Does COVID-19 provide retailers with new opportunities to bond with customers?

Photo: Best Buy
Dec 01, 2020

MBLM’s newly-released “Brand Intimacy Study,” which ranks brands based on their emotional connections, found the retail industry moving from fourth to third out of 10 industries as the pandemic made retailers more “essential.”

Based on a survey of 3,000 consumers in the late summer, the study found the retail industry has an average Brand Intimacy Quotient of 46.35, well above the cross-industry average of 38.1. The only industries scoring higher were media and entertainment and automotive.

Retail’s average score was up 7.7 percent year over year. Wrote MBLM in a press release, “This is not surprising; with concerns about the pandemic, consumers were hoarding specific essential products like water, toilet paper, and disinfectant. With more time at home, there has been also increased spending for personal care products, foods, spirits, and home repair products since the virus began.”

Retail brands saw a 33 percent rise in “Can’t live without,” a measure that determines how essential a brand is to consumers’ lives. Daily usage for retail brands has risen significantly, up 37 percent from the year-ago study. again led the industry by a strong margin with a Brand Intimate score of 69.4, up from 68.3 a year ago. That was followed in the top-ten by Walmart, 59.7, which significantly improved from 53.9. Rounding out the top ten were Whole Foods, 53.3; Target, 52.4; Costco, 42.7; Home Depot, 41.5; Instacart, 41.4; eBay, 36.4; IKEA, 35.4; and Sephora, 32.6.

MBLM said Amazon’s improving score reflects consumers becoming more dependent on home delivery during the pandemic.

A number of other surveys have also highlighted the larger role trust is playing during the pandemic:

  • A Cennox survey found 66 percent of shoppers would avoid stores that fail to meet COVID-19 safety expectations.
  • A Brightpearl survey found 42 percent of consumers indicating unreliable delivery had lessened their trust in online shopping since the start of the pandemic.
  • Edelman’s “COVID-19 Brand Trust” report found 62 percent of Americans saying they did not think their country would make it through the crisis without brands playing a “critical role” in the fight against the coronavirus.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: In what ways has COVID-19 opened up opportunities for retailers to nurture greater loyalty with consumers? Which aspects of retail customer relationship building have become significantly more important amid the pandemic?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Retailers who have succeeded in making their customers feel safe and valued during the pandemic will see long-term loyalty and brand equity increases."
"On the whole, retail has performed very well in bonding with customers through the great care they take in sanitary promises and efforts. This has to remain a constant."
"The customer has changed and we need to morph with them to keep their loyalty."

Join the Discussion!

23 Comments on "Does COVID-19 provide retailers with new opportunities to bond with customers?"

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Ryan Grogman

The phrase “We’re all in this together” has been over-used during 2020, but it certainly applies when assessing the bond between retailers and consumers. Shoppers can identify with the challenges these organizations are facing in putting their frontline employees into potentially hazardous environments and they appreciate the extra lengths retailers have gone to in order to implement curbside pickup or expedited product delivery. Retailers are doing their part to help make our shopping experience safer, and that’s going to resonate with consumers. The ones who are succeeding will see increased loyalty carry over post-pandemic.

Bethany Allee

Retailers who have succeeded in making their customers feel safe and valued during the pandemic will see long-term loyalty and brand equity increases. During the pandemic, I personally have abandoned shopping at two retailers who failed basic COVID-19 safety requirements. I’ve also started shopping with many more retailers who I’d never shopped with prior to the pandemic, simply because these retailers found safe ways to connect with my family and get us the items we need to thrive. This same formula of brand intimacy works and scales the same for small specialty retailers and big-box stores alike.

Dick Seesel

Consumers are looking for safety and predictability from their preferred retailers, whether they are shopping online, curbside or in-store. Stores like Target are filling these needs, and gaining market share in the process.

The trust factor, which was already high at companies like Target, Walmart and Amazon, will continue to drive these stores’ sales long after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. The evolution of consumer behavior (and retailers’ responses to it) has become a revolution in 2020.

Dave Wendland

Demonstrated, visible measures to keep guests and employees safe and protected should be a cornerstone for retailers. This genuine interest and caring attitude will go far to strengthen relationships and build loyalty. Retailers MUST follow through and make the commitment to safety as they continue to reopen and return to whatever the new normal may look like.

Heidi Sax

Sure, we can talk about how brands can connect with consumers by using COVID-19 specific “right now” messaging. The truth is, I think most of the public has recognized what we’ve long known: that retail workers — from grocery clerks to the delivery person, fulfillment center workers to the person who answers the phone — are everyday heroes. As consumers reflect on how important a brand’s products are, they realize how important the people are who help us obtain them. The people are what make us more intimately connected to the brand.

Gary Sankary
Online shopping’s biggest advantage for retailers (IMHO) is the ability to develop a rich history of a customer’s purchases, which is difficult in some business due to cash sales or third-party credit cards. Retailers get better insights, the products and offers become more personalized, and skillful retailers who can use this data without overstepping privacy concerns can make it easier for their best customers to find exactly what they like. It’s great for loyalty building. The pandemic has massively accelerated adoption of digital commerce and customers are willing to exchange their personal information for touch-free commerce options. I also see retailers getting better and delivering curbside and delivery options for customers, this also presents an opportunity for positive touchpoints with the brand. Retailers who can effectively manage inventory and mitigate supply chain disruption for the most desired goods also stand to earn points with their customers. This will carry over in the post pandemic world. Finally retailers who demonstrate a commitment to customer and team member safety during this time are being rewarded as well.… Read more »
Dave Bruno

Trust is often an underestimated part of the loyalty equation, but the pandemic has brought it to the forefront. People have always preferred to shop for brands they trust at retailers they trust. The pandemic may have changed some trust criteria, but it has only increased the importance of earning shopper trust throughout the entire customer lifecycle: protect their data, respect their privacy, provide quality products, stand behind those products and, now, provide a safe shopping environment with options that reflect the customer’s needs.

David Mascitto

Engaging with customers by keeping them informed of stock levels, implementing safety protocols and ensuring fairness (by limiting people from over-buying) strengthened the bond between the retailer and customer during the pandemic, by showing them they are working in their best interests and not just for profit. Going beyond these practices by giving back to the community and ensuring employees are well-treated can also build loyalty by aligning to a customer’s value system.

Jeff Sward

It’s impossible to imagine that any kind of status quo thinking will work these days, at either the retailer or customer level. Shopper expectations have changed and the retailers who rise to, or above, those expectations will do well. Certainly there are opportunities to surprise and delight, but there are also opportunities to frustrate and disappoint. COVID-19 will be viewed as a tilt-of-the-earth’s-axis event a year or two from now. It will have permanently shifted and raised expectations for how retailers treat their employees and customers.

Gene Detroyer

I think we have a false choice here. “Is establishing in-store safety protocols or meeting online delivery times more important to consumers at this moment?” Whoever the retailer is better deliver on both counts to stay viable with me.

With regard to building customer relationships, it should not, but it did, take COVID-19 to wake some retailers up. Sadly, many will lapse back into old habits when the pandemic challenge disappears.

Yesterday’s discussions regarding Amazon and Tony Hsieh are all about the value of what is really a one-on-one relationship.

Lisa Goller

COVID-19 has helped agile retailers earn consumer loyalty with subscriptions, private label and strategic assortments.

Subscriptions like Walmart+ and Prime offer convenient delivery and value-add offerings that make loyalty mutually beneficial. Retailers also gain data insights for relevant marketing that can make shoppers feel understood and willing to buy.

Private labels like Target’s Good & Plenty and Kroger’s Simple Truth boost loyalty because these quality lines are exclusive to the retailer.

Offering an in-stock, in-demand assortment matters most this year. Retailers earn consumer trust and devotion by consistently ensuring the availability of bestsellers.

Di Di Chan
Today, consumer loyalty is about more than just trusting in a particular brand or store. The pandemic has highlighted an intimate relationship between shoppers and retailers which has evolved to include sharing similar values. The relationship between shoppers and retailers became more than just about buying and selling. Customers have increased expectations that retailers will prioritize their safety and welfare above profits. As a result, retailers with clear COVID-19 safety protocols that prioritize shopper safety first are gaining the opportunity to build much stronger loyalty than ever before. For example, since the 2010s, many retailers have launched their own mobile app as the next tool to strengthen shopper loyalty. Although most early retail apps offered some coupons or loyalty points to attract shoppers, they did not gain significant user adoption. There was not a strong enough value proposition for shoppers to stick to using a retail app all the time. When the pandemic hit this year, one type of retail app that has surpassed e-commerce adoption is mobile checkout apps. Touch-free mobile checkouts have been… Read more »
Georganne Bender

Blue Goose Market is a family owned grocer that has been in our community for over four generations. The store is beautiful and offers superior products. In late 2019 sales started to slip as consumers moved to the big super grocery stores. When COVID-19 hit the owner went to work, and I mean to WORK finding items you couldn’t find anywhere else, keeping the store safe, and keeping customers informed. He upped his grassroots outreach with videos on social media, took customers along virtually on visits to markets and vendors, and it worked. Blue Goose reconnected with the community.

So yes, COVID-19 has opened up opportunities for retailers to nurture greater consumer loyalty.

Rich Kizer

On the whole, retail has performed very well in bonding with customers through the great care they take in sanitary promises and efforts. This has to remain a constant. When we shop grocers we ask, what was the one point of difference that we enjoyed most? It always comes down to staff relationships with customers producing trust. I remember a few years ago the powerful story of a young bagger in a grocery store that inserted small notes featuring wonderful, inspirational messages in the bags. It got to the point that customers would wait in his line just to get their lift of the day. Sometimes our staff members have the winning ideas. Has management asked them for their thoughts lately? That’s something to think about.

Chuck Ehredt

Every touchpoint between a retailer and a customer is an opportunity to build trust and affinity or destroy it. Each individual touchpoint may not affect the customer´s overall feeling in a dramatic way, but over time this is how relationships develop.

For that reason, retailers that have reacted well to the COVID-19 situation have built appreciation – and not just via their marketing efforts, but with the hundreds of things they’ve done (often behind the scenes) to make the customer feel safe and valued.

Next year, we may have a different situation. Next week, something great or terrible could happen in any community. Retailers should have scenarios developed for how they would respond in many situations to continue building loyalty across all their segments.

Ralph Jacobson

Misery loves company, and the opportunity to commiserate with shoppers has never been better. This is yet one more opportunity to leverage a retailer’s best competitive differentiator, their staff. Take advantage of curbside pickup, etc., and provide guidance on mini scripts for staff to use to engage customers in their limited interactions these days.

Shep Hyken

There are several ways retailers were able to capture more loyalty with their customers. The rock stars did three things well. First, they were there for them emotionally. Somehow they made the connection to their customers to let them know “they were there for them.” Second, they made their customers feel safe. Safety and health protocols made customers comfortable going into an in-store environment. Third, they were convenient to their customers. The ability to deliver, order online, etc. created a level of convenience that made it easy for customers to do business with them. At one point, these conveniences were an option or even a luxury. Today they are an expectation.

Scott Norris

I had an amazing experience with Target’s curbside pickup this weekend: Mom’s vacuum cleaner had gone kaput and Amazon couldn’t deliver until the end of this week. My local Target had one in stock — I snagged it with the mobile app, and when I pulled out of the garage the app asked me if I was on the way to the store. I said yes, and within seconds of pulling into the pickup lane a team member was at my car with the box. Yes I paid about $30 more than I would’ve on Amazon, but Mom is taken care of so it’s worth it. And I’m instantly hooked on pickup because Target showed me how on top of the ball they were during the busiest weekend of the year, executing brilliantly.

Bindu Gupta

The pandemic has shifted the focus from a transactional relationship to an emotional one to connect consumers with brands. Consumers are looking to be associated with brands that share similar values and beliefs which goes a long way toward making people remain loyal to a brand.

Cynthia Holcomb

COVID-19 risk, in-store, on the floor, whether Target, Costco, Home Depot, etc., the relationship between each individual customer and each individual store associate he/she meets along their in-store journey is the key physical-world opportunity to build greater loyalty with each customer. Retailers who leave it up to consumers to decide to wear a mask, or social distance, or other COVID-19 safety protocols put their customers in the role of protecting their own safety or simply leaving the store.

One of the top aspects of retail customer relationship building during the pandemic is safety leadership along the entire chain of command, which then in turn is executed on the retail floor by associates who believe in the humanity of their leadership. Leadership who pays their associates essential pay as an acknowledgment of the personal health risk each associate faces while working on the sales floor. Thus, associates assisting each customer in a thoughtful and kind manner. A special opportunity for retailers to build trust and loyalty within their own ranks and with each customer.

Ken Morris

Retailers have always been focused on labor savings and less so on customer experience. The pandemic is forcing retailers to focus on customer convenience to match the new customer journey. It is no longer good enough just to focus on product, price, place and promotion but a fifth “P” must be added as in patron, purchaser. The customer has changed and we need to morph with them to keep their loyalty.

Xavier Lederer

This report provides an interesting perspective to the question: “Over the long run, which retailers will win or lose from COVID?” Between 2019 and 2020 the brand intimacy quotient of big retailers like Target, Costco, Whole Foods, and even Amazon, slightly declined. The big exception is Walmart, which saw its score increase by 29%! Who would have thought, 5 years ago, that Walmart would teach Amazon a lesson during a boost in online purchasing?

John McIndoe
COVID-19 has created new needs among shoppers that vary down to literally the household level based on factors such as income, employment status, age, geography, and health state. Some of these needs are desperate; e.g., a lower-income household with one or both breadwinners now unemployed that need to put food on the table. Other needs are more discretionary; ingredients for peoples’ favorite recipes are out-of-stock. Retailers that rapidly recognize these needs and aggressively and creatively meet them gain the opportunity to build loyalty among existing shoppers as well as attract new shoppers from banners that are less shopper-centric. For the lower-income household, that might include revised store layouts and planograms that focus on value products as well as partnerships with local food banks to help households fill up their pantries. For more discretionary needs, stores might create endcaps and online promotions that feature “everything you need for that holiday feast” to replace recipes where some ingredients are unavailable. And, as the pandemic continues, these needs will continuously evolve and retailers must be nimble to recognize… Read more »
"Retailers who have succeeded in making their customers feel safe and valued during the pandemic will see long-term loyalty and brand equity increases."
"On the whole, retail has performed very well in bonding with customers through the great care they take in sanitary promises and efforts. This has to remain a constant."
"The customer has changed and we need to morph with them to keep their loyalty."

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