In Search of the Holy Grail Customer Experience
by Heather Kluter
As we move into 2021, there is a renewed sense of hope that this year will bring an end to the pandemic and all of the difficulties it has brought.Decision Analyst’s ongoing consumer sentiment research finds that levels of concern remain as high as they were at the start of the shutdown, but more than half of consumers say they believe the situation will improve in 2021.
Nonetheless, COVID-19 has caused some to envision themselves living a bit differently in the future, well beyond the end to the crisis. Our data shows that almost 70%* of consumers say they were forced into changing their shopping behaviors and/or brand switching in at least one product category early in the COVID-19 shutdown. And, our current data (now a full year into the pandemic) shows that up to 59%** are continuing to switch brands when shopping. This has created unexpected opportunities for some brands and has caused other brands to fight to maintain their customers' loyalty. Many consumers who initially cursed their forced pandemic buying choices were ultimately delighted to realize they had discovered a new favorite brand. Over the past year, numerous brands have come to realize that they may need to change how they measure customer loyalty, because in many cases the loyalty proved to be based more on habit than true brand love which tends to drive market share.
Understanding the experience consumers have with brands is more important than ever, especially when attempting to get them to return to an abandoned brand and stick with it. Decision Analyst’s brand switching data shows that some of the categories most affected by brand switching include paper goods and food, followed by personal care items (makeup, skincare, hygiene products) and clothing. Let’s take a peek into a few key categories.
Over the past year, grocery purchases soared as eating out became restricted. But in this arena brand switching is not as simple as the mere substitution of, say, one brand of flour for another. Coping with quarantine has elevated our relationship with food. Boredom has created the desire to spice things up in the kitchen and on our tables. Although consumers initially stocked up on canned goods in panic buys, many expanded their culinary skills, upgrading their food experiences with new ingredients, locally sourced organic fruits and vegetables, and improved kitchen appliances. Wariness of spending too much time in the grocery store led to an explosion of Tik Tok videos showcasing delicious dishes made with few ingredients, making shopping trips quicker. Meal kits like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron also surged during COVID-19, allowing home chefs to experience new flavor profiles and spend less time and money at the grocery store altogether. And the search for recipes of homemade items like bread and hummus means fewer purchases of those same items in the store. Also, don’t forget the impact COVID-19 has had on package sizing. With fewer people transporting food and drinks to work or other activities, the need for individual-sized frozen meals or drinks packaged in small containers decreased. This has hopefully made an impact on the environmental consciousness of consumers.
Even as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out, this crisis is expected to influence how people grocery shop, cook, and eat for years to come. As restaurants open back up, grocers and the brands they sell will have to work harder to maintain the appeal of cooking, finding ways to continue to elevate the grocery experience beyond curbside pick-up and delivery. Helping consumers continue to discover new ingredients and enhancing their ready-made meal options and the timely delivery of them are just a couple of examples of the experience enhancements that grocery channels and the brands they sell will need to make.
Many established brands in other categories have also recognized that there is an opportunity to steal share by entering markets where they don’t currently play. Take the $105 billion U.S. athleisure market, for example. By 2026, it is estimated to reach a value over $250 billion, increasingly stealing share from traditional apparel. Ripe for market share poaching, many established brands and retailers are creating new product lines. Kohl’s launched its own active apparel brand, FLX, this year, and American Eagle launched a sub-brand called Offline by Aerie in July 2020. There are also new brands to the market including WVVY, Solely Fit, and Mind Body Love, many of them digitally born and described as having a “maniacal focus on the customer experience.”
In terms of products with a higher sticker price, the auto business provides an extremely interesting look at an industry finally forced to change in order to revive sales and offer dealers a chance to rescue and grow their market share. For years, consumers have found that one of the most exciting purchases they will ever make is coupled with one of the most dreaded purchase processes they will ever face. U.S. auto dealers have been extremely slow to embrace upfront pricing and online sales. Before the pandemic, auto dealers often saw online sales as a threat to their business and offered a very limited online buying experience. However, the coronavirus is changing that. Surveys show that as many as 40% of consumers call or text dealerships expecting transparent pricing before ever entering a dealership. This far outpaces other contact methods, including email, online chats, and walk-ins.
Although online shopping for many product categories was widely used before COVID-19, the crisis raised awareness of what could be done remotely and has forced auto dealers to embrace technology and put buyers first. 90% of Toyota’s buyers conducted at least part of their purchase process online in 2020, with 10% never setting foot in a showroom. Overall, the industry reported similar numbers. Going beyond online sales, the test drive and entire delivery experience had to become contactless. Carvana, for example, has an employee unload the car in a driveway, sanitize the steering wheel and keys, then leave the paperwork on the vehicle’s seat for the customer to review, sign, and leave to be picked up. Test drives have even become solo and are often offered for 24 hours or more. At least a portion of share is up for grabs by the brands and dealerships that can make these changes the quickest.
Finally, travel and entertainment companies already gravely impacted by the coronavirus due to partial and complete shutdowns have new substitutes to worry about. The share economy paved the way for our ability to rent someone else’s RV or pay to camp on private properties around the country. Through services like RVshare and Outdoorsy, RV owners make mobile vacations available to others when they’re not using their equipment. And sites like Tentrr, Hipcamp, and HomeCamper help wanna-be vacationers find unique, private spots and avoid the overcrowded traditional campsites.
Seize Opportunity Through Innovation
Traditionally, brands that win have always placed customer experience before everything else, but now understanding the changing, lasting expectations of post-pandemic consumers is more important than ever. Leveraging critical insights from this updated customer journey and then innovating against them will allow companies to seize opportunities offered through enhanced customer experience as the world moves from pandemic response to recovery.
*67% of Consumers reported they had to switch brands because their preferred brand was unavailable for at least one product category. Covid Consumer Report. Wave 3. March 31-April 1, 2020
**59% of consumers switched from usual brand at least once. Covid Consumer Report. Wave 15. February 16-18, 2021
About the Author
Heather Kluter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Senior Vice President at Decision Analyst. She may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.
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