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Retail strategy needs to recognize retailers’ place in consumers’ lives

Article by Ed Kennedy
“The only constant is change.” The world we inhabit today was unimaginable to Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher who coined this indelible phrase. But it could not be truer than in today’s COVID-19 environment.

As retailers have adapted to the “new normal,” now is an important time to consider what kind of retailer you will be after shelter-in-place orders are lifted. The coronavirus pandemic has had a devastating impact on the lives of millions of people all around the world. Retailers have also struggled having to cut their workforce, watch sales plummet to near zero and wonder how they will survive these challenging times.

Chaos always creates opportunity.

Despite the challenges, uncertainty and suffering many have experienced, retailers face a unique opportunity to reinvent themselves and their retail strategy. Retailers have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to permanently shift how they think, communicate, operate and serve. Consumers have the same opportunity as well.

Will consumer behavior permanently shift closer to home? Will they want a more flexible lifestyle after seeing the benefits of working from home without a drop in productivity and spending more time with their family? These two converging opportunities – that of retailers to reinvent themselves and consumers’ contemplation of what lifestyle behavior they won’t bring back – highlights how critical it is to consider this reinvention during the crisis, not after.

digital transformation meme

What we can say for certain is retailers and brands were out of position for COVID-19 and their initial knee-jerk reaction was often insincere, panicked and overwhelming. By now you’ve received a 100-plus emails from brands you forgot had your email. They all said the same thing. The intention was in the right place, but the execution was horrific. This is because so few organizations have invested in authentic engagement and proper content marketing. Marketers have convinced themselves that creating spoof content to promote their products count. This is all function with no form.

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Heather Schwedel posted a screenshot of her inbox in a recent article on Slate.

The Coronavirus has exposed inefficiencies and shallow execution by retailers. The question now is, how will retailers respond?

One fundamental discipline retailers will need to practice is authentic customer communication. This means retail strategy is going to have to put profit motive second and customers’ well-being first if they have a chance of thriving on the other side of quarantine. This is a counterintuitive and even repulsive idea for retailers to consider when sales are dropping like a rock. But I’m dead serious.

It’s time retailers recognize their proper (minor) role in their customers’ lives. Yes, consumers love to shop. Yes, consumers fawn over every product release of their favorite brand. But retailers are not the center of a human being’s life. They never have been, and they never will be.

What’s at the center of people’s lives right now is their health, their families, their livelihoods, and the instability of their political and social infrastructure. Retail strategy has been so self-centered in how they connect with consumers that they have turned consumers into retail worshipers. It should be the other way around.

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Patagonia.com COVID-19 Update acknowledges selling clothes is not essential.

The consumer psyche is under duress and will be for some time. Retailers need to respond with compassion, patience and humility – not over manicured CEO statements or desperate promotions. If retailers and brands can exercise restraint and deliver communication from one human to another, there is a chance they will be rewarded heavily on the other side of this.

The best place to start is with your raving fans. Retailers and brands that have built social equity with their customers will have the best opportunity to serve these customers now and expand their reach in the future. Retailers should give their marketing and comms teams permission to be radically authentic with their consumers on various channels.

Now is the time to break the fourth wall of your organization and show your consumers who you really are as a retailer and brand. Give yourself permission to engage with consumers authentically with lower production value, less polished. Now is the time to experiment with communication you were too afraid to try before.

NAKD.com has always done a great job of curating content their consumers want – fashion and style advice. But what post got the most engagement from their 2.5 million Instagram followers? A video of a woman grooming a pig to promote self-care. Humor, levity, and fun goes a long way right now and will into the future.

na-kd example

Teach your customers something relevant

Janome manufacturers high-end sewing machines. Their YouTube and .com training material has ballooned with how-to’s for creating cloth facemasks and other creative projects for those sheltered-in-place. They have highlighted the creators who use their products instead of the product themselves. This is a discipline they have developed over many years. They are well positioned to pivot content types and training because they have consistently published content training and featuring their creators. Retailers and brands should honestly appraise where their products fit in a customer’s life and not the other way around. 

janome example

Humble pie is being served up cold to retailers and brands worldwide. Accepting their proper role and importance in human beings’ lives will help retailers navigate the post COVID-19 landscape. Regardless of their balance sheets, retailers who adopt genuine communication that is hyper-relevant to the conditions their customers face in their daily lives will be rewarded in the long run.  


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