It is promising that retailers rose to the occasion to accommodate current circumstances, endearing shoppers to new ways to do business under these trying times, writes Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst, Digital Commerce 360.

Good riddance, 2020! It has certainly been a tough year, even though ecommerce sales saw strong gains. With the physical store facing unprecedented challenges, ecommerce became the beneficiary of channel shifts.

In times like these, I find it helpful to think of the positives that came because of COVID-19. Three ecommerce activities appear to have accelerated and are here to stay—keepers as we like to say. To put these capabilities into perspective, I will use personal stories to illustrate how my behavior has changed.

It is promising that retailers rose to the occasion to accommodate current circumstances, endearing shoppers to new ways to do business under these trying times. With each trend, our bottom-line statement indicates why they should become mandatory capabilities. Their ability to give shoppers greater choice while simultaneously saving them time during these harried times and beyond are easy to like.

  1. Speed=same-day delivery

I was tired of looking at our 20-year-old toaster oven, so I began the hunt for a new one. After looking at both customer and expert reviews online, I narrowed it down to the Breville Mini. The price point was perfect, and now it was a case of locating the best deal. Of course, I did a Google search and then went to Amazon. I also checked Best Buy and then thought I would look at Abt, a local home retailer.

Ultimately, availability drove the decision, as prices were consistent across the board. Amazon was temporality out of stock for the item, it was a week out for delivery at Best Buy, and at Abt it was in stock with same-day delivery and it could be on my doorstep today. Free shipping sealed the deal, which is not typically the case for same-day delivery. All these factors combined to serve as a differentiator for Abt and others as they convince shoppers to convert “now” for delivery today. My order arrived at 5 p.m. with Amazon-like visibility into their delivery route.

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While Amazon touts same-day delivery, it typically is for products that are more commodities in nature, as this battery example suggests. Of course, as a Prime member, I am eligible for the service on up to 3 million items, though I am sometimes challenged to find one. Otherwise, its $5.99 fee is reasonable relative to its competitors.

Like many families, we found ourselves in need of basic supplies for school and work from home. Our Office Depot down the block succumbed to the pandemic and more likely to Amazon. After selecting two items, the ink was available for same-day delivery while the paper was next-day only. I will go and pick that up despite the weight. My cartridge was $62 and change, and the delivery fee came in at $15 with orders placed by 5 p.m., making the cut for same-day delivery. I’m not sure I would take the plunge except under dire circumstances and for a higher-ticket item. I will pick that up as well.

The bottom line: More companies seem to be promoting same-day delivery options. With shoppers accustomed to immediate delivery on everything from groceries to takeout, interest is heightened. Expect broader delivery options and more stores to add these services in 2021. Efficiency in every regard is part of our expectation set and same-day delivery is primed for growth.

  1. Convenience=curbside pickup

Curbside pickup is probably the No. 1 gamechanger for retail. Before the pandemic struck in earnest, curbside was in place for grocery retail with adoption by Target, The Container Store and a handful of other retailers. It was a vehicle for survival among retailers where store scenarios were constantly in flux. For shoppers, they became enamored with its efficiency and the growth of stores who tested it and their execution made this capability business-as-usual for shoppers.

I can only look to my own experiences to see how I am easily tempted. During the holidays, I had three instances where it proved to be invaluable.

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The first was when one of my smoke alarms sounded that annoying chirp. I immediately tried to identify which device was impacted to no avail. Ultimately, I decided to change all the batteries and realized I was short of 9-volt batteries. With multiple Targets within a few miles, I searched for ones that had availability for pickup. The store within a mile would be perfect as I could pull up to the “always open” drive-up spaces and an associate would come out within minutes. Mission accomplished and back to changing batteries.

Next, I was on a new-year, clean-it-up mission and wanted to get some household supplies. As the weather was bad, I preferred to go to the location with covered parking. I ended up placing several orders to optimize that visit. I used the Target app to let the store know I was on the way and then alerted that I had arrived. In a matter of minutes, an associate was putting products in my backseat as requested. That is impressive given the store footprint.

Lastly, my daughter informed me she needed a sports bra. Having shopped at Dick’s Sporting Goods in the past, I was impressed with its efficiency for curbside pickup. The instructions were clear, the signage was perfect and better yet, my item would be ready for pickup within the hour—a promise made by only a handful of retailers. We could still make it to the gym before it closed.

Bottom Line: Curbside has pushed omnichannel into the mainstream. Adoption will grow given the positive experiences and the time-savings realized by shoppers.

 

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  1. Concierge services now come virtually

The third positive to come from the pandemic was that retailers invested in putting into place virtual services. They ranged in scope from general problem solving to helping shoppers find just the right item for themselves or a loved one.

West Elm encouraged its shoppers to begin with a free design chat, which is smart from a cost-savings point-of-view. Beyond that, free one-on-one design services were available for booking.

One chooses the time, location (in-home, in-store or video chat). The retailer inquires about the number of people joining and confirms by email. The associate assigned to me informs me that it will just be a phone call and asks for images of the room I want to remodel.

On the call his friendly nature is a perfect fit and I like that he had thought through the product line that would best complement my existing furniture. I asked why he didn’t opt for a Zoom call. He suggests it’s easier to have the images offline and Zoom can get a little crazy when trying to guide the customer. It’s interesting to note the different approaches that retailers take and admire that they all are effective. What I found most interesting is that when I asked him to send me a link, he happily followed up and said if I found anything else, even at competitive brands, he’s happy to take a look. He was in this for the long haul. It’s a smart way for these associates to create more lasting relationships. Now I know why he’s been with West Elm for eight years and counting.

When clicking on virtual outfitting at REI, shoppers can book a free one-on-one virtual appointment to meet with an online expert. The retailer reminds you through messaging of that REI touch and includes “bring all the goodness of the co-op right to your screen.” It says it will attempt to match an associate to your needs and encourages you to save your spot. Participants can articulate what they need help with, and that previous experience with types of gear or activities are optional. Fit or sizing requirements can be noted as well. Customer reviews speak to its brand and level of service REI has been known for over the years.

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I put the meeting on my calendar, and Johnny from REI gave me a call. I joined the Teams call and could not help but notice he had on his green REI vest. He reviewed what I was looking for and to get a further understanding of my needs. He began to educate me on the best clothes for skiing and then started to share his screen, describing the selections that he thought would be right for me. He even personalized the experience by sharing which products he owned. His descriptions of products, down to the search and rescue in the Patagonia parka, were impressive. He also explained the warranties as he moved from one item to the next.

When I inquired into the frequency of these virtual chats, he noted that he had been an outfitter at the store, which allowed for a smooth transition to these virtual services. Behind the scenes, he was clearly using REI’s onsite search tools to quickly find the products and then showing them in the best light. He followed up with a comprehensive email and even reminded me to check back as stock is always being replenished. It was REI at its finest—no commission, just omnichannel excellence.

Bottom Line: Virtual appointments can be scheduled at the shopper’s convenience. Shoppers are able to articulate their needs and receive dedicated attention without in-store distractions. The time-savings is welcome too, as well-trained associates empower experiences that educate and personalize the right products for successful shopping.

The only thing we are confident about in 2021 is that these capabilities are here to stay. In the midst of this pandemic, a little consistency and a whole lot of creativity and competence among retailers will go a long way to satisfying shoppers. Putting shoppers first with efficiency, information and the channel choices they need will ensure performance and satisfaction for retailers and shoppers in the coming year.

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