Digital Audio

Retail In the Time of COVID-19, Part 1: Editing the Consumer Message

Apr 1, 2020

Some of the most bizarre things happen in times of crisis. The sale of baby chicks and vegetable seeds skyrocket, shelters run out of adoptable pets, baking ingredients are cleared off grocery store shelves and, of course, toilet paper is stockpiled as if it were going out of production. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when reading through volumes of factual information and anecdotal tales of how people are reacting to the impact of COVID-19. (By the way, according to the theories of Thorstein Veblen, the sociologist and economist who in 1899 coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” the current hoarding of TP is more a demonstration of economic status in time of crisis than actually solving an immediate need; this consumer product has become the trophy of survival for Americans.)

Psychological theories aside, one thing has become crystal clear when considering the current business climate in the time of COVID-19, consumers are thinking faster than retailers can react. And therein lies the problem; most retailers are simply reacting. Given the hyper-competitive environment of the retail industry over the past 20 years and obvious need for tech innovation, efficient & effective CRM/data management and investment for back office & inventory management, you’d think legacy retailers would have been better prepared to address the “turn on a dime” needs in a contemporary global marketplace, with or without the specific example of the COVID-19 crisis. But, we will leave that discussion for another day.

Instead, it’s more helpful at the moment to provide a snapshot of how some organizations in the retail marketplace are dealing with the new reality in the consumer marketplace. Industry news and announcements are happening by the day, so this series will focus on six specific topics, each with a bit of commentary and examples of who’s doing it right...or wrong.

Today’s topic: Editing the Consumer message In times of crisis with hypersensitivity to emotional and physical well-being, words and images matter more than ever. Extra care should be taken to ensure your message doesn’t appear opportunistic, promotional, exploitative or an effort in any explicit way to acquire new customers. A helpful tone that inspires confidence and generosity of spirit will likely make the best impression until we settle into any sense of normalcy.

From my perspective, too many organizations have already fallen victim to the “join the crowd” pattern of crisis marketing. The clearest evidence is witnessed through the volumes of emails received on a daily basis from every advertiser or service with whom you’ve ever been in contact. Seriously, inquiring about the health of your clients or providing minute details of the actions being taken to protect employees sounds wonderful and is very informative but how helpful is this in real terms to loyal customers? Time will tell.

Another possible trap is offering what could be defined as “COVID discounts” to suddenly lure customers into product offers, shopping subscriptions, delivery services, etc. While the message reveals real savings for the targeted audience, will it be perceived as a typical offer from the retailer or something being done in desperation to gain sales? The consumer isn’t stupid. However, some have the right idea; brands doing it right are delivering messages that are relevant to the current situation, helpful to their customer base, and generous in nature without coming across as patronizing. A perfect example of this would be grocery stores who are opening an hour early to serve elderly and disabled customers who would otherwise be unable to navigate the store or find needed essentials during normal business hours. An easy solution that truly puts customers first!

Stay tuned for the next post installments on the remaining topics:

- Adjusting the Media Mix - Changing the Product Focus - Operating Differently - Joining Forces - For Some, It’s Business as Usual

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