When you talk to retailers and customers alike their general perception of the impact of the pandemic on the retail sector is overwhelmingly negative. But, for many brands – both big and small — the pandemic drove innovation, which not only helped them survive but in fact thrives in a truly unique set of circumstances. Our colleagues at Modern Marketing Today recently had the opportunity to talk to O’Neill about how brands adapted to this rapid pace of change and what it means for the future of retail.
One of the unexpected outcomes of the pandemic is how it has put innovation under pressure and accelerated digital transformation for the retail sector. As our worlds collectively moved from in-person interactions to digital experiences the need for flawless customer engagement became a crucial part of survival for most brands.
In a recent conversation with Modern Marketing Today on innovation in customer experience Paige O’Neill, Chief Marketing Officer at Sitecore shared that the COVID-19 pandemic has driven five years of digital maturation compressed into five months. “In the middle of March, literally overnight, brands had to react to having little, if any, in-person contact with their customers and pivot to a digital strategy,” she explained. “Combined with the steady rise of consumer expectation about digital experiences and engagement, this was a lot for brands to take on and drive success.”
But succeed they did, for the most part. “All brands experienced some issues with digital scalability,” O’Neill noted, “Even digital leaders, like Amazon, experienced a period of disruption as they scaled supply chains and hired workers to cope with the increased online engagement.”
The outcome has been that even as physical stores have reopened customers have continued to engage with brands digitally. “I think the expectation was that customers would return to stores as soon as they had the opportunity to do so,” said O’Neill. “However, what has actually happened is that digital has retained its share of customer engagement.”
The challenge for brands now, however, is to continue to meet customer engagement expectations in the digital realm. “The more digital experiences customers consume, the higher their expectations are,” shared O’Neill. “Brands laid the foundations during the spring and now the goal is to continue innovation under the pressure of these expectations.”
O’Neill illustrated this cycle of innovation under pressure with the impact of Amazon’s introduction of one-day shipping and Apple’s personalization experience on the rest of the retail sector. “When these industry leaders introduced these new offerings, the pressure was on for the number two and three brands to deliver the same type of experience. And this has now trickled down to small businesses as well.”
For brands – large and small – O’Neill has some advice on how to avoid failure in improving customer engagement through a digital experience. “It’s important to never underestimate the complexity of this kind of undertaking,” she noted. “It requires a clear strategy that’s based on understanding the customer first and then the technology that will help your team roadmap the customer journey and meet their expectations of what their journey with your brand will be like.”
As we move tentatively and hopefully to a post-pandemic world the lessons learned during this most unusual year will be important for years to come. Not only have we learned that it is possible to drive innovation under pressure, but that customers have an appetite for digital experiences when they meet a need or solve a pain point. By prioritizing customer engagement brands will continue to deliver success long after the disruptions of 2020 are just a distant memory.
This article originally appeared on Modern Marketing Today on Friday, October 30, 2020.