The world experienced a sudden and severe transformation in 2020, and the retail world particularly faced a reckoning in the wake of quarantines and lockdowns. Brick-and-mortar locations quickly had to close their doors — whether temporarily or, sadly, permanently.
A report from Coresight Research tracked nearly 9,000 store closures in 2020, with the possibility of 10,000 closures in 2021. While the 2020 numbers were lower than expected (the initial prediction was 25,000), these figures are a stern reminder of the challenges retailers had to overcome — and the need for solid strategies moving forward.
The E-Commerce Challenge — and Solutions
A significant challenge for many retailers was how to either implement or boost their e-commerce offerings as consumers migrated online to buy their essentials (or stress shop: 43% of Americans responded to a survey noting shopping as a means to ease the stress caused by the pandemic). Retailers needed a more creative approach for e-commerce efforts to improve the customer experience and increase engagement.
Retailers adopted digital solutions like livestreaming, live one-to-one video chat, social shopping, chatbots and more in a matter of months, as opposed to the years it normally takes to launch these services (gone were lengthy negotiations, with management seeing the value of tools to augment the digital experience). A WIRED article from before the pandemic stated that “Facebook Live is the New QVC,” noting even in 2017 that livestream shopping was set to become a key tactic. Major brands, including Nordstrom, introduced livestream offerings.
Similarly, Walmart partnered with TikTok to showcase the blending of livestreaming and the latest trendy social network. Chatbots also remained an important tool for quick and easy customer service, and the demand for one-to-one video chat services exploded as a way to provide more personalized service and experiences.
Recent research suggests the shifts in customer behavior are here to stay. A report published by Shopify revealed 48% of survey respondents will continue shopping online after the pandemic ends. However, that is certainly not an indication that foot traffic isn’t resuming. Though average numbers are down 13-18% each month, there has been an uptick in U.S. foot traffic since June 2020.
The Next Phase
With vaccine efforts picking up speed, comfort levels are increasing. Foot traffic isn’t yet reaching pre-pandemic levels, but shoppers are heading back to brick-and-mortar. To maintain safety and meet customer expectations, a hybrid approach to retail is the model for future success. A mixture of in-store and online experiences will fit the changing needs and behaviors of consumers — as well as better prepare retailers for similar events in the future (though we all certainly hope we never have to relive this experience again).
Shaking Up the Store: Retailers are likely more than ready to embrace the return of shoppers as reopening efforts engage. But the in-store experience needs to be more than the routine expected pre-pandemic. After spending the majority of 2020 and 2021 inside their homes, customers are seeking more than the typical shopping experience.
Extended safety precautions such as contactless payment options and sanitizing stations are important to maintain but aren’t key to enhancing the overall experience. Deloitte notes that stores will serve new purposes on the customer journey, with shoppers focused on their intended purchases as opposed to lengthy browsing.
Retailers now need to target consumers through the products they’re searching for or that perform best with enhanced displays or special events that can be conducted while still maintaining safety protocol. As both retail and restaurants have done throughout the pandemic, continuing curbside options will also be important for convenience and efficiency.
Marrying Digital and Physical: E-commerce will continue driving generous sales for retailers and provides the opportunity to unify these digital and physical experiences for a truly hybrid approach. Maintaining the digital solutions implemented during the pandemic is crucial to help augment all tactics within the sales strategy.
Video will be a key element as more stores utilize livestreaming, live one-to-one video chat and social channels like TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. These tools mimic the in-store experience and allow for retailers to get creative in how they engage customers — look at examples in the beauty community from Clinique, who hosted a celebrity livestream with Emilia Clarke, and BeautyCounter’s livestream studio inside its Santa Monica store.
Preparing for Any Challenge Ahead
Though restrictions are easing, and vaccines are becoming more widely available, there are still challenges ahead. Retailers will need to examine their strategies — what’s working, what isn’t — to develop the right mix to drive sales and customer engagement in the months and even years ahead. But, with the right balance of in-store and digital tactics in their arsenal, they are on track for success.
Andre Hordagoda is the co-founder of Go Instore, a solution technology connecting digital customers with in-store product experts using a live video platform. Over two decades, he has gained years of experience within e-commerce and has had a major focus on helping retailers improve conversion rates and AOVs, as well as optimizing customer experience using a myriad of technologies ranging from digital personalization, AI, CRM, web analytics and now live, immersive video.