie Nerlich, “How to win the customer experience today and post-pandemic,” Think with Google, November 2020.