The effects of Covid-19 and lockdowns over the past 15 months have been a death knell for both high street stores and small businesses alike, with one in seven physical stores now left empty in the UK.

But, for some outlets, the pandemic has brought a raft of new business. In fact, according to a June 2021 report by Ofcom, British consumers spent £113 billion online during 2020 – a mammoth rise of 48% on the year before.

Now, with bricks and mortar stores reopened, an ever-more vaccinated population, and seemingly no more lockdowns on the horizon, any businesses which have enjoyed a boost of online customers over the past year now have a new issue to consider: How will they retain those new customers as the world opens back up?

Retailers must focus on customer relations

The near future will see a resurgence in physical retail shopping, forecasts retail industry consultant, and author of Remarkable Retail – How to Win and Keep Customers In The Age Of Disruption, Steve Dennis. In a previous report on the future of the high street, the industry leader warned that “the retailers that got an unearned lift from COVID …need to focus on retention and share of wallet growth, as the tide will go out and life will get harder as the months pass.”

That means that those online retailers must find new ways to grow the customer relations they have developed digitally over the past year, and retain them to speed up slowing sales as shoppers are lured back to different high street brands.

Fiona Stevens, Head of Marketing at customer loyalty platform Loyalty Lion, believes that the secret to keeping those customers and growing share of wallet is in storytelling and authenticity. “The most effective way to stay connected to your customers is to be authentic and communicate the story behind your brand,” she says.

“Over half of consumers say that a greater understanding of a brand’s story or history motivates them to join and contribute to a customer community, which in turn enables you to develop a far deeper and longer-lasting emotional connection,” Stevens explains.

Personalize your email marketing to grow online sales

One of the most effective ways to build that authentic connection is through email marketing: according to research by Emarsys, 80% of professionals have found email marketing increases their customer retention.

Damon Petite, Director of Product Marketing at Mailchimp agrees that email is one of the most effective ways to retain customers – especially for small businesses: “With email, small business owners are able to truly own how they reach their audiences. While social media is a great way to interact with your customers, you don’t own your audience with social media—the audience is owned by those platforms. Email is a one-to-one direct line of communication with your customer and allows you to send targeted and personalized content.”

“Last year, Mailchimp customers sent over 37 billion emails in 2020, a 21% increase from 2019. And more connectivity meant more revenue generated online. Our e-commerce customers increased their revenue by 61% last year compared to 2019,” says Petite.

The secret to harnessing that power for customer retention and growing sales, says Petite, lies in personalizing that communication.

“The key to building and maintaining good relationships with people who have purchased from your business is to know them and personalize your marketing for them,” Petite explains, “If you go too long without connecting with customers, they may not keep your brand in mind as readily as they would if they were receiving relevant and targeted emails regularly.”

“Across the billions of emails sent via our platform, there’s a clear and persistent trend: Businesses that send thoughtful, targeted content to segmented audiences are reaping bigger and bigger rewards. Average click-through rates for segmented emails are nearly 3% higher than those for unsegmented emails and trending upward. When you send relevant messages based on customer behaviour, it makes your marketing unique and lucrative,” adds Petite.

Utilise loyalty schemes

Loyalty schemes are another effective way which online businesses with slowing post-Covid sales can use to engage with their customers and make them feel valued. “A loyalty program provides a fantastic vehicle with which to communicate brand values that customers can connect with on a longer-term basis. Stores can align earning and redemption opportunities with causes they support – for example points in exchange for recycling, or charitable donations in place of money-off rewards,” says Stevens.

“This helps customers to feel that they are aligned with a business they have bought from, and in turn encourages them to return and repeat purchase in order to continue supporting the cause they care about,” Stevens adds.

Businesses should think about the added value they can offer their costumers to increase their share of wallet and build brand loyalty, too. Stevens suggests, “stores should also consider how they can use experiential rewards to make those who have bought from them feel special and valued on a long-term basis. Perks such as early access to sales or new products, exclusive access to content and double points events are all cost-effective ways of maintaining a VIP relationship with your most valuable customers.”

For many businesses, the lifting of lockdowns provides a myriad of reasons to celebrate. The challenge, now, is ensuring that customers decide to stay and celebrate with them.

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