A good customer experience used to mean finding what you needed at a fair price in a store, and buying it from a competent and polite salesperson. Maybe they were even able to make you feel good by making an add-on sale, because, sure, it makes sense to buy tennis socks with new tennis shoes.
Those qualities — good pricing, product availability, and personal attentiveness — continue to be important when purchasing a good or service. But the rise of the online economy, accelerated by COVID-19, means that investment in new hardware and software is just as important to the customer experience (CX) as stocking the right products and hiring the best employees.
Of course, consumer-facing companies appreciate impulse purchases made by passers-by at their brick-and-mortar stores. But in a COVID-era economy, their survival — never mind their prosperity — is tied to using technology to deepen customer loyalty and engagement. The expected result is repeat visits and purchases in-store and online.
COVID-19 devastated physical retailers. With pandemic restrictions leading to reduced staffing and limited hours of operation, many businesses simply shuttered. One aspect of retail likely to persist after the end of pandemic restrictions is contactless payment. Physical point of sale (POS) systems offer a multitude of contactless payment solutions, including debit and credit cards, e-transfers, Google, and Apple Pay. This became especially important when businesses were forced to do curbside pickup during the height of the pandemic. This trend should ease the minds of anyone worried about handling cash or coins, although touch is reportedly a low-risk method of viral transmission.
Retailers in the online space are facing the challenge of offering a smooth and unified CX that makes buying simple and easy across PCs, smartphones, and tablets. This is vital as many consumers became accustomed to shopping exclusively online during the pandemic and continue to do so. Witness, for example, Amazon’s amazing pandemic growth as consumers quarantined at home and had their purchases, no matter how minor, delivered.
That is why so many physical retailers are developing mobile apps to capitalize on the increasing consumer desire to shop anywhere at any time. Think about the exponential pandemic growth of grocery delivery services like Sobey’s Voilà app, or Instacart, the app responsible for Walmart Canada’s grocery deliveries. Similarly, shares in German meal kit delivery service HelloFresh, which delivers measured ingredients and recipes right to your door, hit an all-time high in October 2020. Much of that growth was no doubt due to the ease of ordering (and cancelling) through its mobile app and website – a boon to those unable or unwilling to grocery shop – at any time of the day.
Indeed, a company’s obligation to provide quality CX is no longer restricted to traditional business hours. Developments in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) mean that consumers can have their questions answered at any time by chatbots or virtual assistants. Toronto-Dominion Bank, for instance, announced their chatbot Clari in 2018. “She” is available 24/7, 365 days a year to interact with TD customers. And consumers are increasingly comfortable with chatbots, especially millennials, with 70 per cent reporting favourable interactions according to a 2018 Forbes report.
Of course, AI-powered chatbots are just one aspect of what is being called the omnichannel consumer experience. Systems are being created to allow customers to message a company through one of its many consumer channels – think websites, Facebook pages, Instagram profiles, Twitter feeds, or TikTok accounts – and receive immediate feedback. This may involve the connection of a help desk to all customer service channels and an increase in real-time messaging.
Customer loyalty is also being built by AI and machine learning (ML) to identify and address behavioural patterns and push consumers further into the sales funnel. For instance, AI and ML can be used to analyze website wish lists and even determine when customers are close to purchasing, in hopes of offering them discounts to help finalize purchases. The expected outcomes of doing so are deepened customer relationships with the businesses and improved chances of future sales.
Finally, although most closely tied to videogames, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are transforming CX by allowing customers to interact in digital environments, almost as if they were in the real world. (VR refers to physically interacting in a 3D computer-generated world through electronic devices; AR refers to being able to see and interact with computer-generated objects layered onto real-life locations). Such immersive experiences push emotional brand attachment.
Scandinavian furniture giant IKEA, for instance, launched IKEA Place in 2017. Using AR technology, this smartphone app allows customers to use their phone to virtually place hundreds of items from the IKEA catalogue into their homes. IKEA claimed that the app was 98 per cent accurate in terms of scale and shadow, so that it was easy to see how a chair on display in the showroom would actually fit in your living room.
Outdoor apparel and gear company – The North Face’s Korean branch tested out a VR app back in 2015 when launching their McMurdo jacket line that placed customers in a Nepalese landscape. Such immersive VR environments and experiences can create a strong emotional attachment to a brand that can translate into lifelong brand loyalty and increased revenues.
It seems unlikely that the in-person customer experience will ever completely die. There is still room for great salespeople selling good products to customers in an inviting and well-designed retail space. But the exponential rise of online shopping means that sellers of products and services will need to leverage technology to create superior customer experiences as competition increases. If sellers can make buying easier from anywhere at any time, the future truly is theirs.
Sean Plummer | Contributing Writer