Data is still king for post-pandemic retail marketing

TL;DR: Here are the key retail marketing focus areas we heard at early 2022 events:  

  • Succeeding in a cookie-less world to retain and engage customers long term 
  • Growing importance of organizing and collecting first-party data to provide personalized omnichannel experiences 
  • Increased need be responsive, offer convenience, and frictionless experiences to meet customer expectations 

Events are back and in full swing. In the past month, we’ve seen thousands of retailers reconnect to network and share insights at key industry events. And we’re hearing two key concerns bubbling up for most marketers: omnichannel expansion and post-pandemic life.  

Events like the National Retail Federation’s Retail Innovation Conference, eTail West and Brand Insider Summit focused on the retail industry’s biggest trends and tribulations, with key themes on responding to the post-pandemic consumer. What’s top of mind?  

  • Being responsive and convenient 
  • Engaging customers long-term 
  • Effectively using first-party data to provide personalized experiences  

After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, retailers are navigating how best to evolve with consumer behavior changes. Shutdowns and capacity mandates, among other things, accelerated a move for all consumers to adopt digital channels, which fundamentally changing the way people shop and required brands to ensure a seamless omnichannel experience.   

According to a study by Foresight Factory, 51% of consumers now prefer online shopping to in-person, with 49% of U.S. consumers reporting they shop online at least once a week. Unsurprisingly, Gen Z and millennials are leading that charge. As the traditional path to purchase changes, it has retailers looking beyond just in-store and online shopping, and instead focusing on social media, e-commerce and messaging. 

The evolving value of omnichannel 

Nearly every retailer in the world had to find ways to pivot during the initial onslaught of COVID-19. Customers were already moving toward more digital-first experiences and buying habits long before the pandemic, and COVID-19 simply exacerbated it. Retailers doubled-down on digital transformation initiatives to meet that need (many of which had already been in place, but maybe on longer, years-long timelines). 

At eTail West, Terra Cochrane, head of digital and eCommerce at Lush Handmade Cosmetics, compared the complete shift to e-commerce in March 2020 as a “firefighting” mission. Because of that trial by fire, though, Cochrane’s team was able to make fast adjustments to ensure customers were having a positive experience. 

Cochrane said her team is monitoring “monitoring for voice of the customer,” to better understand: Where do customers drop off? And if it is in the customer service department or something else, having accountability for those teams.  

While shopping has resumed at brick-and-mortar stores, some of those digital experiences remain. In a different session at eTail, Shelby Sharp, director of digital experiences at Walgreens, said shoppers want multiple ways to shop that are reliable, easy to use and accessible. This includes not only digital and hybrid shopping, like online ordering and curbside pickup, but continued in-store options as well. As the world shifts out of pandemic restrictions, retailers can’t put pandora back in the box; they need seamless online-to-offline experiences and vice versa.  

A great example (also from eTail) is grocery store chain Albertson’s collaboration with DoorDash. Last month, the grocery giant announced its partnership with DoorDash for express grocery delivery in under 30 minutes. They’re not the only ones: Walmart and Target also have partnerships for grocery delivery through third-party apps.  

This includes investing in a variety of omnichannel tactics, including retail media networks, connected TV and more. 

First-party data remains top of mind  

A huge part of understanding the ever-changing customer journey is data. As omnichannel experiences become essential, more brands and retailers are realizing the power of first-party data. Understanding the consumer helps determine which modes of shopping work best for them and it helps refine the message that resonates most.  

At eTail West, Dan Weinsoft, chief revenue officer at Goodr, a start-up sunglasses company, said analyzing consumer behavior through data doesn’t only help shoppers 1:1, it helps the business understand overall trends within the market. 

“We found that people have the same buying patterns,” he said. “We designed our merchandizing around that. We know what they’re buying routinely, we know what pairs sell best. And we have a tool to help recommend products based on that, which boosts the customer experience.”  

In a different eTail session, Theresa Palermo, senior vice president of connected commerce & marketing at Signet Jewelers, said having multi-modal commerce that intersects options with personalization is where retailers hit the sweet spot. First-party data helps retailers develop deeper consumer profiles on an individual level and glean larger insights as well. 

She noted that there are a lot of digital touchpoints that drive a customer to the store – some that you may know today but others that you can only get through learning from your own data (properly). For instance, Signet Jewelers knows that couples who buy a pet are 60% more likely to get engaged. Or, if a friend gets engaged, a consumer is more likely to become engaged, too. If data tells marketers this is true, how can they start targeting ads more effectively?  

This is true for Walgreens as well. Sharp said the retailer has an entire digital experience team that looks at customer search data to determine everything from optimization in store to transparency in inventory and operational challenges. In a recent Adweek article, Luke Kigel, VP of Walgreens Media and head of Walgreens Advertising Group (WAG), echoed this sentiment, saying they’re not only thinking of how customers interact with the retailer, but how brands with their products in the store are working with the team as well. This is especially important for brands looking to bolster their own marketing personalization. 

“We’re trying to build solutions that make it easier for our brand and agency partners to work and engage with us, so the focus can be on enabling brands to deliver personalization and drive performance,” he said.  

As the world returns to “normal,” retailers are relying on data to reach customers in a variety of ways. Shopping habits have changed during the past two years and will continue to evolve as we move to the endemic stage of COVID-19. 

At the Brand Insider event, Daz McColl, Chief Marketing Officer at Neiman Marcus, said as people return to in-store purchasing, it’s going to be important for retailers to continue evolving their strategies both online and off. Smooth, integrated experiences make shopping easier for consumers which makes them more likely to convert. Simply opening the doors of brick-and-mortar stores to consumers won’t be enough.  

One thing is certain: The pandemic exposed where retailers needed to accelerate parts of their business, but it also showed them that with agile teams willing to work quickly, anything is possible to drive better customer experiences.