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Turn the tide in your favour

Duncan Howe, ecommerce strategist at Cheil UK, explains how content and messaging can help retailers stay afloat during online surges

When customers went to buy groceries online after the latest national lockdown was announced on 4 January, they were met with a sense of deja vu. Surges in traffic to popular grocers like Sainsbury’s and Tesco meant that many customers couldn’t access websites and apps to place food orders and select delivery slots. You can empathise with the customers who might have felt frustrated. After all, retailers have had almost a year to learn and respond to the impact of surges in demand.

This won’t be the last instance of customers rushing to get online, whether that’s a result of  the latest Coronavirus developments, or the usual sales peaks in the retail calendar. The lesson here for retailers is not necessarily about ensuring you’ve got the bandwidth to manage high demand – though this is important, it’s not always possible. Rather, there are many simple ways retailers can manage their content and messaging to ensure customers aren’t left feeling dissatisfied. 

Controlling the message

Understandably, many retailers are limited in what they can offer customers right now. When this latest lockdown was announced, Tesco suspended new sign-ups to Delivery Saver – its subscription-based delivery service – in order to focus on serving existing customers. While other grocers like Sainsbury’s, Ocado, and Morrisons temporarily limited the number of customers accessing their respective online services, placing them instead in virtual queues. 

Despite being known for our penchant of queues, many Brits hate being in them; especially an online queue where it can be harder to accurately gauge how many people are in front of you or how long it will take. But what these retailers can control is the message they are sending to customers trying to access their services online. 

These remain uncertain times. More than ever, customers are looking for guidance and reassurance, especially when it comes to ‘essential retail’. For retailers with the luxury of still trading during this lockdown, they have a responsibility to let their customers know that everything will be done in accordance with government regulation.

But this must go beyond soft messages such as: “We are here for you during this difficult time”. Customers want an action, not a dead end. There’s nothing more frustrating than going to a website and being met with a “sorry, try again later” message. It’s so dismissive. If it was busy at the shops, you wouldn’t shut the doors and not have a staff member explaining what was happening. So why is that acceptable online?

While people are waiting to access your site, why not offer helpful links to guidance on what you’re doing to keep your stores safe if they are open, or offer a chance to sign-up to notifications for when services will be open again. Better yet, why not take the opportunity to recruit and advertise for any open vacancies for delivery drivers, pickers or warehouse staff?

Bringing potential customers into your online world, rather than just having a transactional relationship, means there is an opportunity to use messaging to reassure them they are making the right choice and show that they’re going to be kept informed of changes as they happen, which could lead to longer-term loyalty. 

Turning a negative experience into a positive outcome for customers – and for retailers – through messaging is a simple first step to rectify a situation like lockdown that may be out of your total control. 

Alternative customers success journeys

Generally with ecommerce, customer success journeys are measured by conversion rates. But in this instance – where retailers have limited their online services – the success journey is finding a delivery slot. So when that’s not possible, what are the alternative journeys? 

Savvy ecommerce heads should be asking themselves: ‘What do our alternative customer success journeys look like? How many people are we anticipating going down each one? Do we have the bandwidth to cope with that at the same time? And what can we do for a customer who can’t get the thing that they want? How can they still leave with a positive experience?’ 

Because again, it’s like going to a physical shop where the conversation might go something like, “sorry, we sold out the T-shirt that you wanted, but here’s an alternative item. And if you want, give us your phone number, we’ll give you a ring when we get more stock”. Sometimes it’s as simple as thinking about what a helpful shop assistant would do, and trying to replicate that same experience online.  

Translated online, this might look like offering a postcode finder so a customer can find the nearest store that’s open instead of shopping online, stock checks for particular products before they travel, or even offering other products or services in your portfolio. Most of the major supermarkets also offer travel, pet, car, and home insurance, so there is an opportunity to further prompt customers while they’re waiting and ask if they’ve reviewed their policy recently. Essentially, anything other than just a “no” and a dead end. The customer walks away feeling that they’ve got an explanation and a solution.

The benefit for retailers at the moment is that they’re all in the same boat; drivers and delivery slots are limited, and services are disrupted. The distinction will largely come from how retailers respond. Managing your message and content is a simple and effective way to win against competitors right now. You’re building your relationship, you’re trying to engage, you’re trying to reassure, you’re trying to lessen the impact. It’s subtle, but it’s really important to how you’re perceived in the long-term. 


By Duncan Howe, ecommerce strategist at Cheil UK

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