The shift to online shopping during the pandemic means e-retailers have sold to lots of consumers for the first time in the past 20 months. Some are using the holiday period to strengthen ties with these shoppers. Their tactics vary with the nature of their business.

Online shopping took off during the pandemic, and that means e-retailers find themselves with more newly won customers than they normally would have during a typical holiday season. For some merchants, solidifying the loyalty of those shoppers is a priority.

Among those is Inmod, a web-only retailer of modern furniture and home décor whose customer base grew by 105% during the pandemic, says chief operating officer Brian Greenspan.

“Gaining that amount of customers in that amount of time can be tough to deal with for a small company like ours,” Greenspan says. “For this holiday season it’s important to re-engage those customers.”

Getting back in touch with those shoppers is particularly important now because many consumers are open to shifting their buying preferences. A recent survey by consumer credit bureau Experian found only 73% of U.S. consumers say they’re loyal to the brands they shopped with before the pandemic, down from 79% in the same survey last year.

Consumers expect more from online retailers because so many of them have gained experience in web shopping during the pandemic, says Sharon Gee, vice president of revenue growth and general manager, omnichannel, at ecommerce platform provider BigCommerce.

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“Shoppers are more digitally mature about shopping online because that’s what we’ve all had to do,” she says. “Because shoppers are more mature, merchants must become more mature to remain competitive.”

How each online retailer steps up its game varies with what they sell and the shopping behavior they’ve observed from the consumers they’ve sold to during the pandemic. Here is how three e-retailers are building on the gains they’ve made during the COVID-19 period and trying to turn new customers into long-term customers.

Inmod adds text messaging to its marketing mix

COVID-19 caused web sales to explode for Inmod, No. 1279 in the Digital Commerce 360 Next 1000, a list of North American retailers ranked Nos. 1001-2000 by online sales. (Larger online sellers are ranked in the Digital Commerce 360  Top 1000). That’s because many consumers purchased furniture and other items to make their domiciles more comfortable while working remotely and huddling at home during the pandemic. Inmod’s sales doubled in 2020 over 2019 and grew by another 50% in the first half of this year, Greenspan says.

Brian Greenspan, chief operating officer at modern décor retailer Inmod.com

Brian Greenspan, chief operating officer, Inmod.com

He says he’s turned his attention more to customer retention as the holiday season kicked in and bigger competitors like Wayfair Inc. (No. 7 in the Top 1000) and Macy’s Inc. (No. 13) started advertising heavily online, raising ad prices and making new customer acquisition more expensive. That prompted Inmod to market more to existing customers, including those who purchased for the first time during the pandemic.

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One way Inmod is doing that is through email drip campaigns that send a series of personalized emails encouraging previous buyers to make another purchase. “If you purchased a dining room table we may send you an email about dining room chairs,” he says. “If you open that one, another email will go out to keep the story going.”

A newer strategy is to market to consumers via text messages to their cell phones. Inmod began in July 2020 asking consumers who arrive on its website from mobile phones for their phone number so that the retailer could communicate via SMS.

While the click-through rate on text messages is lower than that for email, the conversion rate is twice as high. That doesn’t surprise Greenspan.

“People may have many email addresses, but they usually just have one phone number,” he says. “Someone who is willing to give out their cell number is likely to be more engaged than someone who gives out their email.”

Sweetwater prioritizes improved service amid growing sales

Customer acquisition wasn’t a problem in 2020 for musical instruments and gear retailer Sweetwater (No. 75 in the Top 1000), whose online sales grew more than 35% last year over 2019 by Digital Commerce 360’s estimates. But the retailer’s executives worried that the sales surge meant first-time buyers weren’t getting the kind of expert advice and personal attention Sweetwater prides itself on, says Jeff Ekblad, senior director of performance marketing.

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“We want to provide real value to musicians, not just ship boxes,” Ekblad says. “If your product is back-ordered we’ll have a sales engineer pick up the phone and tell the customer, ‘You’re guitar is not being manufactured for a while, what do you want to do?’”

Jeff Ekblad, director of performance marketing, Sweetwater

Jeff Ekblad, senior director of performance marketing, Sweetwater

He says Sweetwater’s salespeople are musicians themselves who can give knowledgeable advice, and that’s a service that you can’t scale up overnight to meet a sudden surge in customers. But Sweetwater made the investment in bringing on more staff to ensure it could maintain its high level of customer service.

The retailer increased its number of sales engineers from 463 in February 2020 when the COVID-19 outbreak took hold in the U.S. to 581 today. It also nearly doubled its distribution center staff to 612 employees from 319 to ensure orders will be shipped promptly, despite the higher volume. It also added a third shift in its warehouse earlier this holiday season than in the past to accommodate the increased demand, which is up 20% this year over last year.

“We’ve been placing bets on ourself that we can scale, so that the second purchase is a good experience,” Ekblad says.

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As Sweetwater ramped up its sales and fulfillment staff it went on what Ekblad calls a “win-back campaign,” sending emails to encourage first-time buyers to make a second purchase. He says it’s worked well, and that the new pandemic-era customers are converting at a comparable rate to those who first bought in earlier years.

More of the first-time customers are just starting to learn a musical instruments than previous buyers, but Ekblad says Sweetwater has not altered its marketing approach as a result.

“Our style is we do one-to-one personalization by talking to you as a human,” he says. That means recommending products that fit each customer’s needs, whether they’re a beginner or a pro, and providing information on cost, availability and warranties.

“The power of that approach,” Ekblad says, “is that any kind of customer fits into that very well.”

Drinks.com makes wine buying accessible to younger consumers

Online wine sales posted triple-digit increases in 2020 as many brick-and-mortar stores closed, and that made it a banner year for Drinks.com, which operates such wine sites as Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co. and provides wine-selling technology to several other retailers. As a result, Drinks.com found itself with many new customers as it prepared for the 2021 holiday season, says Michael Rogers, senior vice president of marketing, who declined to provide exact figures.

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Many of those new customers are millennials, consumers in their late 20s to early 40s. Customer acquisition in that age group surged 75% in 2020 over 2019 and another 20% this year compared with 2020.

Michael Rogers, senior vice president of marketing, Drinks

Drinks aims to take the mystery out of wine shopping, especially for these relatively young tipplers, and that’s led it to add more information about wine, especially to Wine Insiders, Rogers says.

“We’ve created a whole section we call Wine 101, with information about particular varietals or types of wine, or about the ideal temperature for serving white or red wine,” he says. “We’ve beefed up the content because we want to be the online wine resource.”

Millennials are spending 7% more per order in 2021 than they did last year, and they’re not the only ones buying more from Drinks’ sites. For Baby Boomers, shoppers from their late 50s to mid-70s, repeat orders per account increased 27% in 2020 and another 5% so far this year, while their average spend per order is 17% higher than it was in 2019.

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In another step to “take the mystery out of wine research and wine shopping,” Wine Insiders began virtual wine tastings, sometimes with celebrities like chef Ludo Lefebvre. Feedback from the events, which took place roughly every quarter, has been positive enough that Wine Insiders plans to continue them even though wine stores have reopened, Rogers says. To participate, consumers order the wines to be tasted in advance, then sip along with the experts during the online event.

Wine Insiders’ customer satisfaction rises during the pandemic

Wine Insiders has taken several other steps to keep in touch with the new customers it’s won. They include:

  • A welcome series of between eight and 12 emails to new customers
  • Introducing text message marketing
  • Stepped-up social media activity, including contests and member-referral programs
  • Promotional tie-ins with famous culinary experts such as Gregory Zakarian and “Chef Ludo” Lefebvre.

These marketing campaigns, combined with Wine Insiders keeping customers supplied with their Chardonnay and Merlot during the stay-at-home mandates, has lifted the online retailer’s Net Promoter Score, a widely used measure of customer satisfaction to 80 today from 70 in March 2020.

That’s one sign Wine Insiders is likely to emerge from the pandemic with a larger and more loyal customer base than it had before the coronavirus outbreak. Given that millions of consumers have shopped more online in the pandemic period than ever before, many other online retailers have the opportunity to do the same.

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