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CSA Exclusive: COVID-19 accelerates change in customer expectations

An RSR Research webinar revealed the necessity of understanding the modern consumer.

A webinar from RSR Research highlighted how the pandemic has intensified an already significant period of evolution in how retailers serve customers.

The webinar, “How Leading Technologists are Innovating in a World on Fire,” was hosted by RSR Research on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, with Chain Store Age having exclusive press credentials. Brian Kilcourse, managing partner, RSR Research, moderated an expert panel consisting of Shannon Colquhoun, VP, strategy for retail, e-commerce & CPG, TalkDesk; Ed Wong, senior VP, industry strategy for global retail sector, Blue Yonder; and Rob Garf, VP and GM for retail, Salesforce.

The panel discussed a wide range of topics, with an overarching focus of an already developing paradigm shift in the type of experience expected by modern customers being accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following is a summary of panelist commentary on several specific areas of the changing retail enterprise.

Shopping journey
Panelists agreed that COVID-19 has altered some aspects of the customer shopping journey, but not to the point it is unrecognizable from the pre-pandemic era.

“Some new consumer habits will stick and some won’t,” said Wong. “Everyone is focused on buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup across retail verticals. Is this a different path to purchase? Not so much, as it is an emphasis on different customer interactions and touchpoints.”

Kilcourse interjected that data from IBM indicates the pandemic has accelerated the shift from digital to physical retailing by five years.

“I never thought of it as a zero sum game, but a transition in how customers take advantage of technology,” commented Kilcourse.

Garf agreed, saying that Salesforce Shopping Index data indicates that consumers who previously “hung out online but didn’t click the buy button” are now engaging in e-commerce.

[Read more: Price spikes boost Q2 consumer spending; retailers face costly holiday]

The role of stores and associates
Panelists were also unanimous in their belief that the role played by stores, and the associates working there, is changing, but not losing any importance.

“I helped Macy’s implement BOPIS, where they have been a leader,” said Colquhoun. “It’s a different labor model. Storerooms have gotten smaller and you have store associates who love to sell, not fulfill. It’s challenging enough that until the pandemic hit, a lot of retailers still weren’t doing BOPIS due to the labor issue. Now, it’s a must-have, along with curbside pickup.”

“There needs to be a balance between hands-on and hands-off store services,” said Wong. “Inventory management and stockkeeping can be automated, particularly with mobile devices that can expand your network.”

[Read more: Survey: In-store experience still critical to shoppers]

Garf and Colquhoun agreed that the cost to serve of a store is now at least being partially offset by digital capabilities being introduced into stores, as well as their expanding role in omnichannel commerce.

“The store not only produces sales, but delivers products,” said Colquhoun. “It’s part of the omni-experience.”

Garf added that 60% of digital transactions are now influenced by the store.

“The store drums up or fulfills online demand,” said Garf.

The need for data
In the midst of rapid change, panelists stressed the importance of having access to data and the ability to analyze it.

“Consumers want to know, ‘where is my stuff,’” said Kilcourse. “Knowing where a product is, is one of the most challenging things to recognize.”

“People still want human interaction for certain transactions, to get help in understanding a product and making a decision,” said Colquhoun. “Retailers need data to track what transactions need a person and what transactions can be automated.”

“Many retailers are blurring the lines between verticals and extending into adjacent areas,” said Wong. “Having multiple new product lines in your assortment impacts the supply chain. Retailers need to focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning.”

Doing it right this time
Kilcourse also briefly touched upon how many retailers, who traditionally maintain technology implementations for a long period of time, are already looking to replace solutions implemented during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

“During 2020, retailers broke every rule,” said Kilcourse. “They used third-party platforms and software patches. Now, they’re interested in doing it right. 2020 was a stopgap in the face of a situation the industry had never seen before.”

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