The holiday shopping season is over, the pandemic seemingly never will be, and customers around the world are officially ready for things to return to some semblance of normal as a new year begins.
After all the upheaval of the past couple of trips around the sun, we all find ourselves simultaneously pining for how things used to be and vowing to never go back. Attending live sporting events and other entertainment venues? Yes, please. Without a mask? Uh, no thanks. Shopping in person just for the fun of it? Check. But without six feet of space between you and the person in line behind you? Hard pass.
Retailers are in a tough spot as a result. They’ve bent over backward to comply with various regulations and modified their entire business models to stay afloat throughout the coronavirus crisis, only to be expected to keep innovating and modifying to appeal to a customer base whose preferences change rapidly. Today, retail businesses need personalized messages on infinite marketing channels, contactless payment options, curbside pickup capabilities and superior customer experiences — all during a global supply chain logjam and staffing shortages spurred by the Great Resignation.
It’s a lot to process. But it’s also a big opportunity for the companies that can execute it gracefully.
The rise of buy online, pickup in-store
There are a few proven ways for retailers to effectively improve their retail strategies in 2022 to meet customers’ elevated expectations. In a word, it’s all about flexibility—infusing it into the company’s offerings and giving shoppers as much of it as possible. Brick-and-mortar stores should know by now that customers want as many ways to buy and take possession of their purchases as possible, from one-day shipping to self-serve kiosks.
They want the goods, sure, but what they really want is for you to help them help themselves.
Take the dramatic uptick in what’s called BOPIS—or buy online, pickup in-store—shopping. Yesteryear, folks wouldn’t hesitate to spend hours in a shopping mall or big box store, meandering up and down each aisle and carefully considering purchases. Not these days. Today, people do their shopping from the comfort of their beds, scrolling on smartphones and tablets and filling digital carts with a few simple clicks. Rather than wait a day or two for those items to be delivered, however, people want the ability to make online purchases and drive to the store an hour or two later to pick up their haul.
Welcome to the next iteration of the Instant Gratification Society. We want it all. And we want it now.
How retailers can ease the shopping experience
There isn’t a lot that retailers can do about supply chain hiccups or the absence of qualified workers applying for positions. Those are market fluctuations that happen and will correct themselves in due time. But for retailers that want to improve the customer experience as those tectonic plates continue to shift, here are three great places to start:
1. Increase the available pickup options. If you think every customer wants to drive to your physical location, park their vehicles, walk inside, push a cart around, and wait in line to complete their purchases, you may increasingly find yourself mistaken. Today’s shopper wants options — from the aforementioned BOPIS experience to self-checkout lanes, curbside pickup, free and fast shipping, convenient delivery, and more. The most forward-thinking, innovative companies are offering all of the above.
“Some retailers are quick to see the success of innovations like self-checkout and respond by going all-in. Of course, even customers that prefer self-checkout know that a full shopping cart or one with mostly produce and bulk goods merit the speed and skill of a human cashier,” says Sam Gobrail, a principal solution architect and customer experience strategist at Pariveda. “In the same vein, online ordering and contactless delivery don’t necessarily replace curbside pickup, which can be a more convenient option for a shopper who will already be running errands in the area where a store is located.”
In order to continuously improve the customer experience for shoppers, he added, “retailers should constantly strive to increase options instead of embracing a single promising solution.”
2. Streamline the returns process. Customers want their purchases fast, and they expect to be able to return them just as quickly. Dated, cumbersome return policies and procedures are major turnoffs in 2022. To win loyalty and inspire brand advocacy, returns need to become as simple as possible.
Instead of making buyers jump through endless hoops to get credit for an unwanted item, consider some upgrades to the return process. Instead of making people wait in long lines, why not install self-service return kiosks in a convenient location inside the store? Rather than have folks call a number to acquire a unique return code or ship the product to a post office box in another state, why not encourage them to return things to their local store?
Try putting the wrong-size shoe on your own foot and view your return process through their eyes, then amend accordingly.
3. Accept as many payment methods as you can. Customers want the goods or services now, but they don’t necessarily like the idea of paying for it right away. The rise of buy now, pay later options—through services like Affirm, Klarna, and PayPal, to name a few—help customers buy what they want now without the pressure of having the funds in place. Lines of store credit are another avenue you can experiment with.
Chalk it up to the convenience factor. People want the flexibility to break their payments up into four or six installments, especially when no interest accrues. It helps shoppers manage their budgets while still buying the things they want and need. Now that retailers such as Walmart and Target offer BNPL at checkout, you can expect the trend to continue to increase in popularity.
These are just a few ways retail stores can adapt and evolve to meet ever-changing consumer shopping habits. The companies that follow suit will put themselves in a position to thrive in 2022. The ones who don’t may lose out on that sale.