Abbreviated Version Published on Forbes (posted on 12/14)
The year 2020 was like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of retail in many unexpected ways. This dramatic shift became most apparent during the holiday shopping season. Businesses and consumers were now treading in uncharted waters.
The lack of in-person Black Friday and the absence of seasonal shopping experiences that allowed brands to engage with consumers on a deeper level, the glaring absence of photos with Santa; and the long nights of heightened anticipation—customers experienced it all. Many anxiously waited for package deliveries—hoping they would get there on time and in the right size or color. Everything had changed overnight.
Fast-forward to a year later, and the holiday season is upon us once again. Citing underwhelming sales performances from both Black Friday and Cyber Monday this year, brands are still reeling from supply chain issues brought on by the pandemic and are facing a loyalty crisis.
Insights from a recent report indicate that at least 75% of U.S. shoppers switch their brand preferences based on product availability. Unfortunately, for many companies, a large number of those consumers might never return.
Creating brand loyalty goes beyond your product. It’s not just about providing impeccable customer service. It’s about creating experiences that allow consumers to form lasting memories with your brand. That’s what drives engagement, and that’s what keeps customers coming back.
The ultimate question then becomes: How do you retain brand loyalty despite the changing shopping behaviors and lingering effects of COVID, such as supply shortages, this holiday season? Here’s everything you need to know.
The Root Cause of Supply Shortages
The pandemic has had a severe impact on the retail industry. Many stores were forced to implement new guidelines for social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and contact tracing.
There’s also the issue of the ever-rising demand for home deliveries. You now have a situation where food, clothing, furniture, and everything else, are all competing for the same logistical resources. Add this to the shortage of postal workers, truck drivers, and dockers, and you have the perfect recipe for supply chain disruption.
According to the Biden Administration, the resulting goods shortages, rising prices, delivery delays, and shipping backlog isn’t likely to resolve any time soon.
What Does This Mean for Your Brand
The short answer is—you need to get creative. If you haven’t revamped your in-store experiences ahead of the busy holiday season, now’s the time to do it.
With foot traffic to physical stores on the rise (nearly a 44% increase since the start of 2021), you need to cater to what today’s consumer wants—and that’s a personalized in-store experience. Shopify points out that by personalizing the in-store experience, you create better experiences, more word-of-mouth referrals, and better customer loyalty.
A recent survey that polled 24,000+ shoppers revealed some interesting insights as well. Forty percent of the respondents stated that they plan to start their holiday shopping earlier than last year, indicating less last-minute shopping, and only 34% intend to spend more than they did the year before.
If these numbers are anything to go by, it means that retailers have to work harder than they ever have to earn and retain customer loyalty. Most shoppers choose products based on: Who’s got the best price? Is it available? How fast can I get it? You need to give your customers value, availability, timeliness, and convenience —the top four things they look for when shopping for a new brand. That’s what you should focus on.
Of course, this is easier said than done given the persistent supply shortages, earlier shopping dates, and rising economy. A great starting point would be to look into ways of spreading holiday cheer through the creation of memories with your brand.
Don’t neglect your online customers either. The shift to online shopping seen at the height of the pandemic continues to persist post-COVID. It has given consumers an almost-infinite power of choice. As a result, brand loyalty has taken a back seat.
How to Retain Brand Loyalty Through the Holidays
Below are three strategies that work:
1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Here’s what we already know: A significant number of consumers plan to start their holiday shopping early and intend to spend more than they did last year. This means that customers won’t bat an eye before they decide to shop elsewhere if you don’t offer them the products they seek in the time they expect.
So, communicate a sense of urgency to both your in-store and online customers. Nudge them to order early. Let them know that they might encounter inventory issues if they way until the very last minute.
For your online shoppers, this might be a small flashing banner with something like, “Only X left in stock! Order now.”
For your in-store shoppers, it might be, “Offer valid until <insert date>.” Provide them with a means of checking whether you have certain items in stock. If supply chain issues crop up, let them know when they can expect the items to be restocked or provide them with viable alternatives. Use experiences to inspire them to shop in-store.
If there is a shortage of a product, give your customers an experience with the product when it does become available. Suppose a customer wants to purchase the latest fragrance as a gift, only to find the store is out of stock. The retailer can gift them an experience instead. They can pick up the fragrance once it’s restocked and go in to create their own scent as well—created by them, for them. That’s an experience they won’t forget. They’ll remember it every time they wear that custom-made fragrance.
Don’t leave them guessing. Engage with them every step of the way.
2. Use “Retailtainment” to Your Advantage
This is where you need to get your creative juices flowing, especially if your company maintains physical locations. While it is a well-known fact that brick-and-mortar stores generate less revenue compared to their online counterparts, their distinct advantage is their ability to provide value through creative eventing. It allows you to interact with your customers and strengthen their relationship with your brand by offering immersive experiences or “retailtainment.”
You can pull from proven successful eventing strategies such as “Photos With Santa” and add a creative twist like your own photo frame expo to create a brand memory. Make them relatable and shareable (on Instagram and other popular social platforms) to inspire further interaction with your brand. Create an experience that evokes emotion so that your customers make purchasing decisions subconsciously. That’s what builds and retains brand loyalty.
For instance, the concept—“How to set your holiday table”—can also include “How to cook the perfect turkey” as the experience.
3. Give the People What They Want
Creative eventing needs to go beyond generic retailtainment. It needs to drive meaningful experiences that allow consumers to create lasting memories with your brand. It needs to strengthen brand loyalty and connection. The only way to do this is by capturing what your consumers are looking for this holiday season.
Earlier in the year, Dick’s Sporting Goods launched its first-ever “House of Sport” in New York. The concept focuses on giving consumers multi-sport experiences to drive more brand engagement. It features a massive 17,000-square-foot track and turf field, simulated golf hitting bays situated within golf pro stores, a batting cage, a putting green, wellness services, and lots more exciting experiential elements.
The whole idea is for the brand to engage with customers all year round by offering services and experiences beyond just shopping based on the insights they garner. The company will then replicate the most successful experiences in its retail stores countrywide.
Customers crave experiences. Experiences drive engagement. Engagement drives sales. Sales drive revenue. Revenue drives growth.
So, think about what your customers crave this holiday season, create an immersive experience that addresses that need, and allow them to make memories with your brand. That’s the secret to brand loyalty.
While this holiday season will have its fair share of supply-chain disruptions and workforce shortages, it is still possible to retain brand loyalty despite these drawbacks. It all boils down to the emotional connection your customers build with your brand, and you do this by creating memorable experiences.
It’s no longer about what you’re selling but how your customers “feel” about it. That’s what you need to tap into.