Online shopping: Now’s the time to win customer loyalty

Online shopping is now bigger than ever as more consumers seek the comfort and convenience of shopping from their homes. But getting the customer experience right is vital as consumers look to challenge their conventional high-street traditions and are more prepared than ever to trial online shopping, especially with Christmas just around the corner and the threat of a second Coronavirus lockdown looming, as Michelle Winny finds out

e-commerce has hit an all time high as consumers look to shop online to fulfill their purchasing needs, much more so now than ever before in the wake of COVID-19. Reports confirm that many UK online retailers have just completed their most successful quarter due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Econsultancy reports that 77% of British consumers now do at least part of their shopping online. This figure is up from 61% in 2019.

Scott Frankling, marketing executive at Target Components says: “Throughout the pandemic, people have been upgrading their home tech, be it bigger and better monitors, better home networking (something that’s a lot easier thanks to Mesh WiFi technology) or new accessories. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon; the uncertainty of when we return to ‘normal’ is driving sales of products that enhance our current experience and comfort, with laptops, larger format and 4K monitors, and gaming accessories leading the way. Target has seen a huge and consistent uplift in these categories to our customers, both online and retail.

“The last weekend in November (now being referred to as Cyber Weekend, rather than a single day) is likely to see massive sales online. With less money spent on going out and activities this year, personal items like wearables, speakers and headphones, standalone smart devices and home entertainment are likely to be major winners again, with sales spilling over well into 2021”, adds Frankling.

Rob Shaw, MD EMEA, Fluent Commerce says that retailers need to plan and prepare for busy retail periods ahead to avoid past pitfalls: “We have seen retailers overwhelmed with volume on previous Black Fridays and in the lead up to Christmas; websites crashing, products selling out way too early and grumpy customers. It happens every year and this year will be no different. In fact, store closures and supply chain disruptions will put more pressure on retailers to deliver this year than ever before.

“To prepare for higher demand, retailers must make sure they have enough stock and can sell stock across all locations. Don’t stop selling before the last piece is gone, no matter where it might be located. By selling from your warehouse, your stores and involving drop ship vendors you can make sure that every order can be fulfilled.

“With a complete view of your inventory and a good handle on stock available to sell you can ensure you don’t overpromise and under deliver. If you don’t want orders crisscrossing the country to keep down shipping costs, set up rules as to how much stock is ready to sell in each of your stores and regions and offer personalised availability to customers, depending on their location.

“To avoid delays for customers and keep down costs for the business, ensure that all staff in stores participating in click & collect or shop from store programmes are trained on how to pick, pack and fulfill orders,” Shaw adds.

But on the downside high street store are suffering major losses as lockdown measures and fear of the virus drive footfall away from local stores. “Back in March, retailers across the country were forced to close their stores and rely entirely on driving sales through online channels, leading to online sales surging and physical footfall dropping to record-breaking lows. Since then, restrictions have eased but the retail landscape remains very much the same. In fact, footfall is still around 40% below what it was before the lockdown period as half of Britons are still wary of venturing out to the shops and prefer the convenience and comfort of shopping online – almost half (49%) of UK consumers plan to continue using online services even after restrictions are lifted, says Andre Hordagoda, CEO of Go Instore.

The customer experience as we knew it is no longer recognisable, deterring shoppers from retuning in-store unless they have too as Hordagoda describes, “Even when shoppers do go in-store, they are greeted by an unrecognisable experience and the many perks of visiting a physical store have diminished. Browsing, trying on, touching items and shopping in large groups are all things of the past as limitations prevent customers from shopping in a pre-pandemic way.”

“Retailers need to come to terms with the fact that consumers choosing online over in person is the new normal and it is here to stay. In an attempt to survive in today’s retail landscape, retailers must consider adapting their strategies and replace the lack of physical footfall with digital footfall – especially with the prospect of further social distancing and another lockdown. Retailers must invest in online and digital experiences to keep up with customer behaviour and continue to connect with consumers via the channel they are spending most of their shopping time,” says Hordagoda.

However online shopping cannot replicate the human touch as Hordagoda explains, “There is one thing the comfort and convenience of online shopping cannot replace about shopping in-store, the human element. At the end of the day, people buy from people. Of course brands are aware of the importance of the human touch – this is why they invest in talented salespeople and empower them to inspire others to buy products, but in this chaotic retail climate, many highly trained staff are not utilised via online channels. And we know this is where consumers are currently. Retailers need to invest in omnichannel experiences and recreate the personalised experience they offer in-stores via online channels. Live-video solutions can deliver in-store experiences to online customers and allow shoppers to reap the benefits of a personalised customer experience while shopping from a distance. The highly talented salespeople, are also given an additional tool to do what they do best, connect to customers and convert calls to sales.”

“By delivering a fantastic digital customer experience, brands can ensure shoppers will increase spending, return, engage and transition into brand advocates at a time where brand loyalty is more important than ever,” Hordagoda adds.

Whilst Patrick Smith, field CTO for EMEA at Pure Storage agrees, saying the retail sector needs to be agile, flexible and responsive to the changing landscape caused by the pandemic, “Businesses have been put to the test by the Covid-19 pandemic like never before. It has thrown curveball after curveball, and made forecasting with certainty near impossible. Agility and the ability to adjust strategy at the drop of a hat has become invaluable. If an organisation is moving into the New Year with a rigid, inflexible strategy, they’re setting themselves up for a potential fall in what promises to be another unpredictable year.”

“Technology is a key enabler to combat the travails that the pandemic has brought and ensure agility. To overcome the current challenges, businesses need to recognise that now more than ever, innovation and transformative technology are vital for survival.”

Speaking about business lessons learnt from the crisis, Smith says: “For those businesses that hadn’t already embarked on digital transformation, the pandemic forced them to overhaul their IT, and at speed. Whilst this is a good thing, and these businesses will start to feel the benefits of digital transformation, many companies may have over rotated in their technology choices. To try and guarantee continuity, some opted for infrastructure beyond their needs, choosing expensive solutions with vast capacity. Previously there were immense cost pressures on companies who could get by using legacy technology. But with the immediate need to transform fast and worry about cost later, some over-rotated to unsustainable technology choices. Businesses therefore need to refocus on the medium-term, rebalance and opt for the solutions that fit these needs.”

Businesses should now plan to move forward Smith advises, “Organisations are ‘reading the room’ and are laser focused on prioritising the customer experience. Every business decision maker is also a consumer used to immediacy and ease of use; no one is willing to pay for a product or service that has below average user experience. Moving forward, it’s essential that businesses are investing in innovation that not only improves the product, but also the overall customer experience. In order to do this, it’s important to get the best out of the customer data: analyse and manipulate it to truly understand their needs.”

Smith predicts that ecommerce business over the next 6-12 months will need to keep a close focus on security, “Cybersecurity and ransomware in particular will continue to be areas of concern in the coming months. Whilst in many cases the pandemic has bought out the best in people, it has also bought out the worst in hackers trying to take advantage of people’s good will and vulnerability. It is also a time to go ‘back to basics’ around cyber security awareness amongst employees. At a more corporate level, I predict that we’ll see a continued rise in devastating ransomware attacks, which in turn will lead organisations to approach their backup technologies and services with much more respect and reverence, considering they sit as an organisation’s last line of defence.”

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