THE SHOP FLOOR > BUSINESS GROWTH

Keeping Customer Experience First with Online Commerce

By Tess Clarendon, Contributor | July 28, 2020

Customer experience has always been crucial to small businesses and independent retailers. The better the experience, the more loyal customers tend to be—and it's consumer loyalty that gives businesses staying power. Loyalty, however, extends beyond the handful of early adopters that believed in your brand from the start. Positive interactions also travel fast by word of mouth, which is why savvy entrepreneurs are so focused on delivering satisfying and memorable experiences.

While traditionally these experiences have been rendered in-person, Covid-19 has changed that. Since the winter, independent businesses have been looking at developing ecommerce components to their business, even if only in service to their local communities. Using these online intermediaries, consumers around the world are now buying their groceries, prescriptions, books and other wants and necessities on the internet and picking them up curbside.

The new digital middleman to shopping is becoming omnipresent.  Surveys conducted by Ipsos and USA Today in March and April show that 41% of consumers have "shifted more of their shopping from physical stores to online." Those tendencies are climbing as more stores adopt digital solutions.

The lesson is clear: Foot traffic to stores may be down, but independent retailers can still move merchandise online. Taking full advantage of this change in consumer behavior means focusing on making the online shopping experience as satisfying as it can possibly be.

Enhancing Your Online Presence Within Your Community

Supplementing brick-and-mortar operations with a digital presence at times of reduced in-store activity is a great way to bolster revenue and maintain—and even increase—your customer numbers. This is possible because the very nature of shelter-in-place directives means people are increasingly reliant on their communities. "Customers will support a local business if they feel that business has supported them," says Jennifer Schulze, VP of retail product marketing with Epicor.

Examples abound in communities across the U.S., and around the world. Neighborhood cafés forced to close to customers are opening up pop-up, touchless grocery programs in grocery deserts. Local restaurants are participating in food bank drives. Clothing boutique retailers are making fabric face coverings at cost. And they're telling everybody about it on their Facebook and especially Instagram pages, the latter of which is becoming an important news source to many.

These are amazing community initiatives that drive mutual goodwill. But for many businesses, this is a time to think strategically about how they can survive, and even thrive, during the Covid-19 era.

Indoor plants and outdoor gardening are two retail areas that have been booming since March. Whether it's because people are looking to make their homes cozier now that they're spending so much time there, because they're using plant care as a stress reliever, or because they're simply doing regular home maintenance, the fact remains: plant shops are in a frenzy. "We are 500% busier than we normally are this time of year," one Oakland shop owner told SFGate.com. To keep afloat during this period, many flower shops—and even other types of businesses, such as art galleries and stationery stores—adapted to the trend by stocking more potted plants.

But with reduced staff and no in-store browsing, independent businesses have few options but to adapt by embracing web-based technologies to serve their communities. One Nevada-based nursery adopted a new ecommerce solution with built-in payment capabilities that generated $1,800 in sales on the first day. Others, like the Gardener's Center and Florist in Darien, CT, use emails and Facebook pages to share photos and videos of new inventory so customers can browse online to pre-select merchandise before visiting, or even to place phone orders.

"We are 500% busier than we normally are this time of year"

Community-based platforms are vital to this strategy, too. "A lot of retailers primarily think about growth beyond their backyard," says Schulze, "but if they start in their own area with their own customers and tools like Next Door and Yelp, they have a differentiating advantage that bigger retailers won't."

Approaches like these make online shopping easier and more enjoyable for your customers. They'll value your efforts, and their appreciation will show in your bottom line.

Improve Communication and Get Creative With Promotion

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, social media became an indispensable tool to retailers. Social platforms are free, relatively easy to use, and already have massive user bases—meaning fast-changing safety protocols, opening hours, and other service changes can be communicated with ease. Not only are these tools essential for telling people about your business, but they're also key for customer service.

In Chicago, Volumes Bookcafé uses its Instagram page to let customers book 30-minute in-store browsing appointments, helping the store keep tabs on safe capacities. The store also leans heavily on its Instagram and Facebook pages to communicate changes, updates, new products and services, and to interact with customers via private message.

"There are many ways to use social media creatively to promote your brand and drive business."

Additionally, while the current social climate requires sensitivity when it comes to marketing, there are still ways you can use social media to call attention to your business and products, too. Schulze recommends thinking outside the box. For example, you may not be able to sponsor a local soccer team right now if there aren't any players on the field, but you could hire a local player to star in YouTube videos featuring soccer tips and tricks, and include a link to your store. Similarly, a florist could partner with a neighbor known for her amazing rose garden and sponsor Instagram content that features advice on how to grow roses.

"Get involved in the community," Schulze says. "There are many ways to use social media creatively to promote your brand and drive business."

She also suggests shining a spotlight on your company's story.

"There's a reason you built your business," she says. "Blog about topics that speak to what you believe in, and be authentic. You can still sell merchandise, but do it in a story-based way that supports local interests and causes that others believe in."

Show Empathy and Maximize Personal Connections

We're in a time now where we're shifting from survival mode and ad-hoc improvisation, to establishing new norms for how to operate. That requires taking a full inventory of how you're doing business— off- and online.

There's no doubt Covid-19 is taking an emotional toll on consumers, and that impacts the way businesses should be engaging with them. Edelman's global study on the role that businesses play during the pandemic shows that 84% of respondents want brand advertising to "help people cope with pandemic-related life challenges." In other words, customers want businesses to empathize with their current situation, and help make it better.

As Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at University of Houston as well as a prolific speaker and author, famously said, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. In business, Schulze echoes, "The notion of empathy is absolutely vital." Fortunately, there's an opportunity for retailers to demonstrate empathy and compassion by combining their digital strategies with personalized service.

The key is using your knowledge of your shoppers' habits and preferences to deliver customer service that goes above and beyond the norm. "You know your customer best," Schulze says. "Even though they're now online, they're still the same person who comes into your store every week." Small retailers have a pulse on their community—so why not use it to your benefit while also improving the customer experience for your patrons?

Schulze says businesses should be combining social and digital media with their understanding of how customers want information and service. For many retailers, this includes making personal calls to customers and offering home delivery for patrons who need it most. Showing empathy in this way may require a little extra effort on your part, "but you can bet they'll appreciate it."

It's the ways retailers treat their customers that will differentiate them from big box competitors in the months to come. All told, it may be this kind of elevated customer experience that ensures the success and longevity of your business.

^ Scroll to top

PREVIOUS ARTICLE Will Supply Chains Become More Regional After COVID-19?