NEW YORK, United States — Neiman Marcus had been planning a gradual rollout of its customer service app, called Connect, which allows employees to recommend products and offer style tips directly to shoppers, even when they aren’t in stores. Starting in March, a handful of sales associates would begin a limited trial.
But a pandemic is no time for beta testing. In March, Connect went live to over 4,000 store employees. Even after stores began to reopen, Connect proved a vital way to keep in touch with customers.
For companies like Neiman Marcus, many of the tools and marketing tricks hastily introduced during the lockdowns are becoming permanent fixtures in the retail arsenal. The reason: many consumers aren’t interested in stepping inside a clothing store until Covid-19 is under control. Though foot traffic has bounced back from the lows seen this spring, some analysts predict store visits will level off at well below pre-pandemic levels.
Brands also see reaching customers who can’t or won’t visit stores as essential to weathering the pandemic.
Reaching those millions of missing customers is a priority. But it won’t be easy. The customers avoiding stores tend to be older, and therefore less likely to shop online or use social media. A survey of US consumers in May by Fast, an e-commerce checkout platform, found that 29 percent weren’t sure if they’d ever be as comfortable walking into stores as they were before the pandemic, a figure that rose to 42 percent among people aged 55 to 64.
E-commerce has boomed during the pandemic, with some brands reporting double the online sales they saw before March. But older consumers have been slower to switch to shopping online: a survey by discount aggregator CouponFollow found 47 percent of Baby Boomers had increased their online shopping during the pandemic, compared with 63 percent of Millennials.
Retailers say there’s no special trick to winning older customers’ dollars; many of the same tactics that draw Millennials will work on their parents. But brands also see reaching customers of all ages who can’t or won’t visit stores as essential to weathering the pandemic, especially as a new surge in Covid-19 cases in the US is threatening to reverse progress in lifting lockdowns. Doing so means recreating key aspects of the in-store experience online for those not used to, or not comfortable, shopping on the internet, and inventing new ways to cement a brand in consumers’ minds.
“You’ve got a group of people who want to be looked after and pampered,” said David Sinclair, director of the International Longevity Centre UK, an advocacy group for the elderly. “You need to find a way in delivering that service.”
That Personal Touch
Neiman’s app is designed to recreate the serendipity that comes from an encounter with a helpful salesperson on the shop floor. Retailers need to create this sort of goodwill because where a smartly run store can lure customers back again and again (and spending more on each visit), even the best-designed websites tend to feel interchangeable.
Many department stores, from Neiman Marcus and Saks to France’s Galeries Lafayette, invested in virtual personal shoppers and other remote interactions between customers and employees during the pandemic.
Retailers are also pitching their personal shopping experiences to a broader audience, knowing that it’s a service that will appeal not just to the customers who routinely spend tens of thousands of dollars and know their favourite sales associates by name.
“The customer who buys one tube of lipstick or one face cream via Connect, that doesn’t mean they don’t need help with this tube of lipstick or face cream,” said Katie Mullen, chief innovation officer at Neiman Marcus.
That applies beyond the luxury space as well. Evereve, a women’s clothing chain with 95 stores, mostly in the Midwest, introduced a “dressing room to go” service during the pandemic, where sales associates select 15 items for customers to try on at home.
Employees of different ages and body types also model clothes on social media. That’s crucial for Evereve’s target customer, including women in their 30s and 40s.
“That has compelled our customer to be comfortable buying online,” said Co-Chief Executive Mike Tamte. “They can see the product on their bodies.”
Brick-and-mortar was relevant before the pandemic and will be relevant after the pandemic.
Whether the customer is young or old, the goal with these encounters should be to make customers feel like they’re making the right decision when they select an item to buy.
“Everybody... just want[s] to be told they’re doing a good job,” said Allison Bornstein, a stylist whose clients include Katie Holmes. “They really just want that reassurance that they’re doing well and that they… have good taste. It makes them want to be smarter when they do consume.”
Operators Are Standing By
At Saks, one of the most popular new services during the pandemic was a concierge email, where customers could ask representatives for help navigating how to shop in the strange new pandemic era.
Employees could direct customers on how to set up virtual shopping appointments or arrange curbside pickup for their online orders. But the most common questions also tended to be the most basic, such as where to find a particular pair of shoes, said Emily Essner, chief marketing officer at Saks.
“Which is fascinating when you think about it — why wouldn’t you just search for that online?” Essner said. “There is something about still having that one-on-one interaction that matters.”
Sinclair, with the International Longevity Centre, said with older consumers, the ability to speak with a live representative by phone has proven crucial. In the UK, some supermarkets have begun accepting telephone orders during the pandemic, to serve seniors as well as low-income customers who lack reliable internet access.
“The ability to phone someone up and talk to someone seems to be one of the key things,” Sinclair said.
Stores Still Matter
Neiman’s Mullen said innovations developed during the pandemic are an excuse to “lean into channel blur,” or not view customers as purely shopping online or in stores. The view at Saks is much the same.
“[The pandemic] is going to really fundamentally change a lot of the ways that customers want to interact with brands,” Essner said. “You want to make sure every interaction is strengthening the relationship with the customer and making her more loyal. We try to be channel agnostic.”
But retailers with dozens or hundreds of stores want to find a good use for them, and shipping out online orders alone won’t justify the rent. Many of the services introduced in the last few months have built-in bridges designed to nudge customers back to stores when they’re ready: Saks’ email concierges can set up private appointments at newly reopened stores and help customers arrange curbside pickup, for example.
At Evereve, online sales doubled during the lockdowns. But most of the brand’s in-store customers had stopped spending with them. To coax these reluctant shoppers back, Evereve introduced a rewards programme that gave customers who spent at least $100 while stores were closed a 10 percent discount for the rest of the year. Over 40,000 customers took them up on the offer.
The brand saw this as a way to incentivise customers to shop online — and to come back to stores when they were ready, Tamte said.
“I cringe when I read or see or hear [about] the end of brick-and-mortar,” Tamte said. “It’s just not accurate. Brick-and-mortar was relevant before the pandemic and will be relevant after the pandemic.”