Life as we know it was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and the retail sector was hit especially hard, with businesses large and small affected. Even things once deemed predictable in the sector became shaky ground – no-one anticipated that toilet roll would become the single most sought-after consumer item of 2020.
But retail is fighting back. The reopening of nonessential shops and businesses yielded encouraging signs of recovery, and sales growth figures exceeded economists’ expectations.
Nevertheless, consumers have changed – arguably forever. What shoppers do and why they do it has shifted in ways we’ve never seen before.
All of which points to one thing: retail marketing needs a long-overdue rethink. Old recipes for retail success are out. Legacy systems for in-store marketing campaigns just won’t cut it post-covid. The future of retail marketing hinges on three priorities: cutting in-store marketing costs, reducing waste, and improving messaging in stores. From campaign concept right through to delivery, achieving better control and visibility is critical for retailers determined to survive whatever might lie ahead.
Why? Because the current processes for planning in-store marketing materials aren’t just expensive, they’re also laborious and inefficient. Now more than ever, retailers need to invest in tools that will allow them to deliver targeted, store-specific campaigns (including instructions to store staff) at the same time as cutting costs and improving communication with customers at a local level.
The ability to understand your customer’s behaviour has never been so important. From shoppers adopting new click-and-collect options, motivated by social distancing, to the fact that shoppers typically visit fewer shops but buy more items per visit than before the pandemic, knowing how your customers are behaving – and why – is key to keeping them coming back.
Understanding what consumers want has never been so challenging. The customer is still king, but the kingdom has changed beyond all recognition. Everything customers are adjusting to – from one-way systems in store to limits on the number of people permitted entry – create challenges, but they also afford retail marketing teams new opportunities.
Window displays now have a captive audience, as customers routinely queue before entering, and the removal of merchandise displays to enable social distancing creates scope for optimising store layout in new ways. A shopper who faces the prospect of queuing to get into a store needs a reason to choose your store over your competitor’s – especially if their queue moves faster.
Customer engagement is also a different beast in a pandemic. When nonessential stores closed, savvy retailers seized the opportunity to up their customer engagement game. From brands that were quick to make premium content free, to retailers who began offering free delivery for local customers, those who put their customers’ needs front and centre at the height of the pandemic were the ones who reopened their doors to queues of newly-loyal customers after lockdown.
It’s true that nothing is certain in this climate, which is why retailers must focus on what they do know about customers. While some shoppers traded up during lockdown, opting for more expensive brands of wine in UK supermarkets, many other shoppers are spending more carefully and prioritising value for money.
At the time of writing this, an email pinged into my inbox with the ill-considered subject line ‘Ready to fly?’ Um, no. Said brand promised – no matter whether my travel preferences are planning ahead or jetting off on a spontaneous getaway – to ‘have me covered’. But ‘not getting Covid’ is uppermost in my mind, and steering clear of airports is a key part of my strategy. My point? It’s not enough to know your customer is either ‘a planning ahead or a spontaneous trip’ kind of traveller – future-proof retail marketing must also adapt as its customers’ needs – and their fears – shift.
You might not be able to predict what will change in your sector or how your customers’ needs might shift in the weeks and months to come, but you can analyse your data and interpret what might serve them best under different possible scenarios. Think Ikea sharing its famous Swedish meatballs recipe during lockdown so that customers unable to shop in-store could recreate a version of the in-store experience at home.
But to improve your understanding of shopper behaviour and the impact of marketing activity, you need two-way communication with customers and feedback from stores. Retailers without access to on-the-ground information and the tools that allow greater visibility of operations will struggle to revise and improve in-store activities as required.
Retailers must also think creatively to find innovative and current ways to increase foot traffic in-stores. In September, as back to school season came sharply into focus, forward-thinking uniform stores didn’t simply shift their business model to online sales. They offered in-store appointments to help make a stressful shopping experience – fraught with new challenges in a socially distanced world – easier for their customers. In a solid example of how to read and respond to your customers’ needs in challenging times, the stationers Ryman offered free pencil cases for back-to-school season customers visiting stores who were faced with demanding lists of essential supplies from schools working to exacting social distancing rules for pupils.
The introduction of compulsory face coverings has been blamed for the fact that shops saw two million fewer customers in the last week of July – but even this is something that determined retailers can work around.
Improving conversion in-store is key, and employees have a vital role to play – positioning staff at the entrance to limit the numbers of customers entering the store creates new opportunities to build rapport with shoppers, with the potential to improve conversion. To that end, in-store marketing must be clearer than ever and easy to execute, improving the customer experience but without impinging on the desire to travel through the store more quickly and efficiently.
Ultimately, to thrive during the uncertainty that lies ahead for retail, marketing teams must maximise efficiencies and simplify procedures. With budgets under strain, shoppers out of their comfort zone, and the future impossible to predict, merchandising strategies must be efficient, innovative and effective. Intelligent, automated systems must swiftly replace outdated methods when it comes to planning and implementing effective marketing campaigns in stores.
Like it or not, a new era of shopping is upon us, and it calls for a new approach to retail marketing. Time to get started.
Looking to cut costs, reduce waste and revolutionise the way you plan, implement and analyse the marketing to and from your stores? Get in touch