By Jack M. Germain
Jul 23, 2020 4:00 AM PT
Panic buying and competition for consumer attention between in-store and online transactions have created a brave new world of retail that is bound to continue into a post-pandemic reality.
Marketing firms have been working overtime to plot new strategies for struggling brick and mortar stores that are battling to stay in business. E-commerce platforms are working equally as hard to help new and existing Web stores keep their lights on. Both scenarios focus on how to attract consumers and close the purchase, whether in a physical storefront or a virtual checkout counter.
Although supply shortages remain a lingering problem for consumers desperately searching store shelves and Web pages for disinfectants and cleaning products, the phenomenon of panic buying toilet paper has subsided. Still, nervous and uncertain consumers continue to stockpile provisions such as frozen foods and baking supplies.
Over the last few months, frozen pizza sales have increased 92 percent from the same period last year, according to marketing reports. Nielsen market analysis found that sales of baking mixes have grown by 489 percent, surpassing other quarantine-friendly essentials like nail polish and hair dye.
The E-Commerce Times reached out to several firms that guide brands on how to prepare for, and adapt to, changes in consumer behavior and product demand — and what this means for the future of retail.
We discussed the current state of retail and the role technology plays in its marketing strategies with consumer insights and strategy consulting firm Kelton Global, advertising agency Scrum50, and payment systems provider ACI Worldwide.
Kelton works with brick and mortar stores to help owners reconnect with customers and adapt some of the digital sales tactics now driving retail e-commerce. It has been conducting COVID-19 consumer pulse studies throughout the pandemic to analyze consumer behavior shifts and the opportunities companies have to meet changing demands.
ACI handles electronic payments for more than 6,000 organizations globally. Its recent sales transactions report found that June produced the largest increase in e-commerce sales since the start of pandemic restrictions.
Scrum50 recently teamed up with and snack company Mondelēz in a presentation sponsored by Salsify in a Digital Virtual Shelf Summit that discussed new trends in e-commerce bundling and how brands can make strategic changes today that will continue to capture new customers tomorrow.
In early April the first signs of supply chain interruptions appeared in physical stores. Retailers around the world started shifting their business models for online support of COVID-19 social distancing requirements.
Consumer reports on shopping pattern changes in the wake of the pandemic preached the need for merchants to create ways to connect with new and long-term customers. Reports encouraged retailers to adapt as consumers could not fully solve the empty shelf syndrome buying online.
Product shortages became commonplace as reports confirmed that consumers worldwide were purchasing non-essential items, such as clothing, for their everyday lives. That, in part, gave rise to panic buying. Other reports said consumers were buying in bulk to prepare for the long haul of staying at home.
Concern about catching COVID-19 coupled with emotional worry and dealing with new circumstances fueled anxiety over shopping, noted Amy Rogoff Dunn, partner at Kelton Global.
“This could be a source of the panic buying that set in early on. It is also a result of the need to explore other products because your familiar ones are no longer there. For some consumers, it is panic buying. For others, it is a reaction to having to explore other products. There is a lot of tension around shopping today,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
E-commerce sales will come back down to earth a bit after the pandemic ends, but the question is how much, according to Stacy Thomson, vice president for e-business at Scrum50.
“Online grocery shopping will continue to rapidly grow. The pandemic just helped it reach its tipping point. Retailers have been forced to improve the click-and-collect experience. Now that it has started, there will be no going back,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
Research by ACI Worldwide also recognized panic buying as a reaction to consumers adapting to life in quarantine. In early February and March, researchers saw more panic buying in the personal protective equipment (PPE) sector. This included items such as gloves, masks, goggles, face shields, ventilators, respirators and disposable coveralls.
“The sector saw a drastic increase in sales. In fact, a majority of merchants’ inventories started selling out by the last week of March. In April and May, we saw a shift toward purchases of electronics and office equipment as the restrictions came into play and most people worked from home.
“Between May and June, we noticed another abrupt shift in the category of purchases, as airline and ticketing declined while increases in other areas like outdoor equipment and sports took over consumer spending,” Erika Dietrich, vice president of Global Fraud Prevention Risk Services at ACI Worldwide, told the E-Commerce Times.
As companies focus on getting their retail locations back up and running, they cannot ignore e-commerce channels, suggested Brian Gioia, director of product strategy at Scrum50.
“That continues to be a vital part of any brand strategy undergoing the transition [to] a post-pandemic world,” he said. “In our new normal, how will brands balance the two sales channels and what trends will continue to thrive in our new marketing landscape?”
The big thing is the tactical changes, noted Scrum50’s Thomson, whose company focuses on marketing strategies for physical storefronts. Major changes are happening with in-store consumer behavior.
Physical shoppers used to shop for a variety of reasons that included a combination of socializing, stocking up weekly, or simply getting out of the house.
“That is now mostly replaced with a shopping behavior we call anxiety-filled mission. Some of the other reasons people used to shop went away with the pandemic,” she added.
People in Scrum50’s surveys talk about how they now go physical shopping much like they are carrying out a military mission. They are carefully preparing, gearing up for it wearing special clothes, going into the store with a particular focus, and coming out with a feeling like they have won. They have conquered their shopping list at the end, Thomson explained.
This is language Scrum50’s researchers did not hear in the past when people talked about their shopping. Now they hear a ton of anxiety filling up.
That anxiety comes from several places, she noted. Shoppers are doing something they have not done before. They have to deal with close crowding, among other pressures from close social contact and concerns about other peoples’ reactions to masks, being judged by them, and being told what to do, noted Thomson.
“People want the comfort of familiar products. When they can’t find it in the store, they do not want to have to go to more stores. Add to this the feelings of being bored at home,” she added.
Shopping now seems to be two opposing lines of behavior. People have to decide between in-store shopping and online shopping.
The Five Ws
Clearly, tactical changes are setting in. For instance, the classic pattern or formula is the ‘Five Ws’ of retail, Thompson said. Those are:
- The WHO is people are mostly shopping alone. They no longer bring their kids or their partner because they do not want exposure to illness.
- The WHAT is grabbing as many items as possible.
- The WHERE is a big factor. People are used to shopping near home and on their way home from where they work. Now many people are not going to an office to work. So people feel safer just shopping from home.
- The WHY is shopping out of necessity to re-provision.
- The WHEN is dependent on conditions and availability.
“Some of these things are going to be temporary. The others will form the new normal,” Thomson said.
What is definite is that the surge in online shopping was accelerated by the pandemic. Many people would never have made the switch without being pushed by COVID-19.
The result is an entirely new population of people becoming comfortable with online shopping. But not-so-traditional brick and mortar stores will still exist. They are not going away, at least not fully.
“Pandemic or no pandemic, most brands will always have some percentage of their sales coming from brick and mortar retail. The behavior changes have created a surge in newer business models like kits, subscription services, and online experiences,” said Thomson.
The Magic of E-Packs
Some marketing agencies are schooling their retail clients to use a new set of strategies to attract Web visitors. This new approach involves creating multiple package sets to entice e-commerce customers to try new products. Other agencies are encouraging physical store operators to try adaptations of that approach.
Some of that discussion was exchanged recently in an on-demand webinar hosted by Salsify.
The webinar focused on the significance of product bundling and packaging techniques that have risen dramatically since the pandemic outbreak, particularly around the abrupt shift to e-commerce.
Mondelēz’s vice president of U.S. e-commerce Jeff Jarrett and Scrum50’s Thomson discussed with a Salsify Digital Virtual Shelf Summit executive the strategies for creating popular kits and bundles called “e-packs.”
Jarrett explained that e-packs are retail product bundles designed to expand sales of his company’s brands at combined price point. His company researches customers to see what they already purchased and want to buy more conveniently online.
E-packs serve two functions, according to Jarrett. They are profitable for companies and provide a convenient price point for shoppers.
They also serve a universal additional function, suggested Thomson. They provide a desire to buy additional products that they did not know they wanted before the saw the bundle.
“Sparking a desire for an unplanned purchase is key to incremental growth. It’s the art and science of presenting products and services in a new bundle or suggesting new usage occasions,” Thomson told the E-Commerce Times.
Planning and Presentation
Testing is critical to creating optimal bundles. Mondelēz goes through extensive testing to determine which product combinations will resonate best with customers, she explained. Consider mixing and matching categories (e.g. cookies and crackers) to encourage trials or improve buy rates.
“We also spend a great deal of time thinking through the value of each offer to its customers, how it fits into their lives, and how best to communicate that through content on e-commerce platforms. Profitability is right around a $12 price point, so that is considered when building assortments and bundles,” she added in describing the marketing strategy.
E-packs are universally useful to all merchants moving online, noted Thomson. The e-pack model is most useful to any merchant that has a great variety of product lines. Value is created by bundling products.
“With Mondelēz, shoppers are able to perfectly fill their pantry with one click. With e-packs, it’s the brands you want in a quantity that fits your life,” she said.
A related marketing strategy is the ability to create bundled packs not available anywhere else. The key is to be relevant but inspire consumers to buy something they did not want before, offered Thomson.
Planning the assortment is important, she added. Presenting products is not the same in e-commerce as it is in a brick and mortar store.
Inspiring Content for Discovery and Conversion
Consumer packaged goods (CPGs) are items that people consume regularly. They require consistent and constant replacement and replenishment.
Outside of traditional CPGs, entirely new categories have emerged like murder-mystery subscription boxes. Popular ones like ‘Hunt a Killer’ send monthly boxes with clues/games that can last up to six months. Alternatively, you can buy a one-mystery box that will keep eight people entertained for one evening, Thomson explained.
“The opportunity brands have in e-comm now is providing content that is super relevant. You can’t assume that you can just put a pack on a website and people will know what they want. You have to guide them a little bit,” Thomson said in the webinar discussion.
Brands can quickly optimize their content by understanding how people shop on the digital shelf. Think about what consumers can’t feel, smell, or taste and how you can inspire them to put your product in their shopping cart, she advised about using the strategy.
Do not rely on the physical shopping experience to drive the virtual shopping trip. A great example is providing scale, especially at club stores, Thomson cautioned.
“Even if you think shoppers know how big a box of crackers is, they don’t always translate that to the item in their basket. Setting consumer expectations, and then exceeding them, is one of the most important aspects of driving reviews that ultimately drive more sales,” she explained.
Payment Services Innovation
The pandemic has changed consumer behavior and we expect that many of these consumers will not be going back to the way things were, according to ACI’s Dietrich. Consumers who were reliant on cash before the crisis have switched to digital payment methods for safety and convenience.
“Corner shops, convenience stores, and smaller merchants that previously preferred cash are likely to continue accepting digital and electronic payments. In fact, electronic payments and digital payment services have become crucial to navigating the crisis for both consumers and businesses,” she said.
In the long-term, real-time electronic payments could offer a cheaper, faster way to pay, added Dietrich. Cards have interchange fees and slower settlement to the merchant.
“We expect to see greater innovation, and the launch of many more payment services into the market to capitalize on the shift away from cash,” she predicted.
Use Purchasing Trends to Merchandise Products
You are not alone if confused about the products people are apt to buy today. Even consumers aren’t always sure. Most consumers have opted to stay closer to home during a time when family vacations and festivals would have been the norm.
How we present information on the home page, landing pages, and across social media impacts sales. If you’re struggling to find what works for your target audience, consider using overall purchasing trends as a guide.
Covid-19 Commerce Insight (“CCInsights”) is a collaboration of Emarsys, the omnichannel engagement platform, and GoodData, a business-intelligence firm. Its purpose is to provide trends and analysis, based on 1 billion consumers and 2,500 brands, of the economic impact of Covid-19. According to CCInsights, U.S. consumers in the mid-2020 are focused on goods that fall into four main categories:
- Physical self-improvement. Personal exercise equipment and nutrition.
- Simplified household management. Appliances, gadgets, and tools that make running the household smoother.
- Comfortable living. Home decor and related products that make the house feel more like an oasis.
- Outdoor fun. Items for the backyard and local outings.
Even when they don’t directly apply to your business model, understanding trends helps identify ways to present products online.
CCInsights reports that the simple jump rope gained momentum mid-March and has retained popularity ever since. It’s ranked in the top 10 trending products many times over, peaking at a year-over-year uplift of more than 62,000 percent in May and 2,841 percent for the year ended July 30.
Product trends tell us what consumers are more likely to purchase.
Consider, for example, personal fitness items. Top trending goods (beyond jump ropes) include handheld weights, boxing gloves, and basketball hoops. Ranked lower are treadmills and ellipticals. This tells us consumers don’t have the room or budget for full-sized equipment. Perhaps many are waiting for gyms reopen in their area.
Motorcycle helmets and golf clubs are on the rise. Here we can deduce plenty of people want to get outdoors, but they’re more apt to do so either by themselves or in small groups.
The acceleration of residential power tools tells us that folks are tackling home-based do-it-yourself projects. That means they’re more focused on living comfortably.
The trend of programmable washing machines and dishwashers explains a desire to work smarter, not harder.
From all this, we can decipher that most consumers want to find ways to appreciate life at home by making things as functional, comfortable, and attractive as they can. Merchants can use these insights to select the best products to feature throughout their online store and third-party channels.
By understanding trends in your target audience, you can focus on what’s most apt to appeal.
For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods combines trending activities with context-of-use images to promote bikes, golf equipment, backyard games, and portable fitness products.
BSN Sports’ home page gives primary attention to at-home training, directly linking to relatively small and affordable products.
Lowe’s shifts its long term focus from home improvement, tools, and appliances to converting small spaces into workplaces. The home page links to do-it-yourself worksheets and unique products, such as headphones, office chairs, and wi-fi range extenders.
The Container Store groups items in multiple categories to create a robust section called “Home Learning Solutions.”
Not all brands can take advantage of trends. Still, even merchants that sell luxury or high-cost merchandise have options.
Take Cub Cadet, for example. It manufactures residential and commercial yard equipment — not minor accessories. Before displaying a single product, its home page promotes free delivery or local pick-up as well as financing options — capitalizing on trends of comfortable and affordable home maintenance.
If you sell higher-priced items — essential or not — financing options, free delivery, and extended warranties are an excellent way to convey value.
Consumer response to the pandemic isn’t changing anytime soon. With the end of summer near and continued restrictions, most people plan to stay close to home for at least the rest of the year. This translates to continued ecommerce growth across most sectors.
However, with growth comes competition. To keep and attract customers, consider using nationwide trends as part of your product spotlight strategy.
5 Content Marketing Ideas for September 2020
Content marketing is the act of creating, publishing, and promoting articles, podcasts, and videos with the intent of attracting, engaging, and retaining customers. Producing such content in September 2020 is difficult, however, without recognizing the worldwide pandemic.
Fortunately, there are still many opportunities to generate productive content around back-to-school, dating, hobbies, shopping, and reading.
Here are five content marketing ideas your business can try in September 2020.
1. Back-to-school Tips
Although many schools will start in August, there is plenty of time to offer back-to-school content in September due to the on-going coronavirus pandemic.
This year, many schools will likely hold some combination of online and in-person classes. What’s more, the balance of homeschooling and physical classes will probably be fluctuating throughout the month and beyond. Your business could help with this uncertainty.
For September, consider publishing how-to and informational articles, podcasts, or videos that will help parents deal with these challenges.
Here are a few possible examples.
- Woodworking supply store. Publish articles showing how to build a folding desk for homeschooling or how to transform a table into a stand-up workspace.
- Office supply retailer. Create a “how-to-find-a-tutor guide” for professionals who might be working from home and homeschooling, too. Include a list of homeschooling supplies.
- Children’s apparel shop. Produce a series on how to save money on clothing during the school year, since so many classes may be online.
- Kitchen supply merchant. Produce nutritious recipes that kids can make at home.
2. Stay-at-home Date Nights
The global pandemic has altered the habits of consumers. This includes how couples date. For your business’s September 2020 content marketing, consider creating content around enjoying a fun stay-at-home date night.
Try to integrate your company’s products into the stay-at-home ideas. For example, date-night tips from an art supply retailer might include:
- Complete a paint-by-numbers project,
- Watch a Bob Ross training episode on YouTube,
- Trace old photos, transforming them into sketches.
Similarly, an online shop that sells teas and coffees could compose articles around tea tastings, coffee cake making, and the like.
3. New Hobbies
The pandemic is prompting consumers to pick up new hobbies, as described in these example articles:
If this trend continues in September, you could create a series of new hobby suggestions that are related to the products your business sells.
- Craft shop. Suggest, as examples, crocheting, knitting, sewing, cross-stitch, painting, and scrapbooking.
- Kitchen supply store. Recommend cooking, baking, coffee-making, or similar.
- An outfitter. Discuss fly tying, photography, and map collecting.
As a bonus, try to suggest three kinds of hobbies:
- Hobbies that make money,
- Hobbies that keep participants physically fit,
- Hobbies that are creative.
4. Pandemic Holiday Shopping
Starting a new hobby is not the only Covid-induced behavioral change. Shopping habits have changed, too. Holiday shopping in 2020 will be unlike any other year.
Thus, how online stores promote holiday sales may need to change, as well. For example, some consumers may be nervous about product availability and could start shopping much sooner this year.
Consider publishing holiday gift guides in the form of articles, podcasts, and videos as soon as possible.
As inspiration, here are several gift-giving guides (Christmas and otherwise) with a dad-theme.
5. Read a Book Day: September 6
September 6, 2020, is “National Read a Book Day” in the United States. It’s an opportunity to pull out your company’s list of favorite novels and nonfiction works. Book recommendations may not seem exciting, but they can be useful evergreen content.
As with all content marketing ideas, look for ways to connect your read-a-book listicles to the products your company sells.
For example, an omnichannel farm and ranch supply retailer might choose to recommend novels from Laura Ingalls Wilder, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour.
An online retailer selling hiking and camping gear could recommend books such as “Into the Wild, Between a Rock and a Hard Place” by Aron Ralston, who amputated his arm while mountain climbing. Or, “Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival” by Joe Simpson, who fell from a vertical mountain face in the Andes.
‘Buy On Google’ Opens to All Merchants
Google Shopping has made its second significant change in the last few months. The first change was implementing free Google Shopping listings. The second is opening the “Buy on Google” program to all merchants, commission-free.
“Buy on Google” allows consumers to purchase products from merchants without leaving Google. The program will roll out to all merchants by early 2021, according to Google.
Consider the example below of the “Buy on Google” process. After searching “hard drives,” a consumer can access the “Shopping” tab and click the “Buy on Google” option.
Clicking the first listing (“Samsung Portable SSD T7” external drive) will produce a product page. Consumers can then click “Quick checkout” or “Add to cart,” log in to Google (if they haven’t already), and fill out delivery details and payment info.
Aside from being commission-free, changes to the program include:
- Linking to your payment provider in Merchant Center. Formerly, Buy on Google advertisers could use only PayPal to process payments from consumers. Shopify Payments is now an option, with more payment processors to come. Merchants will need to link their payment processor with Merchant Center.
- Handling customer support directly. Google previously provided exclusive support to Buy on Google consumers. Those support queries, such as order or shipping problems, will now initially go to merchants, who must provide an appropriate customer-support email address in Merchant Center.
- Product returns. Google can process returns from consumers, or merchants can do it themselves. If Google does it, merchants will link to their shipping carrier in Merchant Center. The carrier will then bill merchants directly.
- Amazon product feeds. Another change is the ability to upload the same product feed for Amazon into Merchant Center. Google will automatically map the fields. This is a huge value-add in my experience, as technical product-feed glitches can be challenging.
Consumers who purchase through Google receive a guarantee against incorrect or late shipments and not receiving a refund after returning items. Google encourages consumers to contact the merchant first. If no response after two days, Google provides Shopping support.
Audience data is not available to merchants who use “Buy with Google.” If they tag their site with Google Ads or Analytics pixels, merchants can create audiences and set up remarketing campaigns. Merchants can also create lookalike audiences to expand their reach. But now, consumers will purchase directly on Google. Merchants cannot remarket to them.
Consider, also, brand implications. The entire experience is now on Google. Consumers’ product research and subsequent purchase transactions occur through Google — not the merchant’s site. Likely this will diminish merchants’ branding.
Additionally, participating merchants who submit incorrect product information and perform poor customer service risk suspension by Google.
The Big Picture
Google’s marketplace quest continues. Though it has been live for a while, “Buy on Google” is now available to all merchants. By not paying commissions, merchants can potentially increase advertising budgets. Google Shopping is already a top revenue source for many companies. “Buy on Google” is a logical next step.
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