The retail sector has been in flux for some time and, post coronavirus, there’s more uncertainty to come.
“There is a lot of talk about ‘returning to normal’ or of the ‘new normal’, but prior to the pandemic the only normal was that everything was changing,” says business consultant Neil Gibb. The pandemic has simply accelerated that transformation, he said ahead of a British Retail Consortium webinar on the impact of Covid-19.
Even an industry that has weathered its fair share of storms has never seen an event of this size and significance, and it’s becoming clear that the rules of engagement are changing. As retailers navigate uncharted waters, these are the rules that matter right now:
Put safety first
Above all, responsible businesses have to prioritise safety, both for staff and customers. According to Kyle Monk, head of retail insights and analytics at the British Retail Consortium, retailers are working hard on both implementing safety measures and communicating them clearly. Luckily, technology is on our side when it comes to designing systems that put safety first, but not at the expense of the customer experience. He cites a technology company that has shop assistants available by video screen in-store. The remote shop assistants can engage with you in a similar way in which they would normally.
While it may seem at first that the new retail environment will not make the most fun of shopping experiences, with creativity, innovation and by utilising tech, companies can get the balance right.
“The scale of the pandemic and the speed with which we’ve had to adopt a new way of living has left many of us feeling uncertain – especially retailers,” says Andrew Lawson, senior vice-president EMEA for Zendesk, a customer relationship management software company. The good news, however, is that a sense of optimism is emerging as businesses deal successfully with unstable operating conditions. “We’ve seen incredible stories of resilience coming out of the pandemic, as retailers and their suppliers band together to maintain the flow of goods,” says Lawson.
This collaborative spirit will be important for the industry if it is to retain momentum, share best practice and agree about what support may be needed from the government. “It’s kind of unprecedented,” says Monk. “I don’t think, to be honest, any other industry is coordinating in the way that retail is at the moment.”
While some retailers have launched e-commerce platforms in record time – one European chain that had around 1,000 stores but no e-commerce platform, managed to launch one in 13 weeks – Lawson suggests that incremental digital transformation might be the better way forward. Zendesk is finding that many of its customers are reluctant to invest time and money in total digital transformation when there is still so much uncertainty. “The priority is to identify solutions that can deliver returns on investment quickly,” he says. “For example, by looking at an omnichannel approach, you can bring all the information you have on a customer together in one place. This will provide your marketing and sales teams with invaluable insights.”
Support your staff
We may never return to business as usual but, according to Lawson, companies can move forward by supporting and listening to feedback from staff. He also emphasises the connection between a happy and valued workforce, and the ability to be agile, scalable and resilient. “By helping employees adapt to new systems and processes through training and regular communication, and by really listening to feedback, the new styles and systems that we work under really can work for everyone,” he says.
Appeal to your fans
There has never been a better time for companies to revisit their core purpose – building a trusted and valued brand. Research from Zendesk shows that customers have been more patient during the pandemic. While the volume of service requests and wait times have gone up, customer satisfaction remains fairly steady, indicating brand loyalty. Customers will support the brands that they want to succeed, says Monk.
And Gibb believes successful retailers won’t have customers going forward, they’ll have loyal fans – people who care deeply about what that brand really stands for. For decision-makers in the retail business, who feel that the ground is constantly shifting beneath them, focusing on purpose could provide a much needed stable foundation.
Things are changing fast. But you can be faster. Zendesk’s CRM software for support, sales and customer engagement is quick to implement and easily scales to meet the changing needs of your business. Learn more at zendesk.co.uk/retail