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How the Covid-19 related challenges of 2020 can actually help retailers

Specsavers radically altered the services during the pandemic and launched an e-commerce journey within the first few weeks

The disruption of the Covid-19 epidemic could actually present retailers with long-term opportunities, as it has forced them to hasten their journey towards a genuine omni-channel approach and speed up the personalisation of their digital channels.

Those are the main conclusions of Retail Rebound - a panel sponsored by Criteo - at The Drum’s Digital Summit and involving lively conversation between Specsavers’ marketing and e-commerce director, Chris Carter, and Criteo’s UK country manager, Marc Ó Fathaigh. They discussed the need to be genuinely agile and operate at unprecedented speeds while acknowledging that a host of new competitors have now entered the retail space.

Watch the full panel session here

For the first time ever, over 30% of all UK commerce will be digital this year, compared to 21% in 2019. This, according to Carter, means all marketers now have to think omni-channel – not just digital marketers. The biggest shift in focus this approach requires is how to identify customers as they move online.

“It’s very easy to give consumers a great experience in-store and then treat them like a stranger as soon as they visit your website,” Carter says, stressing the need to build a user-friendly customer identifier process into the experience to help build personalised pages. Citing Amazon, Spotify and Netflix as standard-bearers of personalisation, he adds: “Every time you go onto these sites it’s a completely different homepage and different from everyone else’s you’ve ever seen. They know exactly who you are.” Retail is a long way off that, he suggests.

Specsavers radically altered the services it offered during the pandemic and launched an e-commerce journey within the first few weeks. And, according to Carter, its content focus switched towards its own channels telling care stories on social and PR. “The platform we launched was ‘Open for Care’ and we prioritised people with critical health need and health workers first.”

The brand began telling those customer stories over 100 consecutive days. The danger in this was the potential commoditisation of the brand. Criteo had surveyed customers in the first lockdown and found 50% had tried a new retail brand. Consumers are shopping around, comparing value, service and quality online. When asked if it was a one-off, 82% said they were happy to continue shopping that way.

“There is a real fight for future customers,” says Ó Fathaigh. “What they value most is reliable delivery, quick returns, free returns and a good price. In the first lockdown, people were happy to shop anywhere during the panic buying phase, happy to accept delivery within five working days. Now though, delivery systems need to be much sharper.”

Ó Fathaigh stresses the need for getting basics right, saying: “Deliver what you say you are going to deliver. Have customer support available.” He goes on to cite FarFetch, ao.com and Boohoo as success stories, because “They were already agile.”

“We were on a journey to a more integrated marketing and advertising approach, but still had a large traditional spend,” reveals Carter. “The pandemic has accelerated that switch. Like many, we cut back on broadcasters campaign-by-campaign to digital, always-on content.”

Measurement, he says, will be “a big piece of the puzzle next year.” “We are all on a journey that’s about getting efficient and effective use of digital spend.”

Ó Fathaigh, meanwhile, explains that: “Criteo, Google and Facebook will all probably measure things slightly differently, so you need to find your source of truth, stick to it and make decisions on the back of it.”

Carter leaves off by suggesting that 2021 will be about value, quality and service, rather than just price: “We are in flux at the moment with furlough and government support, and everyone can see recession and unemployment coming. There will be a real impact on disposable income next year, so value will be even more important.”

“People will want the in-store experience online or to at least be recognised in the same way,” concludes Ó Fathaigh. “So perhaps there are free returns, where you get sent five sizes and you can return four for free. You can’t use Covid-19 as an excuse next year for poor customer service.”

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