U.S. businesses are gearing up to reopen as COVID-19 restrictions ease, and they have their work cut out for them. Not only must businesses grapple with safety precautions and new regulations that govern the way they operate, they’ll have to adapt to meet the needs of the new consumer — one who’s been through a pandemic, too, and may have immensely different behaviors and expectations.
There’s a ton of advice out there about planning for reopening — everything from how to publicize reopening plans to where to store the hand sanitizer. These are concrete, actionable tips for how to reopen smoothly and ensure you are following CDC guidelines. But the big unknown we can’t really plan for is post-pandemic consumer behavior.
People Have Less to Spend — and Reasons Not To
Consumer spending habits have changed dramatically since March. Many have been out of work (or working less) during the quarantine, and those who have continued to work may have suffered financial setbacks from stock market volatility. The impact on spend is significant: A recent study found that 65% of brands surveyed saw a decrease in revenue during March, and 73% of small businesses have seen significant decreases in demand.
Even folks who have fared well during the pandemic may be more apt to save money in anticipation of another future shut-down. New research from GlobalData reports that only 4.5% of U.S. consumers say they will have both the ability and confidence to spend on retail goods post-lockdown, and only 15.9% say they are confident about spending.
What’s more, when customers do enter brick-and-mortar locations, it won’t be business as usual:
- They won’t go as often. While some may be nervous about contracting the virus, others will find wearing masks and waiting in lines to enter stores inconvenient and not worth the effort.
- They won’t linger. For most people, safety will be top of mind. They’ll be less focused on browsing and more focused on getting what they need and getting out — which means they’ll be less likely to make impulse purchases or ask staff for assistance.
- Some will want to avoid contact with staff and sales reps altogether, leaving businesses little opportunity to work the sale.
For many businesses, the face-to-face customer interaction that was essential to making sales will be diminished in the post-COVID-19 environment, and they’ll have to find other ways to connect and engage in meaningful ways with customers to drive revenue.
Use Feedback to Create Meaningful Connections
As you reopen your doors to customers, focusing on the following three key strategies will help you survive and even thrive:
1) Build customer trust and loyalty. Customer loyalty has always been an important goal, but in this new environment, it could be the most critical business differentiator. As consumers return to physical businesses, they’ll choose the ones that make transactions fast, safe and convenient, and they will be more likely to confine their future purchases to those trusted brands and businesses. Successful business owners will be the ones who understand and deliver on what consumers want and need, and in doing so, earn their trust.
To that end, collecting and analyzing customer feedback will be even more critical to business success than it ever was, because it’s the only way to begin to understand new consumer expectations and behaviors. Armed with unfiltered input and insights from multiple feedback channels, you can make targeted adjustments to how you operate and serve customers, and drive loyalty through your ability to adapt and be flexible as we all figure out what a world after COVID-19 will look like.
Transparency and effective communication are also extremely important to earning customer trust and loyalty. Businesses must communicate proactively and honestly about evolving changes in a timely manner. Here are some good tips and best practices for effective communications now and in the months to come.
2) Create a Seamless Omnichannel Experience. In the frenzy to stay afloat as consumers sheltered in place, businesses scrambled to implement digital offerings — everything from virtual sales consultations to new online business models. People have grown accustomed to these digital and virtual interactions. The virus may be less of a threat now, but that doesn’t mean people will forget how convenient it was to order online and pick up their goods at curbside, without getting out of their car.
In other words, just because your physical doors are open again doesn’t mean you should close or neglect your digital ones. Consumers will expect a seamless transition and the ability to toggle between online and physical channels. The easier you make it for consumers to do business with you — whatever that looks like post-pandemic — the more business and revenue you will earn.
3) Analyze feedback holistically to continuously improve. Use of social media increased considerably during the pandemic, and with it, the tendency to rely on those channels for information about everything from world and local news to what businesses are open and how they’re implementing CDC guidelines. Listening to and participating in the conversations people have about your locations online will be an essential strategy for understanding how to succeed in this new business environment.
Feedback from social channels should be combined and analyzed alongside feedback from other channels (like reviews and customer surveys) for a more complete picture of customer sentiment, and more specific details about targeted improvements you can make to the customer experience.
It’s Time to Get Creative
Keep in mind that successful marketing in the wake of COVID-19 will require brands to steer clear of overly promotional messaging and be sensitive to the current reality. Customers may be struggling financially, battling anxiety about venturing out from their homes, and entertaining very high expectations for businesses. Do all you can to keep a pulse on customer sentiment: Ask for reviews, run polls on social channels, follow up on all feedback to demonstrate your ongoing commitment to customer satisfaction, and analyze the data for trends and patterns.
Also, look for creative ways to reimagine the customer experience in ways that fit the current environment and help solve the challenges you and your customers are facing as the world reopens. Brainstorm with your partners and suppliers about new ways to drive traffic and sales. Most importantly, keep your mind open: You may find a surprising way to shore up your business and future-proof it, should another lockdown be necessary.