The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected customer behavior. As online shopping became the preferred (and sometimes only) way to purchase goods, ecommerce sales experienced a major boost, growing more than 30% between the first and second quarter of the year. This trend has advanced as people increasingly turn to digital channels as their preferred method of obtaining goods and services. As a result, companies’ digital transformation efforts have been accelerated by several years in a matter of months. 

Despite the negative effects of the pandemic, like higher rates of unemployment, people are still spending. According to a recent report by Digital Commerce 360, consumers in the US are projected to spend a whopping $198.73 billion with online retailers this holiday season — a 43.3% year-over-year jump from the same November to December period last year. 

Companies who want to stay competitive and retain customers in this changed world must quickly adopt a more customer-centric model than years prior. Having a solid understanding of consumer needs, and knowing how to accommodate them, will be at the core of this strategy. Here are three key trends we can expect successful companies to adopt in 2021.

Understand the 'Why' Behind Shifts in Customer Behavior

Pre-pandemic models clearly won't work to predict customer behavior today. Consumers are now making very deliberate choices and decisions that make them feel safe and remove uncertainty within the context of the pandemic. 

As companies grapple with how to design experiences that were previously based on big data models that became obsolete overnight, those with the ability to identify and pivot based on these new needs will be successful. 

Travel marketplace, Skyscanner, is a prime example of this. As the pandemic spread from Asia to Europe and the Americas, the company observed a steep decline in demand, and wanted to find out how its customers throughout the world were thinking and feeling. Two key themes emerged regarding customers’ risk adversity and comfortability with ambiguity, which then helped Skyscanner determine its strategy moving forward. 

The company was able to provide help and advice that put customers at ease by answering questions like where it’s safe to travel to, the best ways of getting there, and what to expect when in transit and upon arrival. To abate customers' fears around losing money, Skyscanner began surfacing information about flexible ticket and refund policies. It quickly became clear that customers wanted more of this type of information in order to consider and feel confident enough to book. By understanding these new needs, Skyscanner has a clear view of what customers will continue to require as we approach 2021. 

"The foundational understanding of the customer is the critical factor helping us drive decision making right now," said Oli Mival, head of user research at Skyscanner. Brands who aim to understand changing needs, remove uncertainty, and make customers feel safe and secure in their purchases will come out on top.

Related Article: How Has the Customer Journey Shifted?

It’s Time to Get Innovative

Brick and mortar commerce has been on the steady decline for years as consumers opt to shop online, and giants like Amazon dominate the space. The pandemic has further exacerbated this as experiences that previously required human interaction — like ring shopping or going to the supermarket — are being second-guessed as health and safety take top priority. 

This year alone, 12,000 stores are expected to close across the US, not including small businesses like restaurants. With in-person shopping no longer a viable revenue source, companies need to get innovative and build new experiences to fill this gap. 

Learning Opportunities

For example, jewelry company Pandora is now offering virtual ring sizing and shopping appointments, and automotive companies like Ford have made virtual showrooms. This trend also extends to services like healthcare. Telehealth has facilitated a massive shift to remote care, as 76% of people say they’d be willing to use the platform and 90% of physicians report already using it to treat patients remotely.

By offering a digitized or remote option for these experiences, companies provide customers with not only added convenience, but also an increased feeling of safety. 

Related Article: Converge Your Customer Experience and Digital to Thrive in 2021

Optimize Your Channels (Especially Digital)

As the adoption of digital experiences and ecommerce continues to grow, now is the time for companies to optimize their digital channels. 

Sporting goods retail company Dick’s Sporting Goods made a heavy pivot towards digital for order fulfillment at the start of the pandemic. As a result of optimizing its digital channels, the company’s ecommerce revenue increased by 194% in its fiscal second quarter, which ended August first. Its omnichannel programs — BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store), ship-from-store and curbside pickup — accounted for more than 75% of ecommerce orders within that period.

Retail giants like Walmart and Target have also had success with optimizing curbside shopping through their apps. Features within the apps let customers alert the store when they’re en route, when they’ve arrived, let attendants know to put their goods in the trunk, and more, providing a convenient and safe shopping experience.

The pandemic continues to change the ways consumers interact with brands, and no one can predict the lasting impact this will have on commerce. But by prioritizing the understanding of the customer, and implementing the strategies above, companies can set themselves up for success in 2021 and beyond. 

Related Article: Design Ecommerce Experiences to Handle Increasing Demand