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How omnichannel CX is critical to the future of e-commerce​

omnichannel e-commerce

For many, physical distancing during COVID-19 has meant severely limiting or even entirely eliminating in-store shopping with many heading online to make purchases. Since the start of lockdown measures, U.S. consumers spent $77 billion more online than they were expected to, according to the Adobe Digital Economy Index, bringing the total for online spending in the first six months of 2020 to $369 billion. In June alone, Americans spent $73.2 billion online, which is up 76.2% from 2019.

This year over year surge in online spending began during the earliest days of the pandemic, perhaps due in part to the fact that many U.S. shoppers made their first-ever online purchases at that time. According to a March 2020 consumer survey by Statista, 9% of U.S. consumers made their first online purchase because of social distancing and self-quarantining practices.

Initially, the increased online spending was driven by online grocery store purchases. Since then, it’s expanded to include other consumer goods, such as clothing and electronics, as reported in the Adobe Index.

But, will the dramatic increase in online shopping continue once physical stores are able to safely reopen?

No longer forced by necessity, some consumers may revert back to their in-store shopping ways. That means brands will have to invest in innovation and effort to retain online shoppers, especially when it comes to bridging the gaps between hybrid online/in-person experiences — for example, pickups of online orders. Brands will also have to make greater strides to improve online, social and phone-enabled support channels.

Nailing down how to seamlessly stay in touch with customers, as well as how to offer product variety and flexible delivery options will be major difference makers as we look ahead.

Early experiences disappoint first-time online shoppers

While brick-and-mortar stores were closed, online marketplaces had the opportunity to reinforce the value that digital sales and virtual customer service could offer shoppers.

It wasn’t always easy, says Sucharita Kodali, vice-president and principal analyst at research firm Forrester, where she primarily focuses on e-business and channel strategy. Especially with grocery shopping, many consumers found ordering groceries to be an annoying endeavor rife with opportunities to make mistakes. Shoppers posted pictures to social media of mountains of bananas and incredible quantities of garbanzo beans and cake frosting — things they thought they ordered a reasonable amount of, only to be shocked when the delivery person arrived.

Then there were the other annoying elements, says Kodali. “Many customers went through the process of building their cart, and then learned at the end that there were no delivery slots for two weeks. Or they discovered that the three items they built their cart for weren’t available [for sale] anymore,” she says, in reference to the hand sanitizer and cleaning supply shortages in the earlier days of the pandemic.

If brands want to retain these new online shoppers as physical stores begin to reopen, they will need to find ways to demonstrate their value by highlighting how purchasing online is as convenient, or better, than going to a store, says Theodore L. Waldron, Ph.D., associate professor of sustainable strategy and entrepreneurship at the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University.

Many customers still like to shop in physical stores even amid the pandemic — which is why, Waldron says, “It’s important for stores to have a seamless presence between their retail and online offerings.” Making connections between online and brick-and-mortar stores will become even more important as retailers look to save money by reducing their locations, cutting back on business hours and downsizing footprints of their stores, he says.

Making shopping seamless across platforms

Retailers who want to retain first-time online shoppers should invest in an omnichannel approach that delivers consistent, seamless customer service across multiple support channels. That means sharing customer data between online and in-person customer service teams to ensure consistent CX. That translates to “being visible, being on social media and being accessible,” Waldron says.

One way to make online shopping feel less remote to customers who like to browse in physical stores is to offer online chat options with a personal shopper, Waldron says. This type of personalization can help unify the online and in-person retail experience and deliver products that align more closely with customer needs and expectations.

Brands should also invest in social media tracking to determine which channels customers favor. Waldron notes that younger buyers tend to prefer Instagram and “ads that don’t look like ads,” while older consumers are often more comfortable purchasing from websites and Facebook ads. Having this information can help companies identify where and how to target their customer service resources, giving them the power to meet customers where they already are.

Providing delivery options beyond mail order

While COVID-19 has many consumers increasing their online shopping at major mail order e-retailers like Amazon, others still want to get their items locally. Whether that means supporting independent businesses or major retailers, the effect is the same: consumers have demonstrated a thirst for ordering online with the option for curbside pickup.

In fact, according to the National Retail Federation’s Spring 2020 Consumer View survey, more than three-quarters of consumers said they were interested in Buy Online, Pickup In Store (BOPIS) and more than 90% of those who tried BOPIS said it was convenient. Meanwhile, according to Adobe’s aforementioned index, 23% of online consumers preferred this option. To further reinforce this point, Best Buy says contactless curbside pickup enabled the company to retain 70% of its sales during the early days of the stay-at-home orders, and increase its online sales by over 250% overall.

Kodali from Forrester says retailers should even consider expanding delivery options beyond curbside in the long run, especially for customers who live in areas without a brick-and-mortar store. For instance, she says, retailers could allow customers to order online then pick up their items at a local post office or FedEx/UPS store.

Organizing curbside and remote pickup requires harmony between the online and physical components of a retail business, which is a strong argument overall for taking an omnichannel approach to sales and customer support — now, and for the foreseeable future. In fact, the pandemic has further highlighted how retailers can benefit from an omnichannel approach that makes no distinction between purchases made in-store, online or through an app. By demonstrating how virtual shopping can be as simple and frictionless as in-store experiences, retailers will have a better chance of retaining online shoppers gained since the onset of the pandemic, and attract others long into the future.

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