How retailers can survive COVID-19 by optimising their omnichannel strategies

By Annabella Yang, VP Digital Retail, Mobiquity.

COVID-19 has accelerated the shift to online retail. With social distancing guidelines and lockdown keeping customers at home, ecommerce has become the main sales channel for retailers during the pandemic.

Before COVID-19, traditional retailers were considering whether to integrate digital technologies into existing in-store experiences. Most traditional retailers continued to prioritise brick-and-mortar stores with ecommerce as a supplementary, extended sales channel. The pandemic has created a change in customer behaviour, and retailers are moving their focus towards online ecommerce as their primary channel.

Brick-and-mortar retail stores now have a new challenge: How to survive in an online world? The answer lies in an omnichannel retail strategy, bridging the physical in-store experience with a seamless digital sales journey. 

There’s no doubt that the retail industry recognises the importance of ecommerce for its survival. According to a Management Events survey of top-level executives in retail, over 90% of decision makers consider digitalisation as a priority for their organisation, while two-thirds highlighted the development of ecommerce development as business priority.

However, it’s not just digital which will address the new customer expectations for contactless and touchless experiences due to fears of COVID-19. Retailers need to rethink their omnichannel approach, combining different sales channels holistically driven by customers’ expectation and preference of interactions and engagement.

Establishing a consistent customer experience 

As we navigate a post-COVID-19 world, customers are shopping from home and abandoning city centres - also known as the ‘donut effect.’ According to a Lumina Intelligence survey, over half (53%) of customers in the UK reported shopping more locally in 2020, while 42% said they will continue to shop locally in the future.

With the move to a digital world due to fears over COVID-19, online customer experience is king. Customers will naturally compare the offline, digital experience with the physical, in-store, and expect the same levels of convenience and service.

Customers could be shopping on their laptop, or browsing the web via an iPad, or even in-store. Wherever they start their journey, they will want a consistent experience through integrated omnichannel services.

When customers get a seamless digital experience on ecommerce platforms, they will also be more likely to return to the platform if the online shopping experience is as fun, interactive and convenient as possible. Retailers are beginning to invest in digital technologies such as AR, video product demonstration, live chat functions and interactive return trackers to enrich the customer experience and to stay one step ahead of the competition. The shop front and in-store experience could also be repurposed as an immersive showroom, using QR codes to direct customers to their digital channels to purchase items online. 

This brings the online experience closer to the traditional shopping one, creating a personalised and accessible service for customers that is scalable.

Targeting customers in a personalised way 

Retailers need to look at their marketing. The move away from in-store experiences provides a golden opportunity for businesses to broaden their customer base. Traditional retailers need to offer products and services in a targeted and personalised way using data insights to inform sales priorities. 

With ecommerce platforms, customers' interactions can be analysed to improve shopping experience. For example, by learning more about customers’ wants along the ecommerce platform journey, retailers can remodel promotional offers and benefits, tailoring them to individual customer preferences. By understanding the customers’ preference and consumption habits, retailers can also provide more personalised assistance and services, building customer loyalty and lifetime value.

Future proofing retail with agile stock management

A final area that traditional retailers need to address to help future proof their business is stock and inventory management.

By implementing an agile, omnichannel model - integrating in-store and ecommerce inventories - retailers will reduce delivery delays and stock related loss of sales. Using this insight, retailers can respond to stock shortages and minimise delivery costs to attract and retain customers.

Remodelling for a post-COVID-19 world 

To respond to changing customer behaviours due to COVID-19, traditional retailers need to reassess and remodel their retail omnichannel strategy. This starts with switching their selling journey from the in-store experience being the primary channel with online as a secondary option - to using the online channel as the primary sales tool combined with an in-store experience as a supplementary service. This requires redesigning of their online and offline customer experience and logistic setup. 

An omnichannel planning that integrates both physical and digital experiences - with customer engagement as top measure - will help retailers to drive resilience and continue to thrive in the future.

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