The game has changed, but the players remain the same.
While the migration of a significant percentage of consumer retail spending online was always inevitable, the timetable for this shift was dramatically fast-forwarded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the logistics were already in place, but retailers had to scramble in order to handle the massive volume of their online orders. Other than the initial run on essentials, things went about as smoothly as could have been expected given the situation. Order fulfillment was the initial hurdle, but there are deeper things that online retailers need to figure out—things they thought at the beginning of 2020 were 2-3 years away.
One of those key things to get right is the online customer experience (CX).
CX has long been a key ingredient to retail success and traditional retailers have been experts at it for a long time. They know that consumers have plenty of choices on where and how to spend their money, so what makes them drive past one store to go to the other one a few miles down the road? What keeps them loyal fans? From the look and feel of the brick and mortar location to staff interactions from purchase to return, these are all key engagements with customers that make the difference between having a great year and widespread store closings.
Online, the customer experience is a bit trickier. Digital shoppers are driven by different motivations than offline. They can compare prices between stores within seconds, check ratings & reviews, and can do their own deep research on every purchase decision. This has taken a bit of the power away from individual retailers looking to retain their customers, but with the right customer experience strategy in place, they may be able to make the digital leap successfully.
So, how has the customer experience changed with the “new normal”? Today, we chat with a customer experience expert on these topics and more.
Five Questions with Jess Vadino, Vice President, Ecommerce Experience at Reprise Commerce
Founded in 2003, Reprise Media, a subsidiary of IPG Mediabrands, is a leading global performance agency focused on building meaningful digital experiences for many of the world’s most celebrated brands and the consumers looking to connect with them online.
Vadino is a veteran commerce pro with experience across brands and agencies with an MBA from Philadelphia University. She is self-professed obsessed with customer experience and has a 20-year track record of proven impactful growth with deep expertise in ecommerce, CX, personalization & optimization and digital strategy. At Reprise Commerce, Vadino helps her clients better understand the value of customer experience on the bottom line and uses data-driven insights to drive transformational change.
How important is it for retailers to get the customer experience (CX) right? What’s the penalty for missing the mark?
Getting CX right should be paramount.
There’s so much competition in the retail space. There are more businesses starting now than we’ve seen in recent history, and consumer spending habits have changed dramatically. While the minority of people—who make up the majority of spending—are spending more than usual, the majority of people are only now loosening up their pandemic purse strings. So, you’ve got a crowded market, tighter wallets, and shipping across the board is pretty terrible. How are people going to decide where their money goes? It’s going to go to brands they feel connected to whether that connection is based on a preference for their product, enjoying their digital experience, or finding their tribe amongst the brand community.
There’s an old Walker study that said by 2020, customer experience will be the top differentiator in where customers chose to buy. Not product assortment, not price, not anything else.
To that end, retailers can’t afford to get it wrong. While it may not be perfect out of the gate, it’s not something brands can pretend doesn’t matter. Doing so would be a fast path to shuttering doors and sunsetting sites.
How do brands figure out what customers want in order to optimize their relationship?
At the risk of making my job redundant: ask them. Yes, it truly is that easy. The challenging part is how and what you ask them. There’s the old quote (often, but incorrectly, attributed to Henry Ford), “If i’d asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse”.
What people want—that faster horse—matters a lot less than why they want it; to get from point A to point B faster.
Rather than ask, What do you want from my brand?, the right questions are Who are your favorite brands? Why? Are you a part of their community (i.e. social media, online, chat, etc)? What about it do you like or dislike? These answers can be far more telling. After all, you can’t create a faster horse, but you can create a faster way for people to get from point A to point B.
And this can be challenging. They say that the customer is always right, but what if their wants/needs are in conflict with the brand?
Every brand isn’t for every customer and vice versa. An Apple loyalist isn’t likely to be a core Android customer, so the wants and needs of that customer should be of less concern to a manufacturer of Android mobile phones. However, brands should be concerned when they start to see their core customers start to abandon them. At this point, brands should stop and talk with their customers, their customer service teams, and their social media accounts to understand why this is happening.
How has the customer experience changed during COVID-19? What are some examples of brands that have pivoted successfully?
COVID-19 turned customer experience on its head.
It went from being what brands think customers want to being what customers needed. There were moments where brands started talking to their customers like peers instead of fans and that level of open communication in such an unprecedented time went a long way to build trust with shoppers. While customers will always have the upper hand (since they hold the wallet), the relationship between brand and consumer started to feel much more level. That’s a step in the right direction.
However, the pandemic has been such a constantly moving target that I don’t think any single retailer nailed it even though I think a lot of brands did a lot of things right. Target performed really well throughout the pandemic. It made sure that it met their customer where they wanted to be met, whether this was in-store shopping, in-store pick up, curbside delivery, or traditional digital D2C. This is what customers wanted from Target: the feeling of reliability, safety, availability which created a customer experience of stability in a time that felt anything but stable.
Last spring, we saw beauty brands hold Zoom happy hours for their customers. The sense of community is important during the (old) normal times, and it became crucial in the midst of the pandemic. It’s what we needed and these brands delivered. Some were Zoom-bombed and some probably had less attendees than others. But building that sense of community gave customers a reason to come back.
One brand that I think has done an exceptional job during the pandemic is King Arthur Baking (KAB). Stuck at home, everyone and their brother and their mother became a baker, or baked more, than they had previously. KAB is amazing at customer experience. Its website is a wonderful rabbit hole of recipes, blog posts, and so much interaction from other consumers. The company responds to every single comment and question on their recipes. Problems with sourdough starter? They’ve got you. Wondering if you can replace flour to make a recipe gluten free? They’ll have an answer. Wondering how the heck to get a stuck boule of bread out of your dutch oven? They’ve got it covered, and if you can’t wait for a written answer, you can call their baker’s hotline.
This is an exceptional way to build customer loyalty, and in many cases, before the person is even a customer. While I think KAB has always been customer-focused, they really rose (pardon the pun) to the challenge.
Where does Retail Media fit in the customer experience?
Working at a media agency has highlighted just how interwoven retail media and CX are. While you can have one without the other, when done well, it’s an incredibly powerful combination.
It’s like a relay race, with the customer as the baton. Media runs hard for the first part of the race and there should be a seamless handoff of the customer to CX to run the second half. Both runners have to be great in their own disciplines, but they also have to know how to work well together. That seamless handoff translates to a consistent brand experience across all touch points. If there are areas of improvement on one side, the other side can push a little harder to compensate.
They can stand on their own, but when they work together and support each other? It’s a best case scenario.
Customer Experience + Best-in-Class Retail Media is Key in Today’s Competitive Market
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