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Four Expectations of the Post-Pandemic Consumer (And How to Meet Them)

Wells Stringham
Wells Stringham

There’s a lot to look forward to in 2021. With wide-spread vaccination on the horizon, relative relief from the global pandemic is close at hand. But even with a new layer of safety added to the retail shopping experience, one factor remains irrevocably changed — the consumer.

The numbers back this. More than 65% of consumers intend to continue new buying behaviors acquired due to the pandemic during the post-vaccine era, according to one recent study. Another survey reveals that 56% of consumers plan to use BOPIS (buy-online-pickup-in-store) after the pandemic ends.

While retailers ready themselves to meet the post-pandemic consumer online and in-store, one thing is clear. Retail success in the post-pandemic era isn’t so much about where you serve your customers as it is about how you create authentic, personalized omnichannel experiences that transcend the limits of your digital and physical touchpoints and create lasting brand loyalty.

So how can a retailer make the most of the exciting opportunities offered by the new post-pandemic world? Here are four strategies to meet — and exceed— the expectations of the post-pandemic consumer in 2021.

#1- Meet Your Customers Where They Are
During the past year, many new consumers have joined the cohort of e-commerce customers who expect to make purchases online wherever and whenever they want. The draw of ordering groceries on your phone that arrive nicely packaged on your doorstep hours later isn’t going to go away anytime soon. And now that more consumers realize just how accessible and easy it is to order anything from the latest PlayStation to a new car online, it’s up to retailers to take the extra step and make buying online from their brand easier and more appealing than all the rest.

This competitive edge is best realized when paired with another post-pandemic insight. With seven in ten workers now doing their job at home, 16 million Americans have moved to new locations as they make the most of their newfound freedom to live and work where they want. Smart retailers will make the move with them, setting up satellite pick-up locations and service depots in newly popular suburban and urban areas in order to offer consumers convenience along with an authentic brand interaction made more personal by being close to home.

To keep up with this trend, many brands are launching temporary, pop-up locations built specifically to facilitate experiential marketing experiences to a wider audience. Lululemon now curates some 70 pop-up stores in varied suburban and urban markets to increase brand awareness and serve customers in a larger geographic market. Best Buy has been using this model for a while, and currently offers more than 2000 alternative locations in nine markets for shoppers to safely pick up their purchases.

#2- Design for Better Delivery
The post-pandemic consumer not only expects to be able to shop online, but to have their item shipped for low to no cost and in very little time.

Many retailers have struggled to meet this demand, trying out new approaches to navigate an increase in online sales alongside rising shipping costs and overly saturated delivery channels.

E-commerce platforms like Shopify adapted to this challenge by launching new package tracking, shipping, and local delivery features into their tools. Likewise, many businesses have continued to lean on other, pre-pandemic approaches including absorbing shipping costs, offering free shipping for orders in excess of a certain dollar amount, or tacking on a shipping cost at check out. This balancing act isn’t likely to go away any time soon, and savvy retailers will need to continue to experiment, adapt, and evolve their delivery strategy in 2021.

But what about delivery speed? This is where delivery optimization technologies like ParcelPal and Optimoroute can get retailers a competitive advantage. These technologies integrate digital tools to track the physical delivery of items from the moment of purchase to a customer’s doorstep, usually within one day. These tools typically utilize mapping, GPS, and IoT technologies along with machine learning to optimize a driver’s route. The end result is faster, more affordable, and more reliable delivery.

#3- Rethink Returns
While online shopping is becoming the norm, an Imar Intelligence survey reveals that 58% of U.S. shoppers still prefer to return purchases in-store. The same report reveals that 40% of consumers haven’t been making online purchases due to concerns around returning items.

Businesses and consumers alike will continue to grapple with stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. The retailers who succeed in this environment will be the ones who offer consumers longer return windows and a variety of ways to return items. Making returns available both by mail and in-store is vital. But this necessity points to one factor that will define retail success in 2021— the importance of serving customers through an adaptive omnichannel experience.

#4- Take An Omnichannel Approach
The right omnichannel engagement strategy will look different for each retailer. It’s likely to include e-commerce options, digital tools, and in-store experiences. It might include loyalty programs, personalized customer service, targeted offers, or other options uniquely suited to your brand.

But one truth applies to every omnichannel strategy: Consumers still respond best to services that are convenient, personalized, and come with peace of mind, and the best way to provide this experience is with a consistent omnichannel experience.

A post-pandemic necessity, omnichannel cross-channel data collection reveals valuable data on individuals and customer groups. This data can be harnessed to boost sales, cultivate customer loyalty, and provide the post-pandemic consumer with the experience they expect.

Parting Words
The pandemic has permanently changed the expectations consumers have for retailers. It’s also catalyzed an extraordinary chance to redefine your customer experience and build stronger customer relationships that will last well beyond the final days of social distancing.

Technology and digital tools have formed the backbone of rapid adaptation to this pandemic era. But at the core of it all, the spaces we cultivate at the intersection of these digital tools and in-person experiences are only effective if they demonstrate to our consumers that we understand and value their need for a safe, personal, and authentic brand relationship.

Wells Stringham, is head of experience at Apply Digital, is a design and technology consultancy with clients including Disney, EA, Tishman Speyer and Arc'Teryx.

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