COVID, Customers & Challenges: Realistic Ways Retailers Can Combat the Unexpected

COVID, Customers & Challenges: Realistic Ways Retailers Can Combat the Unexpected

COVID, Customers & Challenges: Realistic Ways Retailers Can Combat the Unexpected

COVID-19 raging. Customers missing. Challenges everywhere. For many retailers and brand managers, these three Cs just about sum up the most bizarre and difficult retail year most folks can remember. But is it possible the changes many companies are making today could set them up for success post-pandemic? In particular, companies that have invested in martech to connect with customers and understand their shifting needs and attitudes could forge long-term customer loyalty. 

“We’ve seen an acceleration in digital transformation, up to a 25 percent increase in ecommerce,” Stefano Fanfarillo, Partner and Director of Personalization and Digital Marketing at Boston Consulting Group, said recently. Fanfarillo points to a huge surge in interest in digital transformation, in part due to increased “click-and-collect” sales, omnichannel retail capabilities, and Buy-Online-Pick-Up-in-Store (BOPUS).

“We’re seeing major acceleration in digital programs, and in some cases, we’re seeing what would have taken six months before [pre-COVID-19] now being done in six weeks,” says Fanfarillo. “Many organizations are stepping up to the challenge.”

Despite a tremendous amount of uncertainty amidst the global pandemic, retailers still need to connect with customers. Likewise, customers still need to connect with retailers. Yet despite the desire and need to make these connections happen, retailers and customers face many challenges along the way. As a result, the first question retailers need to ask themselves is what they can do now to connect with customers and provide easy customer journeys? And the second question they need to address is, very simply, how will customers react to all of the changes brought on by the pandemic and recent unrest? 

Retailers and brands who are faring best seem to be doing at least three things right. Here are their coping strategies.

Retail Coping Strategy #1: Be Where Your Customers Are & Give Them the Confidence They Need

While consumer income has decreased globally due to COVID-19, customers are looking forward to the reopening of retail as we used to know it. Keeping this in mind, retailers need to recognize the new avenues in which customers have become connected to products and brands in direct response to COVID-19—particularly since in-store has not been an option in many places until recently, and even then it comes with limitations and strict barriers. 

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To help overcome the challenge of limited in-store connections with your customers, consider how consumers now engage as they navigate their paths towards purchase. The most obvious avenue is online, though more specifically this includes branded websites and social media.

With availability to consumers 24|7, online ordering has become the critical touchpoint of connectivity to customers unlike ever before. No longer is making a sale simply about informing customers of the products you sell and where to buy them. Instead you need to show customers how you are protecting them when they come to your stores while still providing them inventory and the customer experiences they want. As recently explained by SkuIQ, “consumers have heightened expectations due to COVID-19, and their concerns need to be retailer concerns.”

Retail Coping Strategy #2: Strengthen, Target, and Personalize Customer Communications

“Strengthening customer communication can help ease some of the worries customers have when it comes to engaging in stores, purchasing products, exchanging payments, receiving packages, interacting with store employees, and more,” the SkuIQ article advises.

To help connect with customers despite the challenges of COVID-19, create a marketing strategy that aligns with sales goals on all the touchpoints of your online presence. This should include social media, email marketing, online review sites, branded websites and any marketplaces you sell to consumers from. 

While doing this, be sure to clearly communicate online the in-store safety measures you have put in place, such as regularly sanitizing brick-and-mortar spaces, offering curbside pick-up or personalized shopping and any other details that impact a customer’s experience in your store—including altered store hours.This will help give customers the confidence they need to return to physical store environments. For additional ways to support customers returning more confidently to your store, explore here. 

Some innovative brands are even using their resources in ways that use customer data to help customers connect with retailers and make purchases. For example, AB InBev created an app for its Colombia customers—called “Ayuda a La Carta”— that helps consumers locate retailers that are still selling the items they want. Lucas Borges, senior global IT manager at Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev), recently explained this success during a webinar with Boston Consulting Group and Treasure Data.

“Ayuda a La Carta shows the stores near you,” Borges told an online audience. “The consumers were able to open mobile, then check the retailers near them where they could purchase a specific item,” says Borges. “So we were supporting the retailers big time during the pandemic—and the consumers as well. Using their cellphones, they were able to open the [Ayuda a La Carta] map and see which stores could deliver their products to their house.”

Borges attributes AB InBev’s ability to respond to new COVID-19 customer needs—and help support its retailers—to the company’s longstanding commitment to digital transformation and its ability to use customer data in its marketing and sales efforts. These efforts were helped immensely, says Borges, when AB InBev started using the Treasure Data Customer Data Platform (CDP). 

The CDP takes data from many different sources, and combines all the data about each customer into a unified customer profile. AB InBev can then use customer data analytics to understand and market to each of its millions of customers.

“We’re able to apply all of our learnings, including from machine learning or data generated from our algorithms, to understand a little more about our consumers,” says Borges. “And then, once we find something that’s interesting to us, we can implement and scale it very fast within the business, having all this data in a single place.”

Retail Coping Strategy #3: Rely on External Technology Partners to Gain Insights from Customer Data

Let’s face it, retailers are busy. But that doesn’t mean they can neglect gaining customer intelligence and insights. To do this, retailers must embrace technology and the future of retail—particularly amidst and post COVID-19. Proactively welcoming technology into retail business operations can help more precisely identify who customers are, what they want, and how retailers can best support them. 

More specifically, incorporating automated systems such as a CDP, which can examine and analyze customer data in real-time, is essential in optimizing customer data and ultimately, boosting sales. This omni-centric technology connects customer touchpoints, reveals what has sold and when, where customers are most engaged, when customers are leaving your website, and so much more. After all, human touch alone can’t deliver these valuable insights. So retailers who want to succeed in 2020 and beyond must introduce technology that integrates across all their touchpoints. 

To leverage technology that will boost your business, begin by analyzing your existing technology partners. Consider what integrations with other technology platforms they have that could benefit you. Finally, don’t overlook reviewing new technology partners and how they can help your unique business. This may make the difference between impressive gains and just maintaining business as you know it. 

Digital Transformation Won’t End When COVID-19 No Longer Rages

COVID-19 has reminded retailers that their systems for creating and maintaining personalized connections to customers are important—and that they should expect the unexpected.

While most surprises won’t be as great a shock as a global pandemic, many can have a strong impact if not managed in real-time with precise and proactive decisions. And without the right customer data and insights, you won’t be able to make the right decision at the right time.

To learn more about how a CDP could help your business connect with customers and improve its marketing results, visit the CDP Academy.

Nicole Leinbach Reyhle
Nicole Leinbach Reyhle
Nicole Leinbach Reyhle is the founder and publisher of, a well-respected retail industry resource that has been recognized worldwide for its leading business insight since 2007. With a core concentration on independent retailers, small businesses, technology, and how the various touchpoints of commerce influence modern merchants, Reyhle is a frequent guest and contributor to media outlets including, The Today Show, Forbes,, and countless B2B publications. Additionally, Reyhle has been the spokesperson for American Express’s Small Business Saturday since 2014 and is the author of the book “Retail 101: The Guide to Managing and Marketing Your Retail Business” from McGraw-Hill. Recognized within the top 10 out 100 worldwide retail thought leaders since 2015—including having held the #1 spot—and a retail “futurist” for IBM, Reyhle is also the co-founder of the Independent Retailer Conference. Learn more about Reyhle at
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