To survive post-COVID, marketers must ensure their online customer experience is up to scratch

A drawing depicting online customer experience.
Simon Dring is the head of retail insights at referral martech platform Mention Me.

Over the past 18 months, the move to online retail has gathered remarkable pace. Our data from clients across the beauty, fashion, home & garden, and food & drink sectors shows that Q2 online retail sales were up a staggering 64% compared to the same time period in 2019. While easing lockdown restrictions may have buoyed in-store retail for the moment, these sectors are tracking just 2% down from where we’d typically expect them to be at this time of year.

But the story isn’t as simple as just selling online. Being online, after all, doesn’t guarantee sales. 

The pandemic has shown that an effective online customer experience strategy is essential to long-term retail success. For many multi-channel and pure-play online brands, it’s been their primary method of survival, particularly during the pandemic.

73% of consumers now say a good experience is a key influence on their brand loyalties. The businesses with the tactics, technology and tools to meet these rising expectations online have been able to rapidly adapt, while those without have been left behind – as shown by the demise of Topshop and other former High Street titans. 

To get consumer attention (and spend), multichannel marketers must now reimagine their customer experience in an online setting.

Understanding what experience means to your target audience

A huge advantage of selling online is that you can more easily understand your customers, from how they navigate your website, to which marketing tactics convert and even when they’re most likely to recommend your products to their friends. 

A lack of data has never been a problem for the retail sector. Knowing what to do with it, however, is a different story. Valuable data is often neglected, lost between departments and stuck in disconnected parts of the marketing stack. 

Marketers need to urgently get a grip on this. By collating data to identify trends, they can better understand their customers and subsequently make strategic decisions, for both marketing activity and the wider business. This should be a particular priority for the online retailers who acquired significantly more new customers in lockdown, and are now struggling to understand who they are or how they behave. 

Bring the best of the High Street to your online presence 

Browsing the shelves, playing with the latest tech or having a mid-morning coffee were all key strategies of the ‘old’ world of retail. In-store marketers excelled at making shopping an experience. Over the next few months, I expect to see marketers invest significantly more into creating seamless and enjoyable digital experiences. Not just in the retail space, but in any sector where the website is the primary point of conversion.

At the heart of a digital experience strategy has to be personalisation. You might not be able to physically talk to or see your customers, but you should be able to adapt content for specific customer segments, from welcoming back returning customers to encouraging new ones to explore your offering.

Another important consideration is the notion of browsing, a major perk of shopping in-store and a key conversion driver for purchases. To recreate this natural sense of discovery, retailers should implement technology that recommends similar products  or items other like-minded consumers have gone to buy. By helping shoppers organically discover new brands and products, brands can notably increase sales of both impulse and higher consideration goods.

Finally, being on hand to help is key. Customers will always have questions; answering them quickly and efficiently is key to increasing conversions and building long-term brand affinity. Chatbots and live chat let browsers get quick answers while enhancing the customer experience – an important factor when considering that 93% of people are more likely to buy again from brands with excellent customer service.

Experience as the key to unlocking growth 

A key trend that emerged from our Q2 data was that marketers and retailers are beginning to strategically open up new channels of growth. Among these channels is referral, tapping into consumers’ increasing reliance on recommendations from friends and family when making buying decisions. 

Despite decreasing order volumes, the number of new customers acquired via referrals continues to increase. This suggests that, despite lockdown easing and people buying less online than during the peaks of 2020, the habit of recommending our favourite brands to others is here to stay.

Referrals are a hugely valuable source of self-sustaining growth for brands. By equipping customers to introduce their friends, businesses can acquire new shoppers highly likely to match their target customer profiles. These shoppers tend to have high lifetime value, too.  Referred customers spend on average 11% more on their first order, repeat purchase more, and are five times more likely to refer their friends, continuing a virtuous cycle of business growth.

The next six months will bring yet more uncertainty for retailers. But by focussing on providing customers with experiences worth sharing – and ways for them to share it – they can safely navigate the times ahead and lay the foundations for a bright future.

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