Covid-19: Using tech to respond to a re-found sense of community

One of few positives that has emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic is a renewed sense of community and togetherness around the world, the likes of which has not been seen for a very long time. “Leading up to this time of Covid, we’ve had a few years which have been plagued with division – politically, socially, and also generationally,” notes Alexia Inge, co-founder of Cult Beauty, during the recent Klarna Virtual Smooth Session: Fast-tracking retail recovery event. “What’s happened has brought a real sense of ‘we’re in this together’ – that it’s a group effort and this is bringing communities together.”

This positive spirit has also translated into a reorganisation of priorities, focusing on the things that really matter, such as the health and wellbeing of ourselves and loved ones. There has also been a much greater recognition of those who perform essential jobs in society, such as NHS workers.

Yet bizarrely, this desire for community cohesion has occurred during a period of lockdown and social distancing, where face-to-face interactions have been severely limited. This results in a challenge for retailers to find ways to merge these seemingly competing themes to drive the sector’s recovery once the crisis has ended.

Greater use of technology

People have become accustomed to using technology in everyday life, and retailers must adapt to this profound change in consumer preferences. The most obvious way this has manifested is in the substantial shift towards online shopping during the crisis, which appears set to remain in the long-term. But this is far from the only way technology is playing a growing role in people’s lives, and is something retailers must focus on going forward.

“The online experience is really where the consumer is going to be,” comments Inge. “I think before Covid there was a sense that big tech is the baddy, but actually it has enabled us over the last two months to continue living our lives, to connect with our loved ones we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see, and to keep businesses going. There is a softening stance towards technology whereas before I think people were much less trusting.”

Indeed, this greater use and reverence of technology should not be interpreted as a desire for less connection with brands – quite the reverse. Communicating digitally with customers should arguably become as much of a priority for retailers as developing their eCommerce channels and capacity.

Importance of ethical behaviour

Brands and retailers are now under a glaring spotlight. Their ethical behaviour, and how they contribute to their communities, will matter to a much larger number of consumers now, than before the crisis. Noel Mack, chief brand officer at Gymshark says: “I feel like the consumers are watching closely what brands and businesses do during this time, and they are not going to forget who acted in line with their values and who didn’t.”

For retailers, greater levels of expectations regarding their ethical behaviour means they need to develop and communicate a set of values and standards that people can really buy into. “Its brands that are really transparent and true to their core ethos that are going to do well in the future,” explains Inge. “This whole idea of brand transparency is going to become hyper-important. It’s reasons to shop with you, the consumer has understood very clearly what their power is. Buying a product is not just buying a product; it’s a consumer vote for a brand and that brand’s ethos and what it does in the world. And that’s going to percolate down into the mass consumption.”

Inevitably, technology will be at the centre of how the public make this judgement. In a session at the recent RetailEXPO virtual conference powered by Essential Retail, a panel of experts discussed how social media has become a key platform upon which charitable work by retailers related to Covid-19 has been communicated and commented upon.

This also means not being afraid to potentially upset some customers by taking a stance on contentious issues, as this serves to underline a commitment to the values businesses proclaim to hold. Mack gave the example of Nike’s advert backing the stance of American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who had refused to stand for the US national anthem back in 2018 in protest against racial injustice and police brutality. This advert was created even in spite of the large backlash against Kaepernick’s actions. “You have to put your values out there for the world to see. I don’t think trying to appease everyone works anymore,” comments Mack.

Digital technology, such as video, will naturally be at the heart of communicating brand values in creative and eye-catching ways, as was highlighted in Nike’s Kaepernick advert.

Responding to new sense of localism

Linked to this new-found sense of community is a move towards localism during Covid-19. There has been a notable upsurge in people spending at local smaller and independent shops in recent months, partly to avoid travel and queuing at large supermarkets, but also to help support local businesses at a time of crisis. This is another trend that many believe could continue, to some degree at least, over the long-term. It is therefore a theme that larger retailers may need to account for in their strategies going forward.

For major national and international retailers, it is not an easy task to embed themselves in local communities. Petah Marian, senior insights editor at WGSN says: “One of the things we’ve been seeing is a groundswell of support towards local brands. If you’re a large business, how do you then tap into those community aspects and become part of a community?”

Such an approach would need to start with a greater devolution of power from head office to staff at a local level to enable them to connect with their particular area. Marian believes this will require the clever and targeted use of digital technology, with opportunities for physical interactions in stores going to be more limited than pre-Covid: “Use your staff members in stores to then reach out to your community via text messaging services, via apps, things like that. The consumer that doesn’t necessarily want to come into the store in the same way they did in the past, but they still want to have that sense of community connection,” she adds.

Combining tech and community

A fresh sense of community cohesion has broken out amid the devastation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, with technology at the heart of fostering this togetherness amid social distancing restrictions. These two features of the crisis are set to persist over the long-term, and retailers should take note. More people are likely to want brands to behave more ethically and this could heavily influence purchasing decisions. Demonstrating values and being part of local communities will be crucial to retailers bouncing back from the economic damage caused by Covid-19, and digital communication will be at the heart of this strategy.

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