The Coronavirus Storefront: Should I go back?

Intro

You’ve just braved a local store. You’ve bought what you needed, and as far as you can tell, you’re still healthy. Now comes the all-important question: “would I go back”? 

Prior to COVID-19, deciding whether to go back to a store meant balancing some basic rational factors related to a store’s service (its convenience, costs, and location) against how the store made you feel — the emotional factor.  A Harvard study found that a vast majority of purchases are driven by emotion, meaning a store can get away with not being competitive on some rational factors so long as it provides an emotionally positive experience.

COVID-19 has thrown both of these assumptions into chaos, making some aspects of a store’s services less relevant and complicating consumer emotions. Stores need to adapt to new norms (as we discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series) while finding ways to uplift the emotional health of their customers and employees. Doing so is crucial to making your store the kind of place your customers will return to after their initial purchase.

The Hurdle of Habits

The best place to start is to understand how our habits (the foundation of the consumer journey) have changed due to COVID-19. The longer the pandemic continues, the more these new habits will become “normal” well past COVID-19. As I mentioned in the first two posts of this series, people’s shopping habits have changed dramatically. Going to a brick-and-mortar store means enduring emotional strain as we retrieve what we need as quickly as possible and leave as safely as possible — not quite the browse-and-buy experience of the past. 

These changes go beyond just how we live our lives. They affect our emotional state as well. With social unrest continuing, the reality of economic uncertainty taking hold, and the still-present pandemic, people are suffering from emotional fatigue. Some people might be suffering from Cushing Syndrome, where the body experiences weight gain and high blood pressure due to constant stress. 

So if habits are changing, and people are feeling emotionally volatile, you might find yourself, as a brand, in a compromising situation. If your stores aren’t taking these factors into account and aren’t ensuring customers feel safe while interacting with you, then customers might unconsciously begin to associate your brand with the omnipresent stress in their lives. 

Responding to Covid to maintain and grow your audience is best approached by finding ways to adapt your business’s strengths to fit within your customers shifting routines.

Retention by Adjusting to New Habits 

It can cost 5x as much to acquire a new customer versus maintaining a current one. With the ever-changing nature of COVID-19, companies need to quickly adapt services that best meet new customer routines, avoiding the high costs of acquiring new audiences, something that can be especially difficult as the public becomes increasingly wary of spending. 

To ensure customer retention during COVID, there should be a focus on taking what your company excels at as a rational benefit, and adapting it. For example, the rational benefit of gyms is that they excel at providing equipment and offering expertise, which, in turn, provides an emotional benefit of a structured workout routine and a goal to work towards. But because dropping by the gym is no longer possible within consumers’ routines changing, rational and emotional benefits are no longer accessible to your customers.

To adapt would mean giving customers an accessible workout. This would include mailing out fitness kits with stretch bands and balance balls, hosting virtual fitness sessions, and using computer vision to track form, similar to what smart mirror company Mirror does. The advantage of computer vision technology (how the mirror is able to track a person’s movement) is that it’s software, and can be integrated with any camera. One app called Onyx can do it via your phone. 

These accessible workouts and tools mean that a gym can now become part of a customer’s routine, without the customer having to be at the gym, solving for the COVID Storefront Paradox, where you want as much business as possible, but with no foot traffic.

Building Advocacy into Your Services

As we shift to advocacy, let’s consider that solutions mentioned in this series, like augmented reality and curbside pickup, are rooted digital even though they require a physical interaction. They are easy to access and can be shared. To leverage this, companies should explore how they can incorporate advocacy into their services, relying on their current customers as advocates with no effort on their part.

Zoom is the prime example of this, making the platform itself its own ad campaign. And as such, Zoom doesn’t use ads. I went out and searched for any recent ads and found none. 

Zilch. 

Nadda. 

Meanwhile Microsoft Teams has been advertising on cable TV, and you can even spot a Cisco Webex logo at the bottom of recent congressional hearings of big tech firms. 

What Zoom has achieved is making the ease of clicking a link its whole advocacy program. By ensuring that you can click a link and successfully jump into a chat, despite never having used Zoom before, makes the action itself Zoom’s whole advocacy play. 

As with retention, it is best to start by looking at what your brand’s strengths are, and adapting them to spark advocacy. If we think back to the gym example, this could mean giving customers sharable content, like showing off the number of reps they achieved and sharing the progress they’re making, similar to what Strava does. This provides customers both rational and emotional benefits (tracking progress and sharing success) while having them subtly advocate your brand. Another avenue is providing group fitness sessions as part of offerings to individual members. These services are a practical benefit to employees as well, as instructors could use automated services to track posture and reps of clients, getting alerts if someone is having trouble.

Conclusion

Considering retention and advocacy at the end of the customer journey is a bit misleading. Doing so implies that a business does not need to worry about keeping customers and inspiring them to become advocates until after a purchase is made. In reality, these post-sale moments are affected by the experience before a customer completes a transaction. Setting up services that work with new habits, while ensuring customers feel safe and connected, naturally create a retainable customer base who will advocate for your brand by simply using your services.

One More Thing Before We End

At the start of this series I had mentioned that the typical American, prior to the start of the pandemic, would visit the grocery store 584 times in a year

Consider how much else has changed with grocery stores in the last few months. 

You likely go to the store less to avoid undue exposure. You have a clear, concise list of what you need, and you don’t linger. You keep your distance from other shoppers and leave as fast as you can, all while wearing a mask. And that’s just grocery stores. We’re also seeing brands adopt curbside pickup, virtual inspections, and automated checkouts, as customers slowly adjust to new norms. 

As a parting thought, have you ever wondered where the term “bless you” comes from? There are several theories, but a popular one is that the phrase comes from the belief that a sneeze was an early symptom of the Black Plague in the 15th century. People would say “bless you” to try and expel the disease from someone they thought was sick. So while the Black Plague ended hundreds of years ago (except for the squirrels), “bless you” has endured as a social construct, and polite gesture. 

Pandemics end, but the habits they create endure.

 

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