Don’t call it a comeback: How retail is pivoting for years to come

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    Meg Buchanan
  • Mar 24, 2021

Diving into Twilio’s annual State of Engagement report to showcase the opportunities and innovations the retail industry has embraced to move forward from COVID-19.

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The retail industry has seen its share of peaks and valleys in emerging concepts, technologies, and trends over the years. The rise of television. The fall of shopping malls. Consumers embracing credit cards. Consumers rushing to Amazon. Black Friday. Cyber Monday. As the world changes, retail spins madly on.

While COVID-19 has certainly challenges every industry, this past year is hardly ground zero for the retail world. And as the pandemic subsides, retailers are preparing to bounce back in a long line of successful innovative approaches to how business is done. 

So what will the consumer shopping experience look like on the other side of COVID-19? Insight lies within the trends revealed in our annual 2021 State of Engagement report. With in-person shopping still limited, retailers have pivoted and expanded in creative and innovative ways using a combination of emerging technology—like chatbots and video—to harness a new wave of personalization and virtual shopping experiences in order to reach their customers. 

Here’s how retailers are using key customer engagement trends to satisfy their customers as another ‘new normal’ approaches.

1. It’s not just all about the customer, it’s all about the CUSTOMer.

In comparison to other industries, retail had already been embracing and utilizing personalization with the rise of ecommerce over the past 20 years. With COVID-19 however, retail companies large and small are also using the massive amounts of data from their online consumers to enhance that customization even further. 

A great example of this is Rebag’s new AI-powered chatbot, Clair, which uses more than six years of customer data to simulate an experience similar to a ‘Shazam for purses.’ Sellers can scan the bag they’d like to get appraised straight from their phone in the comfort of their homes. Clair then taps handbag data across 50-plus brands to ID the designer, bag model, and typical resale price.

As retail organizations race to find new ways to interact and engage with their customers, this type of technology is an industry first—especially because Clair is a learning bot. In time, she’ll also be able to learn from her mistakes, and work to spot fake handbags in place of real ones. This is particularly innovative because it’s a service the human eye can’t do without being in-person, and it gives customers a trustworthy and secure experience that wouldn’t be possible without harnessing existing customer data to improve upon itself. 

Beyond that, Clair signifies the continued shift in the industry of prioritizing automation and omnichannel communication. No longer is there a fear of personalization taking a back seat without in-person service. With the speed, precision, and improved experience that both the 24/7 store that omnichannel communication provides and the more efficient shopping support brought on by automation, the future of retail is a new breed of intelligent personalization that can continue to get even smarter as new technology emerges.

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2. Now hiring: a more agile workforce.

As customers moved online in troves this past year, so did the retail teams serving them. 2020 didn’t just reshape the way companies do business with their customers. It reshaped how companies engage with their employees and what the future of the modern workplace will look like.

For retail, this means changing everything from how customer service is delivered via remote contact centers to shifting traditional store space into warehouse distribution centers to aid the increase in online orders. 

Because even after the pandemic ends, customers will continue to prefer a frictionless and hyper-personalized customer experience. With ninety one percent of consumers saying they are more likely to shop with brands that provide relevant offers and recommendations and nine out of ten consumers saying they’re more likely to choose a retailer based on convenience, the future of the retail means utilizing distributed and agile workforces that can deliver on these types of experiences regardless of location.

For many small shops and direct-to-consumer brands, this means investing even more on the ecommerce front and making sure they have the agile workforce to do so. For bigger retailers, this means accelerating migration to the cloud and adopting remote contact centers to support that distributed workforce. A great example of this is QVC, who migrated their entire team of 100 agents to a remote contact center to continue supporting customer calls during COVID-19.

3. Retail tries live video on for size.

If there is an arena of technology that retail has historically been a bit more timid about, it’s live video. And why wouldn’t they be? There was never a reason shoppers couldn’t come in, in person or similarly, just find what they want via an ecommerce website. 

All of that changed with COVID-19, when suddenly video became the default replacement for every kind of in-person communication. And for retail, this was particularly hard. So much of a shopping experience has historically been created from trying things on, seeing merchandise in person, touching objects with your own hands. 

For their part, the retail industry has been incredibly innovative in what the future of virtual shopping could look like. While augmented reality is nothing new, the way that retailers are using its technology to enhance the virtual shopping experience is

Retailers like Tommy Hilfiger and Tumi have both released their own versions of augmented reality virtual stores where shoppers can navigate the space, ask questions, and interact with products as if they were in a physical store. Nordstrom too recently got in on the live video action with their recently released livestream shopping channel.

But studies (and personal experience) also shows that video isn’t a one-to-one replacement for in-person interaction. You just can’t beat a shopping experience in person. What retailers can do however, is use video to enhance that in-person interaction. 

For example, Madewell has rolled out a personal stylist live video platform that pairs shoppers with personal stylists for free. The stylists take cues from the shopper's social media presence and help find outfits for them that fit their look along with answering questions about fabric and fit. They then follow up the next day with links to each product along with their correct size, as well as a discount code to purchase. The service showcases the benefit of how using personalized video can enhance a shopper’s online experience and thus, their loyalty to a brand

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4. It's time to build... a new shopping experience.

Over the last 100 years, retail has ebbed and flowed with the way customers prefer to shop. While the pandemic certainly fast forwarded the means of how technology can support everything from great customer service to a more personalized shopping experience, the transition to this space and the people necessary to make it happen was already in the works. With COVID-19, it’s just been amplified.

The next wave of retail will require customizing digital solutions for shoppers by harnessing data and technology like video and artificial intelligence to enhance their customer’s online experiences. This means continuing to invest in developers who will build those creative solutions.

Retail, remixed

The pandemic highlighted the shortcomings and opportunities for all businesses, retail included. As the world begins to open up this year, retailers will have to navigate what that looks like as shoppers continue to want more and more digital engagement to replace traditional methods of retail consumption. 

Dive further into Twilio’s annual State of Engagement report to find even more actionable insights for retailers to adapt their businesses accordingly in a post-COVID-19 world.

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Meg Buchanan

Meg Buchanan is a Colorado native, a Kansas Jayhawk, and a proud multi-tasking millennial. As Twilio's Content Marketing Manager, she has more than seven years of experience writing for both agencies and in-house brands on topics from healthcare to hospitality.