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Major shifts in consumer buying behaviour during the pandemic have since triggered a digital sales boom, with shoppers now expecting frictionless and contactless transactions. Two years on and the irreversible impact of the pandemic can still be felt across the entire retail landscape. Success of future operations will rest on the ability of retail businesses to meet the needs of the new ‘digital-first’ consumer. 

Dedicated market research conducted by Columbus during the pandemic highlighted three key consumer priorities: multi-channel marketing, ethical brand awareness and a dedicated e-commerce strategy. Two years on, it is clear that building these values into the customer experience is critical for future business growth.  

With online sales now accounting for 25.5% of all UK retail sales (July 2022), how can this be achieved? For retailers, the ability to meet long-term customer expectations for high-quality digital CX needs support from innovation technology.

  1. Omnichannel marketing unlocks new online growth
  2. Customers value information over timeliness 
  3. Customers are willing to pay for premiums as long as they know why
  4. Demonstrate ethical awareness to connect with the ethical consumer market
  5. End of the retail empire sees more consumers begin to 'shop local'

1. Omnichannel marketing unlocks new online growth 

The UK’s dedicated pandemic restrictions may have ended but their legacy still endures. Pre-lockdown, Columbus research indicated that 23% of consumers made over 75% of their purchases online, figures which doubled to 48% post-lockdown. Considering the proliferation of convenient online shopping, these tendencies will persist, requiring retail businesses to prioritise user-friendly online experiences. 

Digital retail

Here, the introduction of a dedicated content management system (CMS) can tailor digital experience to dramatically improve the customer journey. With help from a CMS, businesses can ensure a seamless journey at every touchpoint and offer advanced web management capabilities. 

As customers start to demand more personalised experiences, the best CMS allows companies to gather user behaviour, such as the website pages they visited, the content they consumed, the areas of the page they lingered on and for how long. Businesses can pair this data with user demographics to ensure efficient delivery of online customer service, from browsing to checkout.  

2. Customers value information over timeliness 

Recent supply chain disruptions, from the Suez Canal blockage to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have caused customer sentiment around delivery timings to relax, with just 3% of customers expecting delivery within 24-hours. But accessible and accurate delivery updates remain critical for retailers to keep the customer informed, in the loop, and to sustain consumer-business relationships and reliable brand imaging in the long-term.  

Clear website messaging and effective support teams, with the help of a customer relationship management (CRM) system that engages customers in their preferred manner, can help businesses provide the excellent customer service buyers now expect. For example, easily accessible customer history data can resolve delivery enquiries and refund requests first time round to ensure the best possible outcome for all parties. 

digital first retail

3. Customers are willing to pay for premiums as long as they know why

According to Columbus findings, 36% of customers are still willing to pay a premium for high-quality products in the post-lockdown era, up from 26% pre-lockdown. Despite the threat of a recession and the current cost-of-living crisis, high street retailers are reporting soaring profits driven by online sales. But with a potential Q4 sales lull already being predicted by retail giants such as Ocado – businesses should look to maximise profits before any impending decline kicks in. 

To achieve this, a product information management (PIM) system can provide customers access to real-time product reports, which allows retailers to remain transparent in their justification for pricing items above competitive alternatives during the current cost of living squeeze 

4. Demonstrate ethical awareness to connect with the ethical consumer market

Both the pandemic and media stories of struggling businesses have fuelled socio-environmental concerns in consumer purchasing behaviour. Ethical consumerism has grown, with 24% of shoppers having second thoughts about buying a product if there are any ethical questions raised compared to 20% pre-lockdown – and it seems it’s not just consumers that share this new mindset.  

Recent retail decisions, such as Yvon Chouinard’s handing-over of Patagonia, reflect an increased awareness of businesses looking to align personal values with corporate goals and demonstrate their continued commitment to environmental changes.  

digital retail

Greater transparency and visibility over greener supply chains will remain critical to maintain customer loyalty and business growth in 2022 and beyond. Retailers that can demonstrate their commitment to sustainability – whether this is how sustainable and cruelty-free their manufacturing processes are, or how much packaging and waste they produce – will win over loyal customer bases and secure growth in the long-term.

5. End of the retail empire sees more consumers begin to 'shop local'

With the collapse of several major high street empires in recent years, and increased spending on small businesses, it has become clear that consumers are beginning to shift their preference away from big retail players. 

digital first retail

For example, one Columbus customer, a London-based SME, evolved their local business model from selling tools to local tradespeople into selling garden equipment to consumers – recording a 100% sales increase in the process. 

As hybrid working models provide consumers with the convenience and time to shop locally, this trend will continue – giving local retailers an unprecedented opportunity to sustain business growth through an e-commerce strategy.

Following the example of high street juggernauts, if small businesses can focus their budgets on e-commerce, offer exclusive subscriptions, design high-quality product imagery and enhance social media presence – sales opportunities can be extended!  

Tailor e-commerce strategies to new customer expectations

Customer buying habits have permanently shifted since the pandemic, moving on to digital networks to complement physical shopping facilities. In an era where the buyer is more powerful than ever, further investment in e-commerce strategy will prove key to helping retail businesses sustain future growth. The ‘digital first’ consumer expects a ‘digital first’ retail experience. 

Explore what else is in store for the future of the retail industry

Nowadays, there are several channels, customer journeys and business models that have to be managed with new operational skills and methods. We're also seeing several new entrants within the online retail landscape, creating more turbulence in an ever-growing industry.

In our latest report, explore the top trends and gain insight from industry professionals so you can be prepared for any future changes in retail, including:

  • The growth of social commerce and live shopping
  • How the metaverse presents new opportunities towards retailers
  • Why sustainable commerce is key and how re-commerce is dominating the online marketplace

Interested? Get your copy below.

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