Covid-19: Retailers must be delivering a seamless experience to succeed beyond this crisis

In every business, workplace and household, people are navigating massive changes. Retailers, especially, are either facing shutdown and a dormant customer base or are battling to fulfil sudden spikes in demand across their sales, logistics and customer service operations.

The retail landscape was in quite a dismal way before COVID-19 hit, with February recording the slowest growth rate in seven years. Dixons Carphone announced just before lockdown that it would be closing all 531 of its standalone Carphone Warehouse stores after its mobile division recorded losses of £90m. But the new circumstances have provided a handy excuse for some retail brands we are now seeing topple such as Cath Kidston and Oasis and Warehouse. These brands’ failure in recent years can be put down to confusing, out-of-date, diluted offers and poor customer experiences across all channels due to lack of investment. The lockdown delivered the final nail in the coffin.

The biggest challenge facing retailers at the moment is the supply chain and that’s understandable. The rate of change has been challenging for companies of all sizes and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Retailers can take solace from knowing that customers understand this. Everyone is suffering, so retailers are in a situation where they can be open, honest and upfront - hopefully the key to survival and emerging out the other end in a good light.

Abel & Cole, an organic food delivery service, realised quite quickly that it couldn’t cope with the sudden demand in orders. Its team said that “at this time” they were unable to take on new customers but that they were working on a solution and this encouraged me to sign up.

Shortly after, they presented me with a limited offer that was still really useful. This simple process not only kept me engaged but it won me over - the honesty and visible efforts to help me despite the demand proved that Abel & Cole was switched on and left me with a positive view of the business.

B&Q, however, will no doubt be wasting much-needed time in reading the ongoing complaints across social media over its unbelievably poor website experience. The waiting system it has introduced means people queue to access the website for hours, only to find products out of stock or unavailable. This means that those consumers simply wanting to browse the product range can’t - an indication of very poor planning in anticipating demand and traffic.

This is unforgivable from such a big brand and really indicates how low the digital experience has ranked on the priority list for a long time. The potential for B&Q is huge - people stuck at home are turning their attention to DIY and home improvements. All they have to do is provide a really meaningful experience. Instead customers have been left feeling frustrated at the company for such poor service and communication.

Similarly, Next seems confused in picking the right direction. First it stopped online orders, a few days later it changed its mind and opened its online store, only to U-turn once more. This is hugely confusing for customers and far from helpful. Potential customers will now turn their people their attention elsewhere.

Co-op, a member-led chain at the heart of many communities, lacks a digital offering but could have put in place a useful click and collect service. Such a positive move by the company would have been welcomed by locals and helped build loyalty.

But it’s reassuring to see that most companies are now communicating via their websites, social media or newsletters and are aware of the challenges. That’s a good start. They are relaxing delivery policies and putting on offers to help people.

Supermarkets have suspended a large amount of non-essential goods from online stores to better control stock and be more efficient. They are also seeing the opportunities in converting new customers. For example, I logged on to the app store and read the reviews for the Tesco app, full of positivity from first-time users who had never thought to shop online until now and have been pleased with the experience. We know from our own research conducted this month on 1,000 UK consumers that nearly one in five say they don’t use online shopping, with nearly half of those aged 45 and above.

We’re also seeing a huge wave of support for local retailers. The ‘shop local’ and ‘shop independent’ movements have accelerated as people opt for their local butchers and bakers to avoid the overcrowded supermarkets. I live near a Sussex farm that usually supplies meat to high-end restaurants but is now able to offer this to local people and does it very well. This is not just helping the farm survive as a business - it’s creating meaningful experiences and also showing the advantages in dealing directly with customers. This growing localistion may see the smaller brands and companies fare better than the bigger ones who don’t know their customers on a more personal level.

Tapping into this new-found sense of localisation can deliver efficiencies. Our research showed that 25-34 year-olds are most likely to want to combine their online orders or share a delivery with someone else, with 64% stating that they would find a digital tool to help with this really useful.

And then we have the brands that have always invested in their digital experience enjoying the benefits and forging new relationships. John Lewis, for example, has a well-designed, easy-to-use and seamless website experience and it is still able to offer next-day delivery. The marketing team has devised a new initiative called ‘Partners Though It All’.

The team understands people can’t shop in-store so has shifted marketing activity and set up virtual consultations to help people plan home decor ideas. They have brought the experience to their customers in a simple and meaningful way with relevant content on their social platforms.

Retailers will be focusing on short-term solutions to survive this unpredictable period. However, investing in an online experience that helps rather than frustrates the customer is critical - and it’s not too late. Brands should always be looking to engage on an emotional level and putting customers first. Strategic partnerships may be the answer for many in driving customer satisfaction and loyalty. Morrison’s partnership with Deliveroo to help fulfill the demand for deliveries benefits both companies and places the consumer as a priority.

Those that think more strategically will find seamless solutions that help establish their credentials as a trusted brand. They will be better placed to weather the downturns and outpace competitors when some semblance of normality returns.