As I write this from the near peak of the global pandemic, the retail industry is facing its most critical time in its history — one for the books, certainly.
Right now, 95% of Americans are under stay-at-home orders at their homes, essentially unable to go out and shop. As a result, stores are closing and it’s expected the coronavirus will trigger mass retail bankruptcies and store closings. Unfortunately there’s no end in sight, with analysts projecting holiday sales to decrease by 30%.
However, it’s clear that e-commerce is the one glimmer of hope within the chaos. We also predict that this massive cultural shift will work to speed up the retail industry's adoption of technologies and strategies that take customer relationships to the ultimate level.
Companies like Target, Zumiez, Casper and Carvana were successful in navigating the choppy waters of the 2019 retail apocalypse through technological advances and unique cultural shifts that made it possible for them to keep customers happy and coming back. This massive shift will only work to speed up retail adoption of these innovations.
So what are some of these promising changes that will help the retail industry in this time of need?
#1 AI ChaTbots
The combination of chatbots with AI and avatars creates an exceptional customer experience by targeting the right customer, at the right time, with the right message, and meets the customers’ needs faster and better.
Live chat is essential to humanizing customers and minimizing their pain points, particularly because it enables real conversations at the time of need rather than later through email, particularly when they might be upset or looking to fix a problem. (Who wants to wait 24 hours for an email while you’re shopping for that purse or wallet you have been eyeing for months?)
#2 Proactive Customer Support
A frustrated customer is an unhappy customer who leaves your online store, possibly never to come back. Using behavioral targeting, technologies can engage struggling or upset customers with proactive messaging before they become frustrated.
Offering guidance before the customer has to seek help will ensure their browsing experience is seamless and completely comfortable.
#3 Turning Store Employees Into Online Experts
Mass layoffs add another dark layer during this pandemic, promising to throw this country’s economy into a tailspin. Successful brands retrained in-store staff for their online customer service team, given they are already well educated on product information and creating a personal customer connection.
This unified offline and online agent team reduced training times and let brick-and-mortar sales teams transition easily into online sales, with no need for mass labor cuts.
#4 The New Role of Customer Service
Successful brands like Gucci, for example, have shifted from using “customer service reps” to “online sales associates.” In the past, companies hired support agents who were mainly focused on resolving mundane service issues like returns, tracking or website FAQs. The idea was to solve the issue quickly and go on to the next.
“Online sales associates” receive specialized training in product knowledge and emotional intelligence to deliver bespoke customer support and clientele online. The idea is to spend more time with customers instead of less in order to foster real connections with customers.
Brands that encourage customer connection online will be rewarded with increased brand loyalty and higher basket values.
The retail industry has been thrown into chaos, and will bring about massive shifts in the entire ecosystem, good and bad. Perhaps one small silver lining for our industry is that some of these changes will involve an evolution in how to support and guide customers that will ultimately usher in a “retail renaissance.”
Hadar Paz is CEO and co-founder of Powerfront, an AI-powered chat solution for luxury brands’ online customer service experience.