Bluerock Digital Blog | What's Rockin' in the Digital World?

Digital trends in a changing retail industry

Written by Simon Brosolo | October 1, 2020

It’s been almost 2 years since COVID-19 first hit our shores and the term ‘business as usual’ was tossed out the window. For retailers battling it out in an already competitive market, the game got even more complex. But while the pandemic has fundamentally changed how businesses operate, one thing has become very clear: retailers have every chance of continued success if they remain agile to changing consumer needs.  

In this article, we dive into what your business can do to thrive in the COVID era, now and into the future. We’ll cover: 

  • How to build your brand in a ‘COVID-normal’ world
  • Capturing online opportunity 
  • New ways to engage your audience online 
  • How to respond to trends in organic search and social media
  • Pivoting your content strategy

The shift to digital has been rapid, but by leveraging data-backed strategies and selecting and implementing the right digital tools, you can adapt, overcome, and most importantly, future-proof your business. 

So what exactly is going on in the digital world? 

Digital is here to stay

The growing trend of consumers turning to digital for their goods and services was expected to continue, but no one could have predicted what has occurred as a result of COVID-19. Consumer behaviour has been forced to immediately change, driving a decade’s worth of eCommerce growth in the space of a few months. 

So the questions become: what can your retail business do to connect with consumers as the world continues to seemingly change overnight? How do you build a strategy that is agile and flexible? Based on what we saw in the early days of the pandemic and existing eCommerce trends, here’s what you need to focus on: 

1. Building your brand

When business is bad and cost-cutting essential, sales and marketing are often the first to go. However, history tells us that this may not be the best strategy. Post the GFC, e-commerce rode a four-year boom. With things slowly returning to ‘normal’ (or as close to normal as we can hope for), it’s the brands that doubled down on their marketing efforts to grow awareness that have enjoyed the greatest yield. 

Take for example Bunnings, who in 2021 was recognised as Australia’s top online retailer. In 2019, Bunnings’ online offering left a lot to be desired, but an increased focus on their digital strategy in response to COVID-19 saw the brand boost online marketing efforts, alongside the introduction of click and collect, a marketplace offering, and much more.     

But it’s not as straightforward as throwing together a ‘COVID’ campaign and watching your engagement grow. The expectations on brands have changed. Now, more than ever, consumers expect brands to act responsibly and with integrity. Maintaining consumer trust requires tailored messaging, as brands seen or felt to be opportunistic will not fare well. In times of turmoil, it’s the brands that connect with us that we become loyal to.

Now is the perfect time for brands to highlight their values, and live them. It’s critical that you understand your customer and their needs in a COVID world. Investing in your brand’s content strategy will ensure you’re delivering the right message to the right audience at the right time. Here’s what you need to focus on:

Tailored messaging

Your customers’ needs should guide your messaging as you adapt. Despite being almost two years in, the dust has not yet settled, with states going into and out of lockdowns, and many people still suffering from industry shutdowns and lost work. As a result of decreased discretionary spending, targeting the right person at the right time is more important than ever. 

Retailers need to ensure they have a deep understanding of their target market and what they are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. Brand building activity should boost morale with content that’s empathetic, relevant and authentic. 

Building trust 

Consumer research has revealed: 

  • 56% of shoppers are more likely to buy from retailers that behaved well during the pandemic
  • 43% of consumers believe levels of trust increased when brands did not ‘take advantage’ of the crisis​

Maintaining or building trust during this time is critical. Don’t take advantage of the crisis, and if you make a pledge during uncertain times, make sure you’re able to deliver on what you promise. 

To build and maintain trust, brands should: 

  • Be empathetic – when crisis first hits ​
  • Help others selflessly – when the impact is known​
  • Be relevant – with offers once the dust has settled​
  • Keep your customers updated - throughout any and all changes ​
  • Be authentic - all the time!

In response to COVID, Bunnings swiftly updated content across their website with positive, COVID-associated messaging resulting in them being voted Australia’s most trusted brand at the height of the pandemic. 

Social proof

Social proof has long been a powerful method of building brand credibility, but the data shows us that customer reviews are now even more important. Online ratings and reviews saw a huge increase during core pandemic months, with:

  • The volume of ratings and reviews growing by 40% to 80% 
  • Small changes to ratings driving sales growth of 30% to 200% depending on the category
  • Consumer product review engagement growing up to 104% MoM from February to March 2020

During the COVID-19 era, consumers are seeking greater validation for their purchases, most likely because the crisis has forced many to buy certain products online that they’ve never purchased before. With consumers shopping less in person, shoppers are relying even more on online reviews and word-of-mouth feedback on brands and products. A review strategy is essential.

2. Capturing online opportunity 

It’s not a coincidence that some of the world's biggest companies were founded during the GFC, including Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox and Slack. Through adversity, there is always opportunity. The pandemic has given retailers the opportunity to evaluate how they manage and market their business. To adapt and overcome, the message is: change your approach, not your vision. 

More people are shopping online than ever before. And while initially the uptick may have been driven by COVID-19, the impact on consumer behaviour is likely to be permanent. A June 2021 survey found that consumer changes are sticking, with 50% of consumers surveyed saying they’ve become more digital, shopping via smartphone continuing to climb steeply, and more people buying online at least once a day.

Opportunities in eCommerce

In 2020, the Australian eCommerce industry saw a 57% YoY increase in online shopping, with Australians spending $50.46 billion online. Many who were forced into shopping online as a result of the pandemic (possibly for the first time) have now realised how convenient and simple it really is. And as consumer confidence in eCommerce grows, we’re witnessing a permanent shift in buyer behaviour.

Retailers who invested in their digital infrastructure before COVID-19 hit have been able to better navigate the challenges that the global pandemic has posed. Sadly, many of those who didn’t have this capability or lacked the means to rapidly transition online have been left behind. 

On the other hand, Shopify’s impressive growth is evidence of brands that have been forced to invest in digital commerce, with Shopify reporting US$2.93 million total revenue for 2020, an 86% increase over 2019. The relatively inexpensive transition to digital is keeping so many small businesses alive and optimistic about the future. 

When COVID first struck, Bunnings Managing Director Mike Schneider said on eCommerce that, “It's often said it takes three months to build a new habit, and this seems to have legs… our patterns of living are going to change, and if that changes then what you buy and how you buy it changes.”

Schneider couldn’t have been more right. While brick-and-mortar shopping isn’t going anywhere, one thing that’s certain is that eCommerce has more value for businesses and consumers than before. 

3. Engaging with your customers in new ways

Retailers are in a position to capitalise on the huge growth in online shopping, but it’s important to be responsive to the changing needs of consumers. As a result of restrictions and work-from-home orders, consumers want to engage with brands in different ways​, including:

  • Alternate delivery options (click and collect, parcel locker pick up)
  • Product / in-store reservations ​
  • Virtual appointments

In fact, 86% of consumers will spend more if a purchase entails a more engaging experience. If you’re looking for ways to improve the customer experience, here are some other strategies you might consider: 

Augmented reality (AR) for eCommerce

Augmented Reality (AR) has a reputation for being clunky and often doing more harm to the customer experience than good. But things have changed with innovations from the likes of Plattar and others. According to Plattar, 33% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase from AR-enabled product pages than those without. 

AR empowers the consumer and offers an experience that can’t be achieved through a regular store visit. Take for example the purchase of a coffee machine. With a few taps, the consumer can see how the machine looks on their countertop and they can flick through different colours so they feel confident in their final decision. Not only does this empower the consumer, but it also reduces costs and inefficiencies for you as a retailer. It’s truly a win-win. 

Virtual chatbots

Nobody likes sitting on hold. The shift from call centres to software-based customer service has been building for some time. Consumers want to use SMS, Messenger and chatbots to get in touch with your business when it suits them best. 

Chatbots offer the consumer convenience and immediacy. On the retailer’s side, they also provide an opportunity to automate some of your more routine customer service activities, freeing up your people for higher value work. 

4. Responding to trends in search 

With so many forced to transact online over the last two years, organic search data provides an interesting insight into consumer behaviour. 

In early 2020, as more and more industries were affected by the restrictions, we saw reactive spikes in search, as more people switched to online sources for information and transactions they might normally seek offline. For example, a huge uptick in search for fitness equipment was reported across February-April as a result of gyms closing.

Yet trends that saw huge peaks also saw sharp declines as consumers became accustomed to ‘the new normal’. It’s more important than ever for marketers and business owners to identify which trends are here to stay, and which are simply a short-term blip.

Changing your content strategy in response to COVID

Not only are we seeing changes in the volume of search, but we’re also seeing changes in the types of content that results in clicks. Diversify your content strategy and ensure you’re producing content in formats that users find most engaging. 

Video and image content continues to be in high demand. The average consumer spends almost 7 hours per week watching online videos. Type ‘exercise at home’ into Google and you’ll get a number of video tutorials, all before the first text-only result. You need to ensure you shape your content and format to match. For certain categories, like health and fitness, if you’re not using video to target your keywords, you’re basically invisible. 

5. Responding to trends in social

While not as strong as the trends in search, the pandemic has also driven an uplift in social media, especially in the e-learning and web conferencing categories. 

And while it was always on the cards, the pandemic has accelerated the shift to social media as a genuine selling platform for retailers: 

  • Research by Channeldvisor found brands that use Facebook and Instagram to push engaging promotions increase average order value by 36% and revenue by 25%
  • Businesses selling on social media see almost two in five sales made through these channels
  • Social commerce grew 17.9% in 2020, with Australia on track to be the third in the world in terms of the number of internet users embracing social commerce
  • Facebook and Instagram have rolled out in-app shopping to give users an easier way to purchase directly on the platform

The bottom line… 

COVID changed the world, seemingly overnight. At the outset, it was the businesses that pivoted their strategies and seized on opportunities that fared best. But the impact of the pandemic continues, and as many of the changes to buyer behaviour become permanent, retailers must remain agile if they want to succeed.

If you’re looking for advice on the best strategies to help your business thrive during this time, please get in touch. We’d love to chat.