COVID-19-induced shelter-in-place orders and social distancing have driven a drastic increase in online shopping and remote shopper engagement since the onset of the novel coronavirus.
And the trend toward online, omnichannel retail experiences shows no signs of slowing down: consumers intend to continue to shop online even as the crisis subsides, with some shifting almost entirely to online. Many have also adopted more digital and contactless services, including buy online-pick up in store (BOPiS) along with curbside pickup, delivery, and drive-through.
To better understand the effects of COVID-19 on businesses, Twilio surveyed 368 retail and ecommerce enterprise decision makers in the US, UK, Germany, Australia, France, Spain, Italy, Japan, Singapore about how COVID-19 is impacting digital engagement strategies.
Overall, responses indicated a few main themes:
Digital transformation was accelerated, in some cases drastically, in response to COVID-19: 70 percent of retail leaders say the pandemic sped up their digital transformation a great deal.
COVID-19 helped remove specific barriers to evolution for retailer leaders: nearly 40 percent of retail leaders said COVID-19 removed barriers including a lack of a clear transformation strategy and an internal reluctance to replace legacy software.
Retailers are talking to their customers on new channels: of the new channels retailers added to better meet customer needs, live chat and interactive voice response (IVR) were the most common, at around 30 percent, and nearly 50 percent of retailers reported dramatically increasing their SMS usage for consumer communications.
While the business challenges brought on by COVID-19 are varied, 92 percent of respondents said transforming their organization's digital communications to address them is either very or extremely critical.
Nearly the same amount (91 percent) felt that enabling digital communications for customers and stakeholders was either very or critically important in their initial response to the virus.
As the effects of the coronavirus continue to unfold, retailers are quickly adapting their business continuity plans to suit current and anticipated changes to rapidly changing consumer preferences and spending patterns.
Seventy percent of retail respondents said the pandemic sped up their digital transformation a great deal—on average, by six years.
To rapidly evolve their digital communication strategies, retailers increased their focus on omnichannel digital communications and added new digital communication channels—on average retailers added three new digital channels to their engagement capabilities.
The top three channels newly adopted were live chat (33 percent); interactive voice response (IVR, 30 percent); and web-based chatbots (27 percent). Together these channels reflect consumers’ desires for real-time engagement and a quick resolution to their questions.
These findings also affirm previous research on COVID-19’s effects on customer support and service, in which we also found that website or in-app chat support earned ‘dissatisfied’ or ‘very dissatisfied’ marks more than 25 percent of the time.
This represents a massive opportunity for retailers to enhance their chat with artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language understanding (NLU) capabilities.
Capabilities that support trusted brand relationships
Retail is among the industries most impacted by COVID-19. Brands of all sizes are adapting to necessary changes in consumer behavior, not only to ensure continuity of business but also to show they care about consumers’ health safety and are actively protecting it. For example, at the end of 2019, just 7.7 percent of the 208 store-based retailers in the Top 1,000 had the buy online pickup in store (BOPIS) capability. Over 90 percent of those who have tried BOPIS since COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect said curbside was convenient, according to NRF’s Spring 2020 Consumer View survey.
The continuous stress and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 and a subsequent economic crisis has consumers valuing a sense of trust above all else when deciding where to shop: 81percent of consumers say that being able to trust a brand is now a deciding factor in their buying decision.
Omnichannel, personalized communications are essential for developing trust, but creating and launching the systems and infrastructure to do that doesn’t just happen. For 83 percent of respondents, the need to urgently expand their digital communications lead to an increase in budget to do so. Simultaneously, COVID-19 broke down traditional barriers to innovation, including the reluctance to replace legacy software, a lack of a clear strategy, and a lack of time.
Looking ahead, it’s clear that solutions created for adapting to COVID-19 will outlast containment of the virus and will continue to inspire further innovations. Nearly all (93 percent) respondents report that it’s very or somewhat likely their company will expand its digital communication channels as the world reopens. And overall, as a result of the pandemic, 88 percent of respondents expect to find new ways of engaging with customers and stakeholders.
Learn more about how retail brands can build resilience into customer relationships that lead to lasting trust, and see the full findings from the brand new report.