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New Ways for Retailers to Thrive with Shifting Consumer Behavior

By Tess Clarendon, Contributor | September 02, 2020

For retailers, the current business environment is immensely challenging. The arrival of Covid-19, with its quarantine mandates and state restrictions related to social distancing and masks, requires that retailers learn to navigate a whole new reality.

But while daily operations may not look like "business as usual," the pandemic—and the way it has affected shoppers—is creating opportunities for retailers to thrive. Many have been quick to review their playbooks in an effort to strengthen their business offerings and deliver on consumers' changing needs.

Online sales increased by 49% this year

Businesses are focusing on innovation, experimenting with technology, and developing omnichannel retail strategies to improve customer experiences. Early results show this multi-pronged approach is working; Adobe Analytics reports that online sales increased by 49% from mid-March to mid-April this year.

As Covid-19 continues to propagate, it's clear that embracing new tools, strategies, technologies, and attitudes are essential to making businesses more resilient now and in the future.

Shifting Behavior Impacts How Consumers Shop

The shopping experience is changing rapidly, and that includes how and where consumers opt to make their purchases. Not only are your customers spending more money online, but they're also making more of their buys via tablet and smartphone. Studies predict that mobile commerce will account for nearly 54% of all ecommerce sales in 2021.

It's a change that reflects consumers' growing dependence on mobile devices. According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of Americans own a cellphone, and 81% of those are smartphones. And the numbers are growing every year. The growth of online retail is a natural outcropping of this trend. People like the ease and convenience of shopping anytime, anywhere. Online offers greater availability of inventory, and desktop and mobile shopping experiences can capitalize on online-only discounts (with free shipping minimums) as a selling technique.

People like the ease and convenience of shopping anytime, anywhere.

Naturally, working remotely and practicing social distancing is also impacting what consumers choose to buy.

Home improvement stores and gardening centers are booming because of how much time we spend at home. Electronics retailer Best Buy is seeing similar growth; the company's stock rose by 7% in May after newly remote workers began turning to its online store for items like home office equipment and supplies. Meanwhile, visits to Dick's Sporting Goods stores increased by nearly 16% year-over-year the week of June 15. Spending on sporting goods in the U.S. is up 20.6% overall as consumers look for physical activities to occupy their time.

Now that stores are reopening, the outlook is positive for other industries as well. According to The Wall Street Journal, spending at U.S. stores went up in both May and June. June retail sales topped $524 billion," nearly back to pre-pandemic levels."

But consumers aren't necessarily swapping online shopping for in-store experiences as the pandemic wears on. Rather, they're increasingly blending their shopping experiences, driving the need for omnichannel retail strategies.

Sources: Harvard Business Review, Big Commerce, National Retail Federation, Statista, Retail Dive, Supply and Demand Executive, National Retail Foundation

Social Media Matters

Omnichannel doesn't simply mean, "get a website" or "do curbside pickup for online orders." It is those things—but it's also much more, including:

  • Adopt cloud-based back-end inventory systems that dynamically reconcile online and in-store sales 
  • Figure out how to manage fulfillment
  • Step up your social media presence and use it as a sales and support tool

A social media strategy is essential, seeing that consumers use it on average for more than an hour and 20 minutes each day. Consider the recent marketing campaign launched by men's shirt retailer Untuckit, which incorporates real tweets from previously skeptical consumers into online videos. In one, the business's founder reads a tongue-in-cheek tweet that claims, "Every shirt's an Untuckit shirt right now." He responds by explaining the unique characteristics of the product. It's a strategy that acknowledges the massive work-from-home situation while providing useful information to potential buyers and drives them to the retailer's website.

On Instagram, Target is using its channel to connect to the bigger political picture, by featuring founders of some of its Black-owned brands. They also offer followers the ability to browse and purchase products from their feed via an Instagram Shop. It's clear Target is broadening its omnichannel strategy giving consumers the ability to shop in-store, online, on the mobile app, and on social media accounts.

Facebook has value for retailers, too. Walgreens is using the platform to drive visits to the coronavirus information section of its website. There, customers can see what stores are doing to keep them safe while also viewing recommended products. Meanwhile, Epicor customer, Ace Hardware​​​, uses its Facebook page to announce contests, promote its corporate social good projects, and shares sponsored content related to its products. It also creates original video content to celebrate worker initiatives, like a recent profile of an employee who created a trap-neuter-return program for stray cats at her store's lumber yard.

Take a Tech-Forward Approach

Offering customers options when it comes to how and where they can buy your products has been important for a while. Sheltering at home, quarantining, and social distancing make it critical.

That's why retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond are adopting the buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) model, and even converting some of their retail stores into regional fulfillment centers for online orders. Discount grocery chain Aldi recently announced plans to open 70 new stores by the end of the year—and CNBC reports the company is working to expand its curbside pickup option. Aldi is also among the grocery retailers working with Instacart to deliver online orders to customers.

Buy-Online-Pickup-In-Store is exploding

These are all smart moves in a retail reality where BOPIS is exploding. Aldi is well-positioned for continued growth through economic uncertainty with both discounted prices and socially-distanced ways to buy groceries.

For those eager to take technology a step further, many tools exist to help you follow safety regulations while still serving your customers. These include touchscreens that use antimicrobial technology and apps that allow customers to hold their place in line virtually without having to gather in a crowd, among others. We may even see the Amazon Go model—known as Just Walk Out shopping—to expand across the retail industry. That system uses computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning to allow customers to scan a mobile app upon arrival, add items to their bag, then leave without checking out. ​

Right now is the time to look for opportunities to tackle business challenges using innovations you may have previously been reluctant to integrate. The companies that reassess and fast-track features that lend themselves to the new retail environment are likely to find success despite any barriers encountered along the way.

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