sign directing in store traffic, shopping during covid
PHOTO: John Cameron

When the pandemic first led to stay-at-home orders and widespread shutdowns across the US in March, retailers had to quickly align with what would rapidly become a “new normal” of consumer behavior — from a massive uptick in ecommerce to demands for contactless pickup, delivery and payment options. 

Trends that might have taken two to three more years to emerge were suddenly table stakes. Some companies, notably very large retailers, were able to fire up enhanced digital, curbside and contactless capabilities quickly, while others panicked trying to compete with online behemoths such as Amazon to meet the new customer demands. Multiple personas and new customer journeys suddenly had to be addressed. Some sectors, like grocery, were pushed to completely transform.

What's Next for Retail?

As the crisis persists, the new, no-touch world of commerce shows no signs of reverting to a pre-2020 landscape. True, some digital and contactless features have been tried and mostly abandoned, such as booking appointments for consumers to enter physical stores. In addition, some stores kept up with popular curbside options, while others removed them, perhaps because of the high cost or a breakdown in the customer experience. 

The question is, what happens now? After all, new habits aren't going to disappear anytime soon, and many consumers either require contactless commerce options, such as the elderly, or continue to avoid physical retail contact. According to a recent Capgemini survey, over three-quarters of global consumer respondents said they expect to increase their use of touchless interfaces during the pandemic, through voice assistants, facial recognition or apps, while 62% say they will continue to use that technology post-pandemic.

With that in mind, what can retailers do now to improve their offerings? How can they prepare for another possible shutdown or second wave?

Related Article: When Online and In Person Meet: The Challenges of Takeout and Curbside Pickup

Where Retailers Should Focus Today

Clearly, retailers need to focus their efforts on providing the best seamless, omnichannel customer experience possible — with the safe and touch-free options customers demand. To accomplish that, they must:

  • Understand all customer personas. With fewer people coming into the physical store, retailers still need to determine customer desires and figure out how to increase engagement and loyalty. That means gathering digital, mobile and CRM data to more deeply understand customer personas; what channels shoppers want to use along the path to purchase; and how to build a faster, easier, touch-free user experience.
  • Prepare for contactless payments. No longer are contactless payments just about accepting one mobile wallet, such as Apple Pay. Retailers must consider accepting all of the major mobile wallet options as well as investing in contactless credit/debit cards, tap-to-pay options and QR codes. They may also explore payment options built into a store’s native mobile application, connected to a loyalty program or a consumer profile.
  • Investigate creative curbside capabilities. With less foot traffic in physical stores, businesses have no choice but to continue to get creative about connecting to customers and meeting their needs. This will be especially true as the pandemic persists and the holidays arrive. New purchasing and pick-up options like buy online pick up in-store (BOPIS), curbside pick-up and same-day delivery all meet the customer on their terms and offer a range of convenient benefits.
  • Focus on flexible architecture. The large retailers that reacted quickly to the rapid changes in consumer behavior were those that had a modern, flexible web infrastructure, rather than a monolithic, outdated ERP or commerce system. Retailers need an agile framework that can plug and play as new options are needed, such as delivery services, curbside pickup or new shipping capabilities.

Related Article: About That Customer Experience Roadmap ...

The Future of Commerce in a No-Touch Landscape

As retailers work feverishly to regroup and assess the events of the past half-year, there is little doubt that changing shopper behavior is here to stay. For the foreseeable future, many customers will still want some elements of no-touch shopping, whether it is through ecommerce, curbside pickup, BOPIS or contactless payments through a mobile app in the store. A recent Capgemini survey found that two-thirds of consumers currently prefer to use mobile apps for shopping or banking to avoid human interactions and touchscreens, and nearly the same number (62%) expect that preference to continue post-pandemic.

These consumer demands require agile, flexible technological capabilities that many retailers remain challenged to acquire. Those that succeed in the new, no-touch world of commerce will be those that can holistically address a host of both new and traditional customer journeys in a seamless, omnichannel fashion.

Today’s retailers have no choice but to up their game and build a better, faster, easier user experience for shoppers that can easily click away to a competitor. Only the retailers that embrace the “new normal” will be the ones that are able to still deliver an engaging experience at every touchpoint in the journey on the customer’s terms, will succeed over the long haul.