There’s something ironic about online retail. We all agree that online shopping and ecommerce have fundamentally changed consumer behaviour. We take it for granted that modern customers are evolved, informed and have increasingly high standards. We clearly recognise that abundant supply means brands have to work harder than ever to attract and retain customers.
And everywhere we turn, we’re surrounded by statistics in this vein. “The growing power of consumers”, “Customers are more demanding than ever before”, “Customers will stop doing business with brands after a frustrating customer experience”. You’d be forgiven for thinking that brands and retailers today are doing more than they’ve ever done to keep their customers happy, and ensure their engagement stays high.
But this isn’t always the case. Why?
Why are personalised experiences often the exception and not the norm? Why are so many brands still not getting it right? And why are experts today urging retailers to look backwards, to simpler times, when shoppers could walk into a store and be greeted with theatrics, magic moments or simply a warm smile?
If you’re not sure what I mean, read on. In this article, I want to outline the reasons why digital customer engagement is stumbling – and what can be done about it.
1. Online shopping hasn’t evolved, so provide more tailored experiences
Before the internet, the only way to shop without walking into a physical store was via catalogues, coupons or calls. But while the user interface may have drastically improved, the experience can still be very much wanting.
For most consumers, every time they visit a retail website, it’s like the first time. They’ll be greeted with the same homepage everyone else is greeted with, they’ll have to filter for size, measurements and price range, even if they’ve done so before. And, while many online retailers use or have used cookies to enhance experiences and predict future purchases, this approach will soon no longer be possible; and, more to the point, it is vastly unsatisfactory, considering the technology we have at our fingertips today.
A better approach is to offer more tailored experiences to your buyers. Already, over two thirds of consumers say they’d stop using a brand if it doesn’t personalise their experience. And now, 62% of consumers expect personalisation from a brand. It reminds them of in-person interactions.
For example, a well-trained chatbot that can learn from previous conversations and suggest the right products or services to your customers. It could also proactively offer to help if a shopper slows down, in a similar way to in-store staff – Instacart does this with its customer happiness team when customers get stuck during the ordering process. This has the added benefit of streamlining the experience and saving visitors the hassle of sifting through multiple webpages to find what they need.
2. Loyalty is not a habit, so bridge the online/offline gap
Whenever I talk about the stagnation of online shopping, I’m reminded that many websites (most notably supermarkets) do save down previous purchases, and use them as a way of reminding shoppers of what they bought last time, in case they want to buy it again.
This works well for food. But habitual loyalty won’t enable your customers to form emotional bonds. If there was another website that offered the same convenience of a pre-filled shopping cart based on past purchases – but with the added benefit of a chatbot that proactively engages customers, greets them by their first name, taps into their pain points via live chat and offers them exclusive deals or bundles based on what they normally buy – what do you think they would do?
Brands already collect first-party data on their customers – now they need to become better at using it. And they need to become adept at bridging the online/offline gap to provide the magic moments that shop visits used to.
Some examples include loyalty schemes to incentivise your customers to place bigger orders – a bit like a ‘gift with purchase’ display at a department store. Or creating a personalised website dashboard view for returning customers – like when a local shopkeeper used to know your order and remember to hold back your favourite magazine or treat. Vista, the design company, does just this with its website – allowing customers to return to ongoing projects quickly or to find relevant products to inspire them to begin something new.
Another simple way to bridge the online/offline gap is to provide omnichannel experiences so customers can jump from one channel to another, picking up exactly where they left off without disturbance. We’re starting to see a lot more companies doing this successfully now. Some brands even allow customers to make orders directly through their social media channels – a bit like ordering at a counter rather than browsing the entire shop.
3. Cookies don’t work, so use first-party data
Customer engagement is about far more than auto-filling a shopping trolley with the same goods as last time – it’s about knowing what the customer wants, sometimes before they even know it themselves. To do that, you need first-party data.
Did they just buy a dress? Offer them matching shoes. Was that dress a certain colour? Send them some wardrobe recommendations in a complimentary colour palette. Did they order multiple dresses and only keep one? Acknowledge the returns, and the next time they look at items in a similar cut or colour, advise them that they didn’t like it last time.
We live in a relationship economy, where the success of a business is often built upon the strength of the connections it builds with customers. A report by Deloitte found that companies that focus on the human experience are twice as likely to outperform their peers in revenue growth over a three-year period and have 17 times faster growth than those who do not. In other words: human connections matter. And first party data is instrumental in making those connections happen.
Did your customers browse an item without adding it to their basket? Let them know when it’s on sale. Did they buy a new bathroom tap? They may be in the middle of a renovation project and need related products: paints, silicone, grouting. What they won’t need is another bathroom tap. But, unfortunately, cookies usually fail to differentiate between something you might want to buy regularly (food, toiletries, household goods) and something you’d only buy once or one of (like a bathroom tap).
Retailers that focus solely on selling will lose customers. As we head towards a recession, it’s more important than ever that brands look for more innovative ways to level up their customer engagement. Ironically, it might be that, to become the business of the future, you have to look to the past, and take inspiration from the in-person engagement of local shops that knew who you were and what you wanted. Technology should make this possible – even easy. It’s time to make it happen.
To find out more about how you can better engage your customers, download the 2022 State of Customer Engagement report here.
Sam Richardson is principal visioneering consultant at Twilio.