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Mind the gap: plugging the physical disconnect in a digital-first retail era

Written by Christophe Pecoraro, Managing Director at PFS Europe

It is no exaggeration to say that the past 12 months have turned the retail environment on its head. As consumers slowly start to rise above the parapet and lockdown restrictions ease, retailers are having to overcome the physical disconnect between themselves and their customers. With retail moving almost entirely online during 2020, and continuing to dominate the arena as we navigate the ongoing effects of the pandemic, consumers started missing the more tangible aspects of the retail experience. As a result, brands struggled to preserve the brand connections needed to maintain loyalty.

A disillusioned consumer

Our latest research illustrated how consumers became increasingly disillusioned by the online performance of their favourite and preferred brands. In fact, over a third (35%) complained they had such an unsatisfactory shopping experience with a previously trusted brand, that they had moved on to a competitor. Younger consumers were shown to be the most fickle of all, with 63% of Gen Z consumers jumping ship. Slow delivery, lack of available stock and difficult returns processes were all cited as common frustrations.

Long-held loyalty crumbled during lockdown due to a disconnect between physical offerings and online experiences hastily put together by retailers. It was often a case of a lack of engagement. Almost a quarter (23%) of consumers agreed that online stores either didn’t do enough to engage with them, that they only wanted their money and didn’t care about their satisfaction.

The barriers to brand loyalty

Even on its organic trajectory, consumer expectations pre-pandemic around online perks were extending far beyond convenience and accessibility. The pandemic has only accelerated this. Consumer’s exposure to disruptive start-ups and alternative global brands skyrocketed.

Some elements simply cannot be tangibly replicated digitally. Out of the aspects that four-in-five (80%) of consumers said they were missing, perhaps inevitably, were not being able to physically touch products (43%) and not being able to test certain items for suitability across aspects such as size or colour (41%).

Of course, retailers are not completely oblivious to these inherent shortfalls. We’ve seen the rise of self-service online tools such as website chatbots to address customer service cravings, or augmented reality to bring a sense of tangibility to products such as sunglasses or cosmetics in the past 12 months. FAQ pages have become more informative, and product and item descriptions have become clearer, both assisting in the purchasing and delivery process as well as minimising customer returns.

But there is clearly more to be done to satisfy today’s shopper. And there is more brands can do to alleviate challenges.

Bridging the gap with fulfilment

Brands need to act fast, preventatively not reactively, to strike a chord with customers and fulfilment is a key differentiator brands should leverage. In this era of consumers becoming – quite rightly – more aware of their environmental impact, including their carbon footprint and how a product is packaged and delivered is increasingly a determining factor. In fact, PFS’ research found that 64% of consumers would be more loyal to brands that provide them with delivery timeframe options, whilst 52% would prefer to shop with companies that help them to minimise their carbon footprint. The option of buying and returning in-store, or to use click and collect when shopping online is also becoming popular.

Most retailers have now got their point of sale (POS) to a satisfactory standard. However, they are more likely to hit the mark with consumers based on value-add considerations. Brands need to put themselves in the consumers’ shoes and understand the specific drivers of each demographic.

Questions need to be asked such as:

  • How quickly does our customer demographic want their purchase to be delivered and what can we do to make that happen?
  • Can we give consumers flexibility over delivery timeframes?
  • Even how items are packaged has the potential to add further value. Can our inventory and stock facilitate both online and in-store availability?
  • How simple and sustainable is our returns system and what can we do to minimise returns?
  • How ethical or environmentally conscious is our supply network?

Today’s consumers want it all. A strong POS experience won’t offset poor fulfilment options, and vice versa. Retailers need to ensure that they tick all the boxes of the post-pandemic consumer to guarantee long-term brand connections.

Taking ownership

Retailers should be owning and rethinking their supply chain, looking for solutions that can help further elevate the post-click process. Making a wider variety of products available to consumers more quickly is essential – with accessibility leading the way. Appealing to the veteran online shopper as well as the novice must be considered to cover all bases when it comes to succeeding in eCommerce – but without losing sight of your brand’s core customer demographic. Operational excellence will be vital to this and brands must ensure all processes are optimised to avoid any frictions that could damage customer loyalty. After all, speed, the condition of the product and the overall delivery experience will leave a lasting impression on the customer.

There will always be elements of the online experience that cannot match brick-and-mortar. For this reason, brands need to take control of what they can, to instil and maintain brand loyalty – and this starts with fulfilment. From the findings of our research, barriers to brand loyalty are clearly as much to do with a brand’s warehouse as their POS. And the key to overcoming these barriers is to enable options and flexibility. The more choice that is made available to consumers, the more likely they are to remember that ease and variety – even subconsciously.