The COVID-19 pandemic has changed consumer behavior for good. Thankfully, there are a few ways you can optimize both in-store and online experiences to meet modern shopping expectations. Rhett Power shares some tried-and-tested strategies.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a surge in e-commerce, and it shows no sign of slowing. Online sales in the first quarter of 2021 experienced a 39% year-over-year increase. And even though the post-pandemic era is right around the corner, many consumers believe that the shopping behaviors they adopted during quarantine will continue.

Does this mean in-store retail experiences will disappear? Definitely not, but there’s no question that consumer expectations have shifted dramatically. E-commerce has introduced people to levels of convenience and safety that they haven’t experienced in a physical store before. Plus, new remote work arrangements have given millions of Americans the opportunity to live farther away from urban centers.

Even so, brick-and-mortar stores will continue to play a role in shoppers’ lives, which means you can’t forget about in-store experiences when planning for what’s ahead. With that in mind, here are four steps you can take to improve your customers’ shopping experiences:

  1. Focus on sonic branding.
    Audio is becoming an increasingly important customer engagement medium for brands in nearly every industry. More and more voice-activated devices are making their way into people’s homes, and podcasts and audio-driven social platforms such as Clubhouse are rising in popularity. This gives brands new channels to reach customers and a reason to work on their sonic branding.

    When it comes to sonic branding, David Ciccarelli believes that consistency is key. “In order for consumers to become familiar with an organization’s sonic brand, they have to interact with it regularly,” says Ciccarelli, founder and CEO of the audio marketplace Voices. “This means audio elements must be incorporated across all brand touchpoints, including social media platforms, advertisements, and websites. Over time, people will begin to identify your organization by sound alone.”

    Sonic branding is all about creating an emotional connection with customers no matter where they are. By working to create a sonic brand that’s consistent across in-store and online experiences, you can drive brand awareness while also creating new avenues for engagement.

  2. Don’t forget the human element of customer service.
    In today’s world of contactless delivery and touch-free payments, it’s easy to overlook the importance of human interaction. However, these interactions are still the cornerstone of successful business. Not only should digital branding look and feel as human as possible, but you should also have people who are ready and able to deliver on your brand’s promise.

    Whether you’re running a brick-and-mortar store or an e-commerce site, customers will want to be able to interact with human representatives. Although AI-powered tools such as chatbots and virtual assistants can complement human employees in the digital world, they can’t and shouldn’t replace them. Your customer support teams and in-store associates have a vital role to play in the next normal. Ensure they have the training and resources they need to deliver optimal customer experiences.

  3. Optimize the buying process with technology.
    Today’s consumers demand personalized shopping experiences that are as frictionless as possible. Fortunately, there are a variety of tools available that can help you deliver them. According to Brent Brown, senior vice president and general manager of North America for Sensormatic Solutions, retailers can now see the direct impact that marketing has on both digital and in-store performance.

    “Sensors can now track increases and decreases in store occupancy, understand whether sale areas and products have received increased traffic, compare point-of-sale data for coupon codes, and more,” says Brown. “They can even alert employees to the presence of a returning customer and even generate offers or promotions based on that customer’s shopping history, adding an extra degree of personalization to the in-store experience.”

    Like in-store shoppers, online consumers want to be treated as valued individuals. If you’re an e-commerce retailer, you have to consider everything — past purchase history, location services, language preferences, and so forth — when deciding how and when to engage. By focusing on delivering an experience that’s as personalized as possible, you’ll have an easier time upselling existing customers and reducing shopping cart abandonment.

  4. Make returns and exchanges easy.
    In an ideal world, customers would be thrilled with everything they buy. In the next normal, however, customers will be thrilled to know that returns and exchanges are as easy as their initial purchases.

    A customer-friendly return policy can even drive sales. According to Dave Schneider, CEO and co-founder of NinjaOutreach, “Customers will feel safer in placing future purchases with your business if they learn they can return or exchange things with relatively little effort. In fact, it is also a great idea to advertise a simple return procedure to promote new clients to make their first transaction earlier.”

Returns and exchanges will always be a part of the shopping experience. By having a clearly defined (and visible) return policy, you can set the right expectations and reduce friction in the customer journey. Everyone wins.

The shift in consumer behavior has impacted both brick-and-mortar and online retailers. People want frictionless, personalized buying experiences, so you must provide them. Those that can’t will lose momentum in the new normal and could ultimately be left behind.

Written by Rhett Power.

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