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COVID Crisis Driving Need for Digital Retail Acceleration and Deeper Customer Engagement: Study

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Long gone are the days when a great, even exceptional, in-store experience was enough to satisfy the consumer and keep them coming back. If it remained a notion for brands before the impacts of COVID-19 began to take hold, it has surely been blown up since. Restrictions associated with the pandemic, on both consumers and businesses alike, have transformed the lives of people all over the world, changing the way we interact and operate in this new crisis-laden environment. As a result, consumers are expecting retailers to respond to these transformations in order to assuage the challenges they face and meet their increasing demand for personalization and convenience.

A recently released report conducted by Salesforce – the fourth edition of its State of the Connected Customer – finds that 90 percent of Canadian customers believe that the way a company acts during a crisis demonstrates its trustworthiness. And, according to Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist, the opportunities available for retailers to reinforce or even elevate their value in the eyes of customers and secure their continued loyalty to the brand are plentiful and immense.

“What we’ve all experienced over the past nine months or so is truly unprecedented,” he says. “The impacts of the pandemic have set in motion a titanic shift concerning the way we do things right across the board. One of the most profound changes is in the country’s workforce. In March, only 9 percent of the workforce in Canada was working remotely. Just 30 days later, that number increased to 60 percent. It resulted in more than 5 million people immediately shifting to a decentralized, digital-only construct. It’s fundamentally altered the way we communicate with one another, as well as the way we want to be communicated to by businesses and brands. What it’s resulted in is a consumer who wants to engage with their favourite brands in different ways than they have in the past, and they want those brands to respond accordingly. It provides retailers with massive opportunities to listen to their customers and innovate to meet their demands.”

Digital Acceleration

One of the areas in which today’s consumer is demanding innovation from retailers, according to the Salesforce report, is with respect to their digital capabilities and offering. The study reveals that 89 percent of Canadians expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives. Further, it also indicates that it’s a digital shift that is likely going to be long-lasting, with 66 percent of respondents admitting that COVID-19 has elevated their expectations of digital capabilities. Combining these responses with the fact that an estimated 53 percent of their interactions with businesses will take place online this coming year leaves little doubt that the ways in which retailers choose to address these attitudes and intentions will directly influence their appeal among consumers during the months and years ahead.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in e-commerce adoption over the past several months,” asserts Afshar. “It’s part of a digital shift that’s been happening over the last number of years. But, with the obvious forcing function that the pandemic’s presented, these attitudes and behaviours have been significantly quickened. As a result, the ways in which today’s connected customer wants to engage with businesses has transformed. It’s disrupting all of the norms and forcing businesses everywhere to rethink the ways they communicate with their customers, both existing and prospective, at every touchpoint.”

Evolving Methods of Engagement

The dramatic change is highlighted in the fact that 57 percent of those participating in the study say that the way they interact with businesses has evolved throughout the past year. Some of their new expectations of businesses include the introduction of alternative ways to receive existing products and services, such as providing digital versions of traditionally in-person experiences (69 percent), and an expansion of the customer engagement methods they deploy (54 percent). They are expectations that are challenging businesses to innovate. And, as Afshar explains, they are expectations that will provide all businesses with a platform for differentiation, as well as a moment of truth in which trust in brands will either be forged, or not.

“Throughout all of the change that we’ve undergone in 2020, one thing remains very clear,” he says. “The experience that a brand provides for its customers still serves as a significant way for them to separate their offering from competitors. As part of that experience, businesses need to develop and execute on an omnichannel engagement strategy that takes into account the customers’ preferences and the multitude of channels on which they interact. If done properly, businesses will nurture a true understanding of their customers’ needs and drive an experience of value and convenience that services their uniquely evolving needs and engenders within them a trust and support for the brand.”

Understanding and Empathy

During this most difficult time when everyone across the globe is attempting to navigate through the challenges and evolving circumstances presented by the spread of COVID-19, a business’ recognition of the needs and preferences of today’s consumer is perhaps more important than ever. According to Salesforce’s report, 66 percent of customers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations. And 68 percent expect brands to demonstrate empathy as a result of their understanding. The sentiment offers retailers that can realize it a tremendous opportunity to strengthen relationships with customers and bolster the image of the brand.

It all represents a need for businesses to continue cultivating deeper connections with consumers, appealing to their heightened needs to make their lives easier and less cluttered. And it seems that the customers’ desire for businesses to display empathy is also parlaying into an expectation for brands to continue improving their corporate and societal values as well. According to the report, factors including a brands’ treatment of employees and customers during the pandemic crisis, environmental practices, actions on racial and economic injustices, and community involvement are all considerations made by consumers when making a purchase decision. In addition, 56 percent of customers have re-evaluated the societal role of companies this year, with a significant 71 percent stating to be paying more attention to companies’ values than they did a year ago.

“The impacts of COVID have resulted in highlighting the responsibility of companies everywhere,” he says. “Customers want to see that the brands they shop at are making the right decisions with respect to the hiring of workforces that more accurately reflect the communities they serve, the ethical use of technology, advocating for human and civil rights, and the implementation of more environmentally-friendly and sustainable practices. Today, Canadian consumers are demanding that brands demonstrate their values with 85 percent stating that they believe the societal role of companies is changing. For those brands that are truly dedicated to making improvements in these areas and invest the resources to do so, the rewards for their efforts could be immeasurable.”

The Future of Retail

“The pandemic has impacted and disrupted every facet of the customers’ daily lives. The colossal shift it has caused requires businesses to adapt and transform the way they do things, not only to remain competitive, but in some instances to survive. The ways in which brands respond to these changes and the concerted efforts that they make toward enhancing their digital capabilities and increasing their accessibility to customers across all touchpoints will not only prove to be critical to their success, but will also help shape the future of retail in Canada.”

All told, the report helps weave a narrative surrounding the attitudes and preferences of today’s connected customer and their collective desire for businesses to elevate their operations and practices to better serve their needs. It represents a tall order for brands looking to meet these expectations. But, as Afshar points out, it’s quickly becoming an imperative for them to do so in order to continue growing and attracting the interest of engaged and loyal shoppers.

Article Author

Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry
Sean Tarry is an experienced writer who leverages his unique storytelling abilities to bring retail industry news and analysis to life. With 25 years of learning, including over a decade as Editor-In-Chief of Canadian Retailer magazine, he’s equipped with a deep understanding of the unique world of retail and the issues, trends, and innovators that continue to influence its evolution and shape its landscape.

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