Retailers that have moved to or optimized online operations have found embracing technology isn’t enough. To keep customers happy, merchants must deploy tech with a human touch.

Ben Crudo, CEO of Diff Agency

Mandatory face masks. Plexiglass dividers. Socially distanced lines that stretch around the block. Despite the reopening process for physical stores, shopping these days is not what it was, and it’s become clear that we’re probably never going back. 

Retailers that have survived the last few months have seen a day at the mall or spent browsing the local high street transformed from a leisurely diversion to a scary process full of calculated risk. In a way, this has expedited the waning of physical retail that we’ve seen for decades. No amount of trendy gimmicks, like in-store basketball courtson-site demos and virtual reality “trips,” will convince the masses to enter physical stores in numbers large enough to matter—and even if they did, capacity restrictions wouldn’t permit it.

Of course, many retailers have turned to ecommerce as a lifeline for thriving—not just surviving—in the new normal will come down to injecting a little bit of the joy we’ve lost back into the shopping experience.

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Mixing the old with the new for a better shopping experience 

Before there were megamalls and Amazon Prime, shopping was a much simpler and more intimate experience. In many ways, the pandemic has forced retailers—especially independent ones—to return to a personalized, community-focused take on commerce not seen since the days of door-to-door milk delivery. 

Retailers that have found success transitioning to or optimizing operations online have found embracing technology alone isn’t enough. Retailers must deploy it with a human touch. Take Uncle Bobbie’s, an independent bookstore in Philadelphia that ramped up its online efforts after the lockdowns hit, but kept its commitment to being a community hub by hosting Zoom happy hours and virtual author talks. Larger companies like Lululemon have bridged the technology barrier by offering free online fitness classes and yoga videos. At the same time, West Elm lent a design element to the new work-from-home reality by offering virtual backdrops for video conferencing. 

We’ve also seen a spate of retailers get creative in combining ecommerce tools, such as online ordering and payment, with old-school delivery models that harken back to the days of the ice cream truck. Up in Canada, a new entrant into the grocery market is bringing the local market to individual neighborhoods with mobile stores on wheels that can be tracked via an app and notify customers when they’re about to roll up. Giving consumers the chance to browse their produce with neighbors not only brings back some of the experience of pre-pandemic life. It also offers an alternative to online grocery delivery services that have been plagued by long waits and insufficient stock ever since COVID hit

Meanwhile, online retailers experimenting with going from clicks to bricks needn’t put those plans totally on pause. By their very nature, pop up shops are proving to be easily configured with COVID-friendly designs, from no-touch displays to outdoor setups and virtual pop up markets that are being embraced even by legacy brands. And smart retailers are turning their attention to making socially distanced lines more enjoyable with the injection of personalized attention from knowledgeable sales staff who can answer questions and prep orders while people wait. 

Forging connections through the screen

But even DTC brands or those with solid online offerings need to get creative to stand out from the pack in our current climate. The question of how to make the ecommerce experience more tangible isn’t a new one. Still, with so many new entrants flooding onto the internet, brands must find ways to surprise, delight and connect with consumers through the screen. 

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One secret power often ignored by online brands is the power of telling their own story. Even before the pandemic, consumers were souring on perfectly curated content and opting for authenticity instead. Right now, there’s more appetite than ever for unpolished truth-telling that reveals the human side of the less-than-ideal circumstances many of us are in right now. DTC shapewear brand Shapermint was already on that track pre-COVID when it introduced a TV channel in early March featuring lighthearted videos. The videos deal with topics like what “dressing for your age” really means and the debates over different women’s attitudes towards wearing makeup. When the pandemic hit, they added a series of blogs on real-life topics, such as how to choose the best bras to wear while stuck at home, as well as recipes and stress-busting tips to help deal with quarantine. 

Collaborations have also held strong as a way to capture new customers in the era of COVID-19 commerce. This summer, Australian sunglass line Quay teamed up with Lizzo for a line of stylish specs and pop singer Billie Eilish paired with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to create a now sold-out line for Uniqlo. These are just two examples of how celebrity power can still bring some relatability to online brands—but my favorite collaborations for the summer of isolation came in the form of stranger bedfellows. 

One of my favorite folding bike brands, Brompton, recently joined forces with clothing brand Barbour to create a limited-edition bike and a line of biking-friendly jackets, a well-timed pairing for a summer when everyone turned to the great outdoors. And I recently ordered a webcam that arrived with a coupon for a meal kit service, introducing me to a new-to-me brand. That brings me to my next point. 

Samples and freebies might seem like an outdated tactic best left to a pre-pandemic era of brick-and-mortar retail, but they’re a proven tactic for increasing sales that can work online—with a little ingenuity. Sephora has mastered this approach by having customers choose two sample-sized products for every online purchase. Still, lesser-known brands might need to be more proactive by including bonuses with standing orders like intimates company Bravado Designs did by having complimentary masks with its COVID-era orders. 

Not every company can afford to give things out for free, of course, but finding ways to let people experience your product, or endearing them with a little something extra, should be the imperative for all retailers right now. 

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There’s no sugar coating it: there will be both winners and losers in this new economy, and some retailers have it easier than others. Fashion brands and car dealerships face a more significant challenge than grocery stores and outdoor sporting goods, and chain retailers with massive real estate holdings are also in a world of pain.

But one thing’s for sure: those who hope to make it through this pandemic and the years need to be resourceful and creative. It’s time for retailers to pull out all the stops to reinvent themselves for this new world and remember that shopping is supposed to be fun above all. 

 Diff Agency provides web design, engineering, marketing and search-engine optimization services.   

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