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New Customer Experience Needs and Commerce Trends for 2021

By Jack M. Germain CRM Buyer ECT News Network
Feb 24, 2021 5:08 AM PT

As consumers get comfortable with their newfound digital wallets and gift cards, marketers must continue to adapt their strategies to changes in shopping behavior to better finesse the customer experience.

Both consumers and vendors have had non-stop adjustments. Lockdowns and social distancing requirements accelerated the adoption of new technologies. Commerce trends that were on the horizon pre-COVID-19 were suddenly adopted at a brisk pace. Online food ordering, curbside pickup, and BOPIS (buy online, pick up in store) are presenting new challenges to store owners and brand marketers.

Commerce analysts do not see consumers shedding their newfound buying options in the wake of a post-pandemic marketplace. Concerns for health safety, social distancing, and remote working will remain as the center stage in the daily lives of millions of shoppers.

So brands must continue to assess how they can best meet the dramatically changing landscape of commerce. How brands deliver customer experience (CX) will determine where and how consumers continue to shop.

Four trends about customer experience and the new commerce will define 2021 and beyond, according to Jennifer Conklin, sector lead of unified commerce at Capgemini North America. Contactless customer experience, omnichannel shopping, personalization and changing customer journeys, and voice commerce will power the customer experience engine going forward.

"Consumer shopping and spending behavior have significantly shifted since the pandemic began in March 2020. Recent Capgemini research showed that 48 percent of holiday season purchases were for essential items, with consumers prioritizing clothing (36 percent), beauty/personal care products (21 percent), and electrical items (21 percent)," Conklin told CRM Buyer.

As for luxury products, Capgemini research showed that 47 percent of consumers expected a decrease in spend over the holidays while 29 percent predicted an increase in luxury purchases, she noted.

New Normal Sales Tools

Not all analysts are confident that consumers will ever return to brick-and-mortar stores as their primary shopping suppliers. Conklin is sure the four commerce drivers she identified have staying power. Her reasons make sense.

A contactless customer experience is one of the main demands indicated by consumers. Retailers that rolled out simple curbside options during the pandemic will put high-tech BOPIS and curbside offerings in place. Many shoppers still do not want to linger and browse in-store.

Omnichannel shopping has proven its value to shoppers looking for reliable delivery and better pricing options. Merchants who demonstrate that they are able to quickly get products to consumers, resolve issues with customer service, and provide fast delivery and returns will be the ones that thrive.

Personalization and changing customer journeys are the new sales tools. As brands look to understand new customer journeys, they must get creative online to improve engagement and increase customer loyalty, Conklin suggested.

Voice Commerce is the shopping tool just as voice commands are finding new uses in smart homes and electronic gadgets. Retailers will try to figure out how they can use voice to make the customer experience even more engaging.

Safety is still at the forefront of consumer concerns, noted Conklin. Last year, Capgemini research revealed that 77 percent of consumers expect to increase their use of touchless technologies to avoid interactions that require physical contact.

Her company's research found that 59 percent of consumers prefer to use voice interfaces in public places during the pandemic. Researchers do not expect that percentage to shrink in a post-pandemic era.

"If this is not on merchants' 2021 digital road maps, it needs to be added," she urged.

The Journey Counts

To better understand the changing directions of shopping journeys, merchants should inject more effort by adding a personalization element, according to Conklin. This helps the customer feel known and valued as they make their purchasing decisions.

"While there are several degrees of personalization capabilities, merchants can start small by incentivizing customers to create account profiles and fine-tune their segmentation efforts so the organization can reach out to the customer with the right message at the right time," she offered.

Data also plays an integral role when it comes to the success of personalization and omnichannel efforts. Companies need to ensure they are working with one central view of their customer across the organization from sales, service, marketing, and commerce, Conklin said.

"No matter who in the company is communicating with the customer, they need to have the relevant data at their fingertips to be successful in their role. This is also critical in order to deliver a consistent, seamless experience to the customer across every touchpoint in the customer journey," she explained.

This data and direct customer feedback can influence product sets as well. That enables retailers to further refine their inventory strategies cross-channel/cross-market, she added.

What's Ahead

Consumers' modes of interaction and habits have changed and are continuing to do so as we adapt to the "new normal," according to Durk Stelter, CRO of Linc, a CX automation platform provider in Sunnyvale, Calif. This year will bring further transition and change to retail. Shoppers' expectations continue to rise for anywhere, anytime interactions with brands.

"As the fixed boundary between workplace and home has eroded, so has the divide between daytime computer use and leisure time on mobile. Amidst overlapping worlds, digital shopping has become omnipresent and around the clock -- shifting among devices and following shoppers around their homes, into their cars, and on their cautious forays into the outside world," Stelter told CRM Buyer.

These trends will stick for now. However, as stores reopen, the trends will likely evolve, creating more cohesion between the online and in-store experience, suggested Shelly Socol, co-founder of 1R, a digital commerce and retail strategy agency in New York City. The online buying experience will continue to evolve and grow so it is inevitable that the trends will morph.

"However, the trends we are seeing today are ahead of their time due to the pandemic. Both merchants and consumers have progressed by leaps and bounds over the past year, Socol told CRM Buyer.

Merchants have been forced to build more robust shopping experiences and offer high-touch customer service. Consumers, on the other hand, have had to get used to shopping online more often, she described.

"What might have been once foreign and uncomfortable for them has become a standard, and it is likely consumers will not revert back to shopping only in-store even when they are fully open," predicted the 1R co-founder.

Differing CX Realities

Managing CX is becoming different now for in-store commerce versus e-commerce, according to Capgemini's Conklin. In-store traffic remains at an all-time low. But e-commerce channels have invested heavily in robust customer experience capabilities.

"Since customers do not want to browse and shop in-store, the online digital experience needs to mimic the in-store experience. This means intuitive navigation, detailed product pages with full imagery, and personalized technology to foster loyalty," advised Conklin.

Brands and retailers will also start to invest more in immersive technologies to bring products to life and embed this functionality into their sites, she noted. This will enable customers to configure products using a 3D configurator, augmented reality, or virtual photography.

"Once the pandemic subsides, the in-store shopping experience will return and likely be more immersive than ever before. Stores will likely carry less inventory and allocate space to be utilized for unique and engaging experiences such as product demonstrations, classes, spa treatments, cafes, and so much more where customers can spend time in-store," she predicted.

CX in general has dramatically changed since the pandemic started. Customers expect 24/7 individualized personalization support on everything from pre-purchase information, to order support, returns, and loyalty and membership information, observed Linc's Stelter.

"The rising degree of difficulty for customer service interactions requires organization-wide responsiveness and flexibility. As brands increasingly turn to automated solutions to help manage the volume of inquiries, the quality of digital-human interactions is crucial," he said.

Create Seamless Shopping Experiences

A primary consideration is changing how marketers use chatbots, as Stelter sees it. To meet the challenges of 2021, digital interactions must be adaptive and empower the consumer to drive the conversation.

In order to improve their customer experience, merchants need to focus on accessibility, noted Meghan Brophy, retail and e-commerce analyst at Fit Small Business. That is one aspect of online shopping that has been neglected for too long.

"To truly offer a great customer experience, merchants need to make online shopping accessible to all. Simple changes like labeling form fields, adding alt text to images, and not using strikethroughs to show sale prices can make a big difference," she told CRM Buyer.

More important than ever is for consumers to have a seamless shopping experience. Shoppers are starting and completing buying journeys using a mix of channels, and they all need to work together smoothly, explained Brophy.

For example, a customer might start on a brand's Instagram page and add items to the cart. Then the customer visits the website later to complete the purchase and picks up the order in-store.

Many options exist for brands to maximize the online customer experience. Helpful and fast customer service is key, in addition to free shipping and easy returns. SMS is also a rising form of communication with consumers and is becoming a must, offered 1R's Socol.

Brands should also build and utilize flexible landing pages populated with both content and products. These pages can form the foundation for marketing purposes to drive traffic. Brands can create storytelling experiences that complement the website and allow the brand to produce unique content for different target audiences.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.


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