By James Bosley, marketing manager at Esendex
The UK has hit another milestone in the Covid-19 pandemic. As of Monday 19th July 2021, the Government has lifted national lockdown restrictions. Some restrictions lifted include limits on how many people can meet, social distancing guidelines dropped and face coverings are no longer required by law.
Despite the easing of restrictions, one in six councils are reporting the highest number of cases since summer last year. Government scientists are also warning we could see 1,000 to 2,000 hospital administrations per day before mid-August as the next wave hits its peak. The economic and social impact of the pandemic is still developing. The high street is fighting hard to win back cautious consumers post-pandemic, and it’s no easy feat. Fashion retailer Kurt Geiger predicts an additional cost of £75,000 per store to reopen safely in an unpredictable landscape.
Customer retention has never been more critical, which is why customer communication continues to be of paramount importance for brands navigating the road to recovery. Businesses need to focus on improving customer engagement and ensuring that their brand remains front of mind in an increasingly competitive market. After all, with no customers, there is no business.
The next steps could be the most difficult to navigate for physical stores. While there is no government pressure to adhere to rules or guidelines, many consumers are still keen to feel safe. Approximately 78% of UK residents say they’re likely to wear a mask, even after the law has been lifted.
Retailers can’t ignore their customers, and with a fourth lockdown still very much a possibility, we’ve looked at five takeaways from the past year that could help businesses prepare for a winter lockdown.
Engage with your customers
For most businesses, resources have shrunk, but the number of tasks is increasing. Fewer people are keeping more plates spinning, and it’s easy for day-to-day activities to fall behind. However, customer engagement is of paramount importance. Businesses need to reevaluate everything they know about their audience, as consumer behaviour has changed rapidly – driven by necessity.
Lockdown restrictions severely limited, and in some cases, eradicated the in-store experience for most of the past year. In place of this, businesses must build online communities and engage audiences to avoid losing their customers to the competition.
Implement robust feedback structures
Agility is a critical differentiating factor in whether a company will survive a further lockdown. The Government implemented new laws, rules, and regulations in unprecedented timeframes, leaving companies with little time to prepare. Businesses must be ready to pivot to new channels should measures change again.
Although the future is still very uncertain; businesses can use the next few weeks to gather data to build informed strategies. Don’t guess what your customers want;
ask them. Despite a push to online, 64% of UK shoppers still say they prefer the high street. With this in mind, businesses should take steps to gain a deep understanding of precisely what it is their customers love, and what they don’t, so that if restrictions come back into force, they can meet customers on the channels they are most at home.
SMS Surveys or email surveys are a great way to collect feedback in a non-intrusive manner quickly. This can be particularly useful when businesses may have introduced new online services or are looking to expand digital offerings.
Digitisation is no longer optional
There are numerous business and environmental benefits to digitisation. Information is managed centrally, digital communication is much quicker, and when businesses can’t open a physical store, online becomes the only channel to generate revenue.
While most businesses establish some online presence as part of their launch, many smaller companies fail to hone in on the online customer journey. eCommerce offers a far more comparative way to shop, and it leaves consumers time to think. Online competition is loud, which means your customers are easily distracted. The UK boasted £200bn in online sales in 2019, and it’s expected online retail will make up nearly a third of all sales by 2024. Lockdown or not, ignoring your digital brand on online customer experience will harm your business.
Create a safe but seamless experience
Possibly the most significant pull to brick-and-mortar retail is the convenience and instant gratification of buying a product in-store. As the doors to physical retailing reopen, businesses need to leverage the benefits of in-store without compromising safety or the customer experience. Communication will play a critical role in ensuring customer expectations are well managed, and that customers don’t feel confused, inconvenienced, or frustrated by the safety precautions taken in store.
This is where an effective and well-thought-out omnichannel strategy comes into its own. 87% of shoppers begin the buying journey online, but we know the majority prefer in-store. Businesses must eliminate friction between the online and offline experience for their customers to move effortlessly between channels.
Streamlining customer service interactions is one of the most effective ways to improve customer engagement and get the most from limited resources. Chatbots and live chat functions are on the rise. Two-way SMS chat offers a convenient way to answer your customer’s queries without keeping them on hold or relying on slow email conversations.
Preparation is key
As previously mentioned, agility is crucial, and agility comes from preparation. If the past year has taught businesses anything, it’s the need to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Companies that have been established for more than a year are likely to already have contingencies in place should restrictions come back into force. For businesses who have already taken measures to survive, now is the time to strategise, improving the foundations set.
Should a winter lockdown hit the UK; companies must be able to ‘switch back’ to online-only with as little disruption to their customer experience as possible.
A delay in getting back to your customers leaves your customers open to the competition, who are also likely to be doing everything they can to win new business.
There’s still a long way to go
The pandemic will have lasting effects on both the economy and our lives. Businesses have been under enormous pressure to implement radical changes in very short timeframes. Now work must be done to understand the long-term impact of these changes and ensure the business is poised for sustainable success and that the new processes are well-positioned to carry the business forward in a volatile market.