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If the pandemic experience has taught the retail sector anything – it is to stick to the fundamental principles of good marketing practice. Communications for communications sake with customers is pointless and a waste of time and money. Even crude segmentation usually doesn’t work. It can alienate the good customer, or encourage customers who are only ever going to engage with special offers and remain permanently loss-making.

The key, post-pandemic is – in principle - the same as pre-pandemic. All retailers should already have been segmenting their customers into several sophisticated (behaviour based) profiles, from low-value low-loyal, to high-value high-loyal. This is even more important than before as the pandemic experience has caused rapid, radical change in our retail habits. Some of those new habits will persist, some will ‘normalise’ as restrictions have receded. So, it’s more important than ever to refresh profiles quarterly if possible.

Another critical principle is that all communications should have a commercial purpose in mind. That could be to thank, appreciate and retain high value customers and cement their loyalty. Equally, it can be to spot signs of potential in less valuable, less loyal customers and offer them incentives to move up the value chain.

What are some of the specific changes in customer behaviours that we are seeing? Here’s a quick half dozen examples.

The changing consumer

First, a new habit of longer online ‘consideration periods’ is emerging. That has two important marketing effects. First, it demands ramped up investment into communicating with people while they’re considering (because they’re doing it for longer).

Second, a new art of encouraging ‘mission visits’ (visit to make a specific purchase) is in play – again, precisely because ‘options browsing’ has moved largely online during the lockdown period and is remaining a habit post-lockdown.

Third, there’s an increased inter-dependency between offline and online interactions. We've been observing that of customers or prospects receiving a direct mail piece, around a third of respondents go to the web to check out the firm or the offer. In many instances, of those who then convert following the web check, as many as nine tenths will then use an offline method to transact or to pursue the customer journey.

Fourth, web journeys are more trackable (although watch out for forthcoming restrictions on third party cookies coming over the horizon). More of the consideration phase is becoming visible to us as people spend more of the customer journey online. More web journeys and visits are taking place giving a greater volume of trackable consideration activity. And because more of the customer journey is visible online, we can see that stated consideration periods (defined as high as 60 days for infrequent high value purchases through market research) translate in fact into around 14 days of web-active consideration - which is probably when most of the self-research is going on, and therefore the period when interventions are most likely to bear fruit.

Fifth, content is becoming increasingly more important. Because much of the customer journey has been forced online under the current restrictions (which are likely to remain in place to one extent or another for quite some time) we are seeing a higher uptake of 'content' which is either included with direct mail/email, or signposted by direct mail/email.

(Fifth-and-a-half) - Related to the growing importance of content – is the phenomenon of more delayed reactions. Leisure of time means that more people are consuming content delivered through, or signposted by, direct mail/email. Many will therefore be converting at a greater distance from receipt than before - using the email as a bookmark to return to later (and possibly convert later). The conclusion is that we need to deploy more (compelling) content and to recognise/track/manage/encourage delayed conversion.

Sixth, customer journeys are becoming more complex. There's no question that the number of stages in a customer journey has increased since the pandemic hit. Anyone who doesn't refresh their view of the journey, and create a richer series of potential interventions (often social), is likely to lose the customer or prospect's attention to competitors.

What do we conclude? Simply that the world has changed, is continuing to change, and things happen faster than ever. Any retailer who does not have access to a near-real time view of customers’ behaviour, on- and off-line, along with the ability to react fast to keep and grow customer satisfaction & business, is likely to struggle.

Andy Wood, chairman, GI Insight, Go Inspire Group