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How retailers can still have an edge over e-commerce competition

www.thedrum.com | October 12, 2021
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As the world gets back a semblance of normalcy, will the consumer’s shopping habits also go back to the older ways? Or has the pandemic changed the shopping habits forever, and if so what can retail marketers do to future-proof their offerings? Dr. Preetha Menon, associate professor - advertising & branding at Flame University, Pune and V.T.Rakesh, senior DGM (marketing) at L&T-MHI Turbine Generators Pvt Ltd share some pillars of transformation in shopper marketing that could help cope with this new reality.

The whiff of cookies baking, the scent of fragrant candles, the hustle and bustle of friends and family, the familiar smile of a stranger in a shop window. Reminders of a time when all shopping wasn’t online. Reminders of a day when shopping was more than just clicks of confirmation. Does this take you back to the good old days and make you sigh at what you are missing or are you just glad that physical shopping is behind you for good?

The statement that “Covid-19 has forever changed the world” has become a cliché. Albeit one needs to admit that it has indeed changed the way people shop. The emergence of e-commerce which catapulted Jeff Bezos to the status of the richest human on the planet received another shot-in-the-arm through lockdowns across the world. People have lost the habit of window shopping, bargaining and the fabled ‘shop till you drop’ experience. From medicines to groceries and even fish and meat, today everything is ordered online, and home-delivered. Luxuries or essentials, click-click-click, that’s how products sell. However, have all shoppers become techno-converts or are there some part of you that still wants to touch, feel, taste and smell as much as you want to pay and purchase?

Like the world can be divided between haves and have-nots, it can also be divided between shoppers and their ‘click friendly’ counterparts. ‘Clickers’ have bloomed in the Covid era, glad to not be exposed as lazy shoppers. They now have a valid reason for doing what they love, sit in a chair and shop all they want.

But there is another group that is impatient in their chairs, wriggling with every reminder of an outdoor shopping experience. They miss the outdoors, they miss their vicarious lives, watching food on other tables, clothes others picked in the trail rooms and the general warm glow from physical contact. According to recent reports from BBC and Huffington Post, inspired shoppers’ experience a ‘buyers’ high’, equated to the excitement experienced by a Formula one driver touching the finishing line. While online retailers and marketers cater to functional needs whereas an omnichannel retailer with an online and offline presence caters to the emotional needs of their customers.

Now with Covid-19 increasingly becoming a fait accompli, and the world finding newer ways to accommodate it, will the marketer be able to cater to the needs of this emotional/sensory shopper? Here are 5 necessary transformations in shopper marketing that could help cope with this new reality.

Customer safety is hygiene and non-negotiable

While it was never okay to compromise on the safety of the customer, the post-covid shopper is intensely involved in vetting this out at the point of sale. Such that safety of the customer is now a hygiene factor. You may have the best sensory experience, but if you compromise on the safety of this new age customer who is testing every safety standard with the covid litmus, you are going to lose out on the much-needed walk-ins.

Time to flip the sales promotion strategy

The trend of offering hefty discounts to offload slow-moving stock or technologies that may soon get obsolete is already visible across retailers. While this is popular both online and offline as a successful strategy to spike sales, the experiential customer is left unattended. This customer wants new experiences, try new products and thrives as a maven in their peer group. Exhibiting new stocks and offering attractive sales promotion schemes like ‘choosing the promotion for the month’ would bring in these novelty-seeking customers back to the shop, who revel in the engaging experiences to co-create with the retailer. Meeting a celebrity or grooving to the music of their favourite band could well help attract this experience-seeking customer.

Service with a smile

What the online customer misses is the warm glow of receiving a compliment from a genuine salesperson or the downright pampering that happens on a shop floor. Customers paying a hefty premium to dine in an upmarket restaurant are not just paying that premium for the food, but for the service that comes with it. The new-age retailer will have to up their service game in such a way that it elevates the shopping experience and get the customers’ joy of shopping back.

The friendly neighbourhood retailer – time to up the game

Imagine someone wanting to purchase a festival gift for her near and dear one living in a distant city and she has no choice but to resort to e-commerce sites for the solution. This she will have to do without having seen the real colour of the garment, rubbing the fabric between her fingers, check the fitment, or analyzing the longevity of the cloth. Instead, what if her neighbourhood store had tie-ups with courier companies for a delivery service, for the selection made through the sensory perceptions of touch, sight and smell? This is not an uphill task, but a definite way to win the customer’s heart.

Don’t kill the catalogue just yet, innovate on it

One aspect where the e-commerce sites score over physical shops is the choice they offer for a particular product. It is very difficult for the shops to match this because of the lack of shelf space and inventory cost. This challenge can be circumvented by printing catalogues of the range of products. If the product is not readily available on display, then it can be made available from the warehouse at short notice. Local retailers can also take advantage of their physical proximity to the customers by hand-delivering the products at home, which can be taken back then and there if not found satisfactory.

When the world today is giving clear signals of moving back to normalcy, there may not be a second chance for the retailer to get their act in place. As studies have time and again indicated, retailers with omnichannel presence work better at serving the emotional customer as compared to e-commerce that is better at serving the functional customer. Especially in India, where the transition is slow, and emotional purchases are a way of life, the retailer must pick the cues provided here to deliver an edge over their e-commerce counterparts. It truly is now or never for them.

-Prof. Preetha Menon

(Source: https://www.thedrum.com/opinion/2021/10/12/how-retailers-can-still-have-edge-over-e-commerce-competition)