Retail in times of crisis: the moment to fully embrace technological innovations!

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic suddenly brought about major and long-lasting change to our consumption patterns. After a first wave that hit businesses hard and a further period of business closures, what lessons can be learned to ensure the continuity of retail activities? 

Faced with consumers concerned about their health, including some who are afraid to return to stores but are increasingly connected, businesses are looking to keep their customers engaged. New technologies, such as artificial intelligence, have been turned into tools to open up new opportunities. In France, since the start of the pandemic, average internet browsing time has risen sharply by 32% (Kameleoon, 2020), and e-commerce product sales have increased by 45.7% compared to the same period in 2019 (Fevad, 2020). 

Improving customer journey fluidity by providing an ever smoother experience in order to break down barriers between physical commerce and digital commerce is an absolute priority. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that omnichannel brands saw growth of… 126%! (Fevad, 2020)  Artificial intelligence is already conquering the e-commerce and retail sector, with improved customer experience spearheading this movement. AI and data multiplication open up a wide range of practically limitless possibilities to deploy new services and make for an even more immersive, pleasant and personalised consumer experience: this is a real positive in a lockdown situation.     

Personalising to better develop loyalty

Personalisation is another area worth exploring: 57% of users say they are disappointed by brands’ personalisation solutions and only 25% feel that brands provide a digital experience meeting their needs (Kameleoon, 2020). A customer (in lockdown or not), who spends more time online is also a customer who is more exposed to competition… In the current context, effective personalisation is essential to keep reaching customers in the right way and developing their loyalty.   

AI enables us to address this issue by providing very fine profile segmentation, combining data sets from different sources and the history of any previous interactions the customer had with the brand. At a time when users are more often online that in store, it is important to be able to attract them with the right products: algorithms have proved capable of sending the right message, at the right time, via the right channel, maximising the chances of conversion.   Personalisation also plays its part, by recommending products in order to give the user a unique catalogue, as Cdiscount and Fnac each so successfully do. These recommendations must as much as possible match their centres of interest and expectations, boosting their engagement with the brand.   

Maintaining interaction using chatbots

Chatbots provide a fast and responsive solution to user Q&As. They analyse and interpret questions to give customers an appropriate, automated answer, meeting internet users’ needs for autonomy and immediacy, but also freeing up customer service staff, who are generally extremely in demand in these times of crisis.   Some chatbots adopt an entirely different approach, particularly in the care and beauty sector. Brands ask (via Facebook Messenger and other instant messaging tools) about internet users’ morning routines, so as to recommend them products suiting their needs, as L’Oréal and Sephora each so successfully do. During lockdown, we developed new habits and new hobbies. Brands naturally need to understand these new behaviours using a service like this, which enables them to meet changing demand, but also show customers that they are listening, which strengthens their feeling of engagement with the brand.   

 Chatbots may be the ideal solution: here are our tips to assess their suitability for your project

Augmented reality to picture how something will look and eliminate purchasing process obstacles

Though online purchasing offers a good alternative, it also has its disadvantages, such as not being able to handle or try on products, for example to make sure they’re the right size. These decisive factors can act as obstacles in the purchasing process.   While Galeries Lafayette introduced a video-based personal shopper service, other brands provide “V-commerce” services (V for virtual), such as virtual fitting rooms, which are genuine remote decision-making tools. The French start-up Veertus released a PWA in May, with which users virtually try on different outfits. And the Chrono24 app lets users virtually try on a watch at home, using an augmented reality system, just like Afflelou, which provides the same service for spectacle frames. 

> Our experts in innovation also identified a virtual store solution used by Nespresso at CES 2020. And why not take another look at their best discoveries?   

Despite the pandemic’s clear impact on retailers, the crisis has however served to expose their shortcomings. It is encouraging us to fully embrace innovation to develop more flexible, more connected services, which increase customer engagement, enrich their experience and eliminate obstacles in the absence of a physical connection during these uncertain times.