COVID-19 is tough for retailers. Consumer hesitation combined with constantly changing government mandates make it extraordinarily difficult for businesses to thrive. This is compounded by challenges unique to omnichannel strategies.
Perhaps more significantly, a Statista poll from March indicated that 65% of American adults expect the pandemic to cause either a recession or depression in the U.S.
All of this translates into an uphill battle for retailers. Consumer hesitation combined with constantly changing government mandates make it extraordinarily difficult for businesses to thrive. This is compounded by challenges unique to omnichannel strategies.
Omnichannel Challenges in the Time of COVID-19
While an omnichannel strategy is increasingly critical for retailers, it’s difficult to execute during the unusual circumstances COVID-19 has forced us into.
Many retailers suddenly find themselves scrambling to communicate remotely with customers and team members. As a result, stores are burdened with high call volume. They also face challenges in sharing important new policies and processes (which can often be confusing, and change rapidly).
Additionally, curbside or socially-distanced shopping options are lacking. For one thing, there is little ability to enforce customer compliance with 6 feet apart and other rules. Often stores have had to hastily post signage, which may look unofficial or even be conflicting.
For retailers that are rapidly scaling their online options, it can be challenging to shift from high-touch to low-touch sales and customer service, fulfillment options may be lacking, and it’s still not second nature to universally update all platforms and channels, so inconsistent messaging abounds.
Of course, all of this is underscored by no time to develop training programs for your teams, no ability to conduct training, and very little control over your employees’ health and potential exposure to the virus once they’re “off the clock.”
Some companies’ attempts to pivot are just making things worse, but many are getting truly creative, resulting in impressive innovations.
A Low Touch Omnichannel Strategy
Smart brands have embraced a low touch omnichannel strategy and deployed simple operations and technologies to support customers and team members, while maintaining minimum contact.
This begins with regular communications, and genuine empathy, letting your teams, customers, and community know that you care.
It also involves anticipating what a post-pandemic world may look like, and setting goals for a recovery period as well as the future.
The good news? There are key best practices that can guide your retail brand through these unchartered waters.
10 Best Practices for an Omnichannel Experience
1. Own Your Business Listing Information
It’s critical to be able to update your Google business listing information with regularity, especially as your re-opening plans evolve. Be sure to update hours of operation, include COVID-19 visiting policies, label contact information for specific locations if you have multiple stores, and use visuals or photos to help customers know exactly where to go and what to do.
2. Review Client Facing Communications
Now more than ever, clear and concise customer communications are critical. This includes in-store and curbside communications, such as official signage (not homemade flyers!), and digital communications, such as frequent social media updates.
Be sure to speak from a place of compassion, perhaps waiving delivery fees, or sharing specific safety measures. DSW Inc., the shoe brand, completely pivoted their marketing to directly address COVID-19 in key phases. They started by focusing on the health and safety of their employees, then enhanced customer services, like extended return policies and extended expiration dates for its loyalty rewards program.
Your communications should also be transparent, providing realistic timeframes and service capabilities (i.e. “shipping will be delayed”) to keep your customers informed.
Most importantly, be sure to regularly assess your communications. Have pieces reviewed by a cross-functional panel, who can consider it from all angles, and filter or pause anything sensitive.
3. Update Your Store Locator Data
If you’re a global or multi-city brand, you likely have some locations open, some closed, and some perhaps offering socially-distant or curbside options.
It’s important to remember to update this data, so that when customers search for a nearby location, they’re able to determine what stores are open, and what altered hours or shopping restrictions they may experience.
Don’t just make these changes on the client-facing side; update internal data, too, so that what your teams know aligns with what has been shared with your customers.
4. Simplify Promotions & Product Value
Customers are currently inundated with communications about COVID-19. Every store from whom they’ve ever made a purchase has sent them at least one email with a COVID-19 update. So it is essential to simplify your promotional strategy - both to cut through the noise customers are experiencing and from an internal management standpoint.
Provide high-value promotions that won’t disrupt your product inventory (especially when suppliers may be less consistent than usual). And in a time when many are laid off, keep your prices as economical as possible.
If sufficient inventory is available, make bulk ordering easier for high-demand products. People will be willing to stock up to avoid the hassle of tracking down these items again later. Alternatively, you can also roll out subscription features, ensuring that customers don’t run out of the items they need most, while allowing you to control inventory pacing.
6. Combine the Power of Omnichannel
Provide your customers with a significantly better experience than your competitors. Utilize innovative options such as: drive-thru windows, digital vending, curbside pickup, mobile order stations, contactless payments, parking lot pop-up shops, easy “to-go” assortments that capitalize on trends, and other safe-but-convenient options for customers.
7. Enable In-App Purchases
Tap into your app’s capabilities. Eliminate the need for customers to go to the cashier and offer self-checkout, scan-and-go, and walk-out technologies.
If you have an existing app, update it to support in-store and curbside pickup options. Also allow customers to renew subscriptions through your app, or even set up video service calls in favor of in-person service visits.
8. Implement In-Store Navigation
Take it even further with technology, and offer geolocation so that customers can navigate through a store using your mobile app. Use this to help them find products without the use of store associates.
9. Explore the Guideshop Model
The “guideshop” showroom model is ideal for retailers whose products are not grab-and-go. For digitally-native retailers, like menswear Bonobos and Suitsupply, MM, it’s a valuable asset.
Shoppers can browse a selection of items that represent your inventory, and then order those items exclusively online, trimming down on time spent in-store. This will also allow for contactless fitting, demos, etc. either at a store or even online.
10. Implement or Optimize Voice Search
Optimize your site for voice search so that people can ask their favorite voice assistant questions that will lead to your brand.
Sarah is a nimble and creative marketing leader with 15 years of experience in a mix of agencies, B2B, and B2C enterprises. She brings a background in building and driving impactful marketing practices and processes for growing businesses. Sarah has expertise in brand, content marketing, lead generation, and marketing operations. She’s a co-author of the 2019 book on B2B eCommerce Digital Branch Secrets: eCommerce Playbook for Distributors.