What are the changing dynamics of retail and escalating customer expectations due to the COVID-19 pandemic? How can online businesses stay competitive?
Before 2020, customer experience (CX) was the way to differentiate your online store from a crowded field of competitors. Now the challenge is not just to stand out, but to innovate, pivot, and transform to meet radically changed customer expectations, as pandemic-related shutdowns and public health concerns have dramatically and maybe permanently changed the way we shop.
Online retailers need to respond to the changing dynamics of retail and escalating customer expectations to stay competitive. This is especially true for retailers that previously relied on in-store sales for the bulk of their revenue, because digital might now be the only way to deliver great customer experience.
When so much has changed so quickly, do we even know what a great customer experience means anymore? To answer that, you need to understand how the needs of your customers have shifted, often leading to a significant change in what they view as a great customer experience.
The increased importance of a standout digital customer experience
Your customers may be financially stressed by COVID-19. They likely want to be touchless digital customers. And they will be spending their money and shopping differently for some time. While we haven't collectively witnessed a pandemic in many years, history tells us that the impact on people's behavior outlives the pandemic itself. There will likely be collective, long-term shifts in the way your customers behave online and shop.
Right now, according to a Forrester report on consumer shopping behavior, 37% of consumers prefer to stay indoors while accomplishing their core activities remotely, including working, socializing, consuming media, and making essential retail purchases.
For a sizable minority of consumers, shopping online is new behavior. As brick-and-mortar shops have closed, one-quarter of U.S. consumers shopped online for the first time. BOPIS (buy online pick up in store) transactions surged by 200% year over year during the first three weeks of April as shoppers tried to get essentials like groceries and personal care items without lingering inside stores. Only one-third of current online buyers plan to visit physical stores when they reopen.
These statistics say a lot about the customer mindset. The safety and convenience of online shopping won't be abandoned just because physical stores reopen. And as more retailers pour more resources into building out their online shopping experiences, customers' expectations for online shopping will continue to rise. Consider that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has reported a record number of consumer complaints about e-commerce merchants since the pandemic shutdown in March.
Understanding what customer expectations are, and how they're trending, can help you evaluate whether your store delivers great CX now and how it can improve.
Adapting the customer experience for the new normal
Particularly in times of crisis, every customer interaction with a brand can trigger a lingering effect of either trust and loyalty or disconnect. As millions of people shelter in place, a primary measure of their customer experience will be whether the businesses they shop with deliver products, services, and experiences with care, concern, and empathy.
How can an e-commerce business accomplish that, especially in a disrupted environment where supply chain issues, panic-buying induced shortages, and logistics difficulties all have the potential to negatively impact your customers' experience with your store? Let's examine some key elements.
Real-time information about product availability and shipping
Right now, we're seeing unusual disruptions in product availability. Part of the problem is that supply chains have been disrupted and continue to be variable, as suppliers adapt to physical distancing requirements, labor shortages, and temporary closures. But another issue is that with many people stuck at home, everyone's looking for the same way to make home life more comfortable, which has led to shortages of some unexpected items, like inflatable backyard swimming pools, bikes, and other outdoor recreation equipment.
Because consumers are encountering long wait times for some everyday items, they want to know upfront if your store has the items in stock now. Connecting your store's inventory data to product pages may require changes on the back end, but meeting customers' demands for real-time information is important to avoid wasting shoppers' time and to earn and keep their trust.
As always, shoppers expect fast shipping, which is a challenge because logistics employees are falling ill at a time of sustained high demand. Current shipping speed information belongs on every page in your store so customers aren't surprised at checkout, which can lead to cart abandonment.
Your customers also need to be able to track their purchases from warehouse to doorstep, which you should offer through your carriers or a third-party package-tracking service. Real-time tracking is important not only to show where packages are but also to help prevent package theft, which is on the rise.
Clear, positive messaging and support
Now more than ever, people need extra guidance and support to navigate a new set of challenges. This can be a natural extension of your company's purpose and values, tailored to offer your customers more help in terms of in-store messaging, access to customer support, and promotions.
In addition to clear messaging about inventory levels and shipping times, consider the ways your store can help your customers cope with issues they may be facing. In a variety of industries, we've seen goodwill gestures that strengthen brand loyalty by extending extra assistance to customers. For example, in the spring, many credit card issuers offered credit line increases, penalty-free payment skipping, and hardship solutions for customers who lost income during the shutdown. As college students had to vacate dorms early, U-Haul offered them 30 days of free storage.
What is it that your buyers will value? Can you offer a free upgrade on shipping speed for in-demand items, or bundle and discount items that are often bought together? If your site doesn't already have a customer service chat tool, can you add one to help shoppers get their questions answered quickly? Look for the gaps in your customer experience and the hardships your customers are facing, and see how you can make things better.
Low-friction authentication and checkout
Loyalty to brands is also driven by the ease of the buying experience, and that often hinges on the checkout process. Companies that balance security and customer experience may boost customer satisfaction by as much as 35%, according to McKinsey. A badly designed checkout – one that requires too many steps or feels like an inquisition – can lead to cart and merchant abandonment. Some 39% of consumers say they prioritize their experience over other factors when shopping, but ...
The way your store authenticates a customer's identity not only protects you from fraud, it also helps shape the customer's perception of your brand. Every e-commerce order screening represents a fragile opportunity to earn customers' loyalty. A false positive can frustrate and insult a customer so that they never return to your store. But if your authentication process is complicated and time-consuming, more than 1 in 3 consumers will abandon it mid-transaction.
To avoid fraud, reduce false positives, and ensure that you deliver a high-quality customer experience at checkout, now is the time to review your order-screening process. Besides checking all orders for indicators of fraud, manually review all suspicious orders instead of automatically rejecting them. Reviewing these suspect orders improves the customer experience by reducing false positives. That in turn helps you earn more revenue. And as your review team, or the one you outsource to, inputs information about the orders they review, the machine-learning algorithm that drives your screening program gets smarter and better at separating good orders from fraud.
Creating a great customer experience is possible, even at a time of major disruption. Know and meet your customers' needs, provide transparency about product availability and shipping, and balance fraud screening with false decline reduction to stand out in the increasingly crowded and busy e-commerce landscape.