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In the Covid-19 era, retail’s new customer experience is safety

(Image credit: Image Credit: Zapp2Photo / Shutterstock)

For the past two decades, retailers around the world have proven their resiliency in the face of rapid technological transformation and changing consumer habits.

But this is different. Covid-19 has commerce executives living through the most challenging times in their business lifetimes. As Dana Schwartz, Keen’s vice president of global direct to consumer & digital put it recently: “Everything changed overnight. I literally felt this need to save my company. We were pivoting to a whole new strategy.”

As the health crisis of the century moved across the globe, whiteboards were blank. It was time for new thinking, new ways of operating, new ways of surviving. And now, with non-essential brick-and-mortar stores opening up throughout Europe, retailers face two key challenges.

First, with economies stopping and starting, consumers' finances are under the pressure that unemployment and uncertainty bring. Second, with no vaccine to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a significant portion of consumers appear hesitant to return to in-store shopping.

Consider the experience in England, which allowed non-essential stores to open June 15. Initially footfall soared, rising 44.5 percent during the first week of reopening, according to The Times. That figure fell to 2.4 percent the second week.

In fact, one-third of Britons told pollsters they’d need more assurances, including a vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus, before they’d feel comfortable shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. Ten percent said they would avoid in-store shopping even though the stores are open.

Meanwhile, however, ecommerce sales have been building strength since the World Health Organization declared the global pandemic. As of mid-July, ecommerce sales in Europe were up nearly 20 percent from pre-pandemic levels, according to Signifyd’s Ecommerce Pulse data. And some retail verticals were up much higher than that.

That means retailers want to make sure they are ready to offer the kind of strong customer authentication (SCA) required by PSD2, so as not to squander retail’s one bright spot. The deadline to be fully compliant with the new SCA regulations for most of Europe is Dec. 31.

Stressful outings

Despite the dreary in-store statistics, retailers still have an opportunity to seize success, even in these difficult times. Winning back customers relies on building a whole different customer experience, in-store and online. No longer — and not likely for some time — are consumers looking for an immersive shopping experience when they visit a store.

For many, store visits have become stressful outings complete with face masks, social distancing and queuing up to enter. Some would prefer to spend as little time as possible inside the store.

Danger is lurking online as well. While the threat of fraud obviously predates the pandemic, there are signs that fraudulent activity is on the rise in the midst of the chaos caused by the pandemic. While fraud fluctuates by its nature, Signifyd is seeing significant increases in very high-risk orders, which generally equates to fraudulent orders. During the second week of July, for instance, the Home Goods and the Auto, Parts & Tires verticals were experiencing very high-risk order levels that were more than double pre-pandemic levels.

All of which means that retail executives need to reimagine the customer experience. In the Covid-19 era, safety is the new customer experience. So what to do?

Reassure in-store customers: Obviously, some consumers are ready to shop in-store. Bolster their confidence by practicing highly visible cleaning protocols. Offer shoppers masks, if they don’t have them, and ensure that customers, associates and other store staff wear them. Display clear signs and floor markings encouraging social distancing. Provide contactless payment options. Accept returns via delivery services and post.

Shore up omnichannel: The importance of building an omnichannel approach that meets customers where they choose can’t be overstated. With anxiety over in-store shopping running high, retailers need to be able to provide a seamless online experience. Click-and-collect needs to be fast and accurate. Showing shoppers what goods are available at what store is paramount.

Be flexible

Think of new ways to serve customers: Depending on the products you sell, you might want to offer virtual visits, during which customers can view products remotely. More importantly, these sessions give associates a chance to explain products and features to a customer and get a better sense for what the customer is trying to accomplish. It is a way to not only increase conversions, but a way to build a connection.

Consider curbside pickup: The idea of ordering online and picking up the goods while waiting outside the store in your car has caught on quickly in the United States. The service isn’t for every merchant or every store location, but where possible it offers anxious customers a way to get goods quickly without having to enter the store.

Be flexible: Walking around a physical store isn’t going to be for everyone. Not every consumer will want to try curbside pickup. Not everyone will be up for virtual visits, either. But each of those options will appeal to some shoppers. Retailers, then, need to be ready to offer whatever it is that a particular customer is comfortable doing or enjoys.

Consider order automation and dynamic fraud protection systems: Use the pandemic as motivation for upping your risk-management game. The SCA enforcement deadline for most of Europe is Dec. 31. But retailers are going to want to have their systems in place by the start of the holiday shopping season, so as to not be distracted during the crucial shopping period. Look for a system that provides order automation and relies on machine-learning to sort legitimate orders from fraudulent ones nearly instantly. Click-and-collect and curbside orders need to be filled quickly (no more than two or three hours) and they come with unique fraud challenges. When online orders are picked up by the customer, the transaction happens without a delivery address, which provides a number of signals to validate the customer’s identity. A big data system that relies on a network of merchants is far more likely to be familiar with any given customer, as the system would have seen the consumer’s transactions at other retailers.

Make sure your ecommerce experience is at its best: So much of the in-store experience is out of your hands given Covid-19 requirements. All the more reason to provide a sterling online experience. Audit your entire online customer journey to ensure that it offers intuitive navigation, engaging content, precision personalization, accurate inventory, seamless checkout and instant order confirmation.

Yes, Covid-19 presents a challenge different from any retail leaders have faced before. But with some thought, a bold strategy and ample determination, retailers can show their resiliency once again.

Ed Whitehead, managing director, EMEA, Signifyd