Since the first UK lockdown, retail customers have shopped online in greater numbers and frequency than ever before. It’s a major shift in consumer buying behaviour that is expected to last – and with lockdown restrictions now scrapped, retailers would be wise to future-proof their operations to better serve ‘digital first’ customers. James Moses, Head of Commerce Projects at Columbus UK, discusses how retailers can safeguard their post-pandemic future and adapt to meet ever-shifting consumer buying habits and expectations.
With many brick-and-mortar stores unable to fully reopen during the pandemic, online retail enjoyed a significant peak – with ONS figures indicating online shopping peaked at a record level of 37.8% of all retail sales in January 2021. Although this has dipped to 29.9% in January 2022, it is clear online shopping and digital services will continue to be a significant market presence and in high demand for UK consumers.
Columbus conducted dedicated research during the pandemic to better understand how consumer buying habits had been affected throughout this disruptive period. The research highlighted five key takeaways for businesses to tackle post-lockdown to satisfy long-term consumer expectations and consistently provide excellent CX.
1. Omnichannel is no longer ‘nice to have’ – it’s a critical piece of the retail puzzle
As the UK’s dedicated pandemic restrictions disappear in the rear-view mirror, consumers have become firmly comfortable with online shopping. Pre-lockdown, Columbus research found 23% of consumers made over 75% of their purchases online. Post-lockdown, this number has more than doubled to 48%, demonstrating many customers are set to continue leaning towards online shopping over visiting brick-and-mortar stores.
Consumer expectations will also continue to rise following greater exposure to the convenience of online shopping – and for businesses, this means providing a seamless, user-friendly online experience to ensure customers enjoy the same benefits and convenience they expect to receive in-store.
This is where supporting technology can optimise the customer journey. A dedicated content management system for instance, can help businesses tailor digital experiences by consumer type to ensure a seamless journey at every touchpoint.
2. Timing’s an issue, but not as big as you might think
UK retailers were severely affected by supply chain disruptions throughout the pandemic and subsequent issues such as the Suez Canal blockage, but it appears customers are becoming more understanding – with sentiments around delivery timings set to relax post-Covid-19. Columbus research found that prior to lockdown, 34% of customers were flexible on delivery dates, 42% by the next day and 7% expecting delivery within 24 hours. But attitudes have since changed with 43% of consumers being more flexible on delivery dates, 37% preferring next day delivery and only 3% expecting orders within 24 hours.
Yet customers will not be as forgiving to consistent delivery delays and lack of transparency could diminish existing brand loyalty. This means retailers need to be more open about delivery updates and provide accurate delivery windows to keep customers informed at all times.
Clear website messaging and effective support teams, with the help of a customer relationship management system that engages customers in their preferred manner, can help businesses provide the excellent customer service buyers now expect.
3. Pricing benefits from a quality makeover
Pre-lockdown, strict budgets heavily influenced the buying behaviour of more than half of all consumers. Indeed, 8% even preferred to buy the cheapest possible option until quality was affected. Columbus findings show consumers are less concerned about pricing if the product meets their quality expectations – 44% of people didn’t mind paying more if it’s an item they want, up from 33% before lockdown.
As with delivery expectations, businesses now have an opportunity to meet the shift in pricing expectations. A product information management system, for instance, can provide customers access to real-time product information – but retailers must remember to remain transparent in their justification for pricing items above competitive alternatives.
With an extended cost of living squeeze underway amid widespread price rises, businesses will now need to perform a balancing act on product quality and price.
4. Demonstrate ethics and true green credentials – they’re strong selling points
Heightened by the pandemic and media stories of struggling businesses, social and environmental concerns are having a greater influence over consumer purchasing behaviour. In particular, Columbus research identified an uptick in ethical consumerism – with 24% of people having second thoughts about buying a product if there are any ethical questions raised compared to 20% pre-lockdown.
The proportion of consumers looking to buy more locally sourced goods has also increased to 28% post-lockdown, up from 22% pre-lockdown.
As more consumers look to align products with their personal values, pressure is now on retailers of all sizes to demonstrate their commitment to change. This is where greater transparency and visibility over greener supply chains remains vital. 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.Small businesses with agile ecommerce strategies can flourish and grow
The collapse of several major high street empires over the past couple of years dominated headlines – reflecting a shift in consumer preferences away from the big players. Columbus research found the proportion of consumers opting to spend with major industry players, such as Amazon and Ocado, has remained largely unchanged.
But the same cannot be said for smaller brands who emerged as the real ‘lockdown winners’ – with preference for buying from small online business increasing by a staggering 200%. Smaller, more agile businesses could be poised for long-term success. One Columbus customer, a London-based SME, evolved their business model from selling tools to local tradespeople into selling garden equipment to consumers – recording a 100% sales increase in the process.
The local shopping boom is certainly set to continue, as working from home and hybrid working models provide consumers with more convenience and time to shop in the local area. This gives local retailers an unprecedented opportunity to sustain business growth throughout these uncertain times with the help of ecommerce strategies. Even major high street retailers are focusing their budgets on ecommerce, offering exclusive subscriptions, extended sales, high-quality product imagery and enhanced social media presences.
Ecommerce will persist: Don’t disappoint customers with an ‘expectation gap’
The pandemic’s ripple effects have created a permanent change in the retail landscape, most notably through the sustained shift in consumer buying behaviours. In the past couple of years, retailers had to reassess customer expectations and accelerate digital transformation initiatives almost overnight. As shoppers move to online channels on a more permanent basis, retailers who have long held a mentality focused on brick-and-mortar stores must embrace this cultural change to survive.
Ecommerce strategies kept many retailers afloat during the pandemic but as physical stores start to reopen their doors, further investment in ecommerce platforms and supporting technology will help sustain future growth by helping retailers adapt to ever-changing consumer expectations, even in this new post-pandemic era.
James Moses, head of commerce Projects at Columbus UK