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Why the pandemic has created new urgency around digital engagement

The pandemic has revolutionized consumer behavior, and there is no going back to the way things were. Research reveals a 169% increase in e-commerce purchases by consumers who previously had only an occasional or non-existent relationship with online shopping. Furthermore, over 80% of consumers who made use of digital channels during the pandemic will continue to do so after life returns to normal.

The growth in digital shopping unlocks a wealth of opportunities. If retailers can nurture their relationships with new digital shoppers – which may increasingly mean delivering personalized interactions – they will benefit from meaningful engagement, enabling stronger brand loyalty and retention.

The question is, are brands ready to deepen their connection with this incoming wave of “switched on” consumers?

There couldn’t be a better time to ask this question. After all, if retailers aren’t ready, if their retention practices are still rooted in one-size-fits-all communications and promotions, they are likely offering consumers little incentive to return or to deepen their relationship with the brand. In contrast, their more advanced rivals will be forging ahead. By developing welcome campaigns that deliver personalized messaging, for example, they can encourage further engagement.

Making the jump isn’t easy, particularly as retailers are still navigating their way through the disruption of the pandemic. But it is possible to seize the opportunity by moving through successive levels of maturity. First of all, retailers should identify which level they are on.

Plot a course to digital engagement
Most retailers are still at the earliest stages of maturity. For this group, the primary focus is on understanding what their customers want. To do so, these brands may be exploring basic segmentation to target customers with content that has some minimal customization. Alternatively, they may be assessing their capabilities to understand what is stopping them from securing visibility of customer data and insight.

A smaller group of retailers has made more progress in digital. They have moved beyond the organizational silos that restricted them from acting on data-driven insights and have created cross-functional teams focused on broader goals such as lifetime value. These retailers are focused on setting actions that different business teams can own, such as harvesting data from social channels or using browsing data to develop a new marketing strategy, and they are automating the personalization of customer messaging.

Finally, at the cutting edge of customer engagement, is a handful of retailers that have made deliberate and significant investments in their business model, technology and workforce. These brands can deploy, at scale, one-to-one personalized customer journeys in a seamless and automated manner. Their efforts may harness tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and operate on scalable cloud-based systems. They have learned to take predictive actions at the individual customer level, at exactly the right moment during digital engagement.

These leading retailers are reorienting their businesses to deliver what their customers now value most: personalized service, tailored recommendations and seamless experiences.

Time to take action
To emulate the success of the leading brands, retailers at the earlier and middle stages need to take a series of steps to create long-term loyalty and boost the lifetime value of their customers.

The starting point is to fully understand the scale of the challenge, and this means asking some fundamental questions: What percentage of our customer communications are personalized at the current time? How can we use customer data to personalize different kinds of interactions and then use the right interaction with the right consumer? How can we use insight from data and analytics to see how consumer behavior is changing, and adapt our strategy as a result?

Next, brands should think about customer strategy and the insights that are required to bring this to life. Using analytics tools, they can identify what kinds of communication will appeal to specific customers and win their attention. By developing new metrics, they can monitor the success of activities over the longer term.

In addition, retailers should consider how to turn insights into action at scale, which means being able to summarize insights into key themes and define specific actions for business teams to act upon – whether that’s identifying glitches where the experience isn’t as seamless as it could be, or working with developers to make tailored recommendations more relevant. 

Conclusion: hearts, minds and loyalty
Taken in totality, the above steps represent a substantial body of work. But transformation is required to sustain – and augment – customer loyalty. What’s more, the rewards are substantial: retailers that move with speed and commitment will be well placed to retain the digital shoppers they have gained during the pandemic and to create new value for them; their relationships with existing online shoppers will also be richer and more valuable.

Now is the time for retailers to rethink their customer retention strategies and to configure their organizations for success. Capturing the hearts and minds of consumers will ensure sustained growth.

Jill Standish is senior managing director and global head of retail, Accenture. Eric Shea is managing director, retail strategy, Accenture.

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