Customer service

Think outside the big box: What SMBs can learn from leading retailers' COVID-19 response

  • Swathi Bhaskaran
    Swathi Bhaskaran
  • Aug 10, 2020

How SMBs can learn from big box retailers approach to COVID-19 to create a better omnichannel experience.

Adjust text size

COVID-19 has made all businesses—no matter the size—reconsider how they attract and retain their customer base.

Some big-box stores have been quicker on their feet than others in responding to the crisis. The credit, in part, goes to the marketing and customer experience strategies implemented beforehand, and the agility to react to rapidly changing customer needs during the crisis.

Meanwhile, small and medium-sized businesses are having a more difficult time pivoting with fewer resources, short staffing, and smaller budgets.. Despite these limitations, SMBs also can be more nimble and have a greater chance of recovery once the risk from the virus subsides.

In some ways, it’s easier for smaller and medium-sized businesses to do what big brands are able to do; for example, a small business can test different channels for customer engagement and make their customer experience highly customized, instead of being held back with generic, one-size-fits-all solutions.

In this article, we’ll identify three ways SMBs can learn from big-box retailers' approach to COVID-19, in order to create a better omnichannel experience, reconsider delivery avenues, and personalize their customers' touch points.

Creating an omnichannel experience

For some SMBs, digital adoption and online customer engagement pre-pandemic was gradual and less pressing, thanks to strong storefront presences and a solid face-to-face customer base. Today, though, with social distancing in place, customers are shopping online. With in-person interactions limited, the need for a digital storefront has gone from a “nice to have” to an imperative.

Given the new normal, it’s critical SMBs embrace the omnichannel customer experience by focusing on different digital avenues of their business while we wait out social distancing sanctions. An omnichannel experience encompasses all sales and marketing channels both online and offline as one entity and allows consumers to purchase from the channel they are on.

A study on omnichannel marketing surveying 46,000 shoppers shows that 73 percent use multiple channels to make a purchase pre-COVID-19. With the world quickly heading into a more digital direction, SMBs no longer have the luxury of maintaining a single sales channel. Now is the time to get creative with how you’re reaching your customers.

Speaking of creativity, Walgreens successfully implemented an omnichannel strategy that garnered 72 million members for its loyalty program within nine months of implementation. A user on the app can pay to chat live with a physician and get the prescription filled in any of the Walgreens brick-and-mortar stores. Starbucks is another case-in-point: the company is using its app and giving customers several channel options so they are able to maintain social distancing and make it easier for customers to pay.

Tips for implementing the omnichannel model for your SMB

  • A web store makes customer data collection and analysis easy. Dig into the analytics of your website—Google analytics is a good place to start—to understand key metrics, like the most popular customer acquisition channels, where customers are engaging with your site the most, and things like cart abandonment rate, before investing to change them.
  • The strength of the omnichannel model is having multiple sales and marketing avenues to reach and engage with your customer regardless of what channel they are currently viewing. It’s important when implementing this approach to make sure customers can transition seamlessly between different channels—for example, sending coupons to use in-store as well as discount codes to enter at online checkout.
  • Ensure your inventory and messaging are consistent across all channels. Consumers often research on the web store, then buy in-store, or check out the product in the store, then buy it online. This is especially true now in our COVID-19 world. They expect and deserve a consistent experience across it all.
  • Consider the implications of implementing a buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) strategy, and what contactless delivery protocols require in terms of communication and messaging with customers. Walk through each individual step in the customer’s journey and look for efficiencies or ways to add unexpected value or delight.

Meeting customers where they are

Many big box stores can lean into the advantage of size and experience during the pandemic: they’ve been at the customer experience game for a while, and have teams dedicated to just that. Because of this, big-box retailers can respond quicker and be more agile in adopting new business models to better serve their customers amid COVID-19.

Shortly after the pandemic hit the UK, Marks & Spencer quickly pivoted to partner up with a 3rd party delivery service to deliver essentials to their customers. Similarly, Costco and Instacart’s partnership ensures their customers, especially vulnerable and at-risk groups, do not have to step out of their house for groceries.

Pay attention to how your customers' shopping habits and how they’ve changed during the pandemic. How can you make their experience better? Every customer interaction is an opportunity to learn about them and enhance their experience.

Utilize surveys conducted via interactive voice response (IVR), SMS feedback, and other CX platforms to solicit customer feedback and find opportunities for growth and places of weakness.

Tips to enhance customer experience

  • In the current climate, SMBs must direct their focus on retaining existing customers versus acquiring new ones. Make sure all of your channels are updated consistently to communicate with your current customers about new hours of operation, available products/services, and the procedures that are in place for their safety.
  • Consider this time to reflect on business strategy and explore new avenues to better reach your current customer base. Big-box stores are offering updated delivery options such as curbside pickup and contactless deliveries to better serve customers during mandated social distancing. Buy online pick up in store (BOPIS) and self-service options are gaining traction too.
  • Provide differentiated customer service. While big-box retailer customer service is focused on scale and structure, SMBs have the advantage of providing personalized customer service, especially when consumers are starved for meaningful engagement after the lockdown.
  • Remember, your current customers are your best customers. Incentivize their purchases in the form of a loyalty program or contests to increase engagement with your business. A significant chunk of Sephora’s sales and growth comes from the Rouge (Sephora’s loyalty program for $1000+ customers) category.

Personalizing customer touchpoints

Taking a step back and reconsidering your marketing and sales efforts to be more personalized to your customer's needs will remind your customers why they shop with you and keep them coming back after the pandemic has passed.Personalization is more important than ever in light of the pandemic. The efforts taken by SMBs towards personalization and engagement will pay off as it is easier to capture customer interest at this time.

Amazon leads the way when it comes to personalization by a big-box retailer. Their homepage and emails are not static—they’re customized dynamically based on your purchase habits and shopping history.

Today, consumers are faced with decision fatigue. SMBs can counter the overwhelm by curating recommendations based on the consumer’s usage and shopping history.

After all, this survey says that 75 percent of your customers are more likely to buy from your brand if your offerings are personalized according to their individual preferences.

Ways to enhance customer personalization

  • Create a customer database and track your customer’s purchases, returns, size in clothing, birthday, etc . The more specific you are with this data, the more tailored your offerings can be for returning customers. Personalization isn’t simply limited to shopping history or customer behavior on your website. Location, demographics, communication preferences are other relevant factors that keep customers coming back again and again.
  • Leverage email and SMS as a way to encourage your customers to reclaim their abandoned shopping cart, check out your latest sales, or view a product that’s back in stock. Add pop-ups (within reason) on your website triggered by the user’s actions.
  • Use predictive personalization to feature products and services based on customer behavior both online and in-store. Suggest complementary products based on what others typically buy along with an item of interest.
  • Personalization is only half the battle won—analyze the results, check if they’re in sync with your goals, measure the ROI from personalization, and make improvements based on that data.

It’s time to rise to the challenge

The business landscape will continue to transform in the coming months, requiring SMBs to keep pace with big-box stores. Creating new marketing and sales channels, delivering outstanding customer experience, and creating clever customer personalization will be crucial for SMBs to pivot and survive into a post-COVID-19 business landscape.

Learn more about how retail is adapting to a COVID-19 world.

I want to see more about: 
  • Editions
  • Industry
  • Product
  • Region
  • Solution
  • Use case
Communication for good | Spring 2021
  • Communication for good | Spring 2021
  • COVID-19 and the new normal | Winter 2020
  • Digital trust | Summer 2021
  • Pre-SIGNAL special | Fall 2021
  • Retail in 2021 | Summer 2021
Let's go
Swathi Bhaskaran

Swathi Bhaskaran

Swathi is a freelance writer for tech & SaaS companies. She has helped enterprises and startups with high-ranking, value-packed marketing content. When she's not tapping away at her computer, you can find her reading or cooking with a snack in hand. You can say hi to her on Linkedin and Twitter.