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Article 5 min read

Finding the recipe for the new, connected retail experience

By Celine Maher, VP UK&I, Zendesk

Last updated November 8, 2021

To say that 2020 was a challenging year for retail is somewhat of an understatement. But challenge can help to drive change – and now agile and adaptable retailers are emerging stronger from the sudden rush to shop online over the last 12 months. If anything has helped them to stand out in the eyes of consumers, it was a seamless digital experience. That’s especially true at a time when digital shopping was often the only way for people to purchase goods and services. Digitally versed or not, all retailers have been forced to switch up their customer strategies as a result of the pandemic and changing consumer behaviour.

As restrictions on movement now begin to lift and high streets fill with people once again, consumers are surveying their purchasing options, with the convenience of shopping from their sofa competing with the novelty of being able to try before you buy in a dynamic, in-store setting. Whatever they decide, it’s clear that customers won’t simply be returning to their pre-COVID shopping habits.

And the good news is they don’t have to. Retailers have gained valuable skills, experience and data over the past year that has put them in a strong position to broaden their existing digital offerings and offer customers more. Service staff now have the right tools and training at their disposal to make working from home seamless and standards of service consistent across all channels. What’s more, customer experience has rightly been given a starring role in many new retail strategies. With customer expectations only set to increase as lockdowns lift, how should retailers make the most of their newfound knowledge?

Keeping pace with change

Sudden market change is always difficult, but being agile in the face of fast-evolving trends is keeping the savviest retailers one step ahead. Nearly three quarters of UK company leaders (68%) surveyed for Zendesk’s annual Customer Experience Trends 2021 study say that the global pandemic has shortened the timeline for adopting new technologies. Meanwhile, on the high street, the limit on contactless payments in the UK will rise to £100 in 2021, so consumers can use this effortless payment method more frequently and for higher value items.

Industry changes aren’t just being made to technology processes either. Homebase has announced a partnership with Next that will see it selling gardening products in-store, in a move set to broaden its appeal and reach, setting an example for other brands. While on the other end of the scale, high street stalwarts like Debenhams and Topshop have closed their doors for good and will now only sell online.

Although the cost of bricks and mortar is certainly a factor, it’s certainly not the only reason why brands might choose to move online. The past year has shone a light on both the value and convenience of digital interactions for brands and customers. What’s more, as new communication channels, from WhatsApp to Instagram, gain traction with consumers, the service agents driving them are taking on a whole new remit. No longer is customer service just about issue resolution and sales support – it has now transitioned to become a key way to engage with consumers and sell to them.

The pandemic has proved that every business, from emerging brands to high street favourites, can successfully harness the power of online channels to improve their customer service. London department store Fortnum & Mason, first established in 1707, went digital-first during the global pandemic, embracing email and chat to make sure it stayed in close contact with all its valued customers, whether they could visit them in-store or not. This move boosted customer satisfaction to such an extent that the retailer is now exploring ways to extend these channels to serve all its departments.

The connected high street

By employing a digital, connected, omnichannel approach, companies can make their customer interactions seamless, and start using their technology and data insights in a whole host of different ways that make engaging with them a more efficient and personal experience.

One reason that Amazon has proved so popular is the retailer’s ability to make buying from its website frictionless. It is now taking a similar approach on the high street, with a chain of five Amazon Fresh UK stores. Customers scan a smartphone app when entering the shop and are automatically billed when they leave, successfully fusing the offline and online experience for shoppers. The height of convenience, it also opens up opportunities for greater personalisation – shoppers could be offered recommendations and discounts, for example, based around their shopper habits, and contacted using their preferred communication channel.

Amidst all this innovation, those retailers that have yet to integrate their e-commerce, customer service and in-store systems risk being left behind. However, making that move will allow them to deliver the levels of personalisation and engagement that customers increasingly expect as ‘table stakes.’ Even better, an omnichannel solution will make sure that this is consistent across all channels, so consumers can enjoy the same rich experience, whether they are speaking to a staff member in-store, a customer service agent on the phone or a self-service chatbot on their mobile.

Adapting with your customers

Customer expectations in the UK may be some of the highest around, especially as it’s among the most advanced ecommerce markets in Europe, so retailers need to stay on their toes in 2021. Nearly 9 out of 10 Brits (87%) bought online in 2020. And while consumers have been heading to the high streets for the reopening of stores, they’re also watching to see which brands are delivering more for their loyalty. As we enter the post-pandemic era, that relies on a few core ingredients to deliver simple and seamless consumer experiences.

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