South Africa’s retail sector is under pressure as the global pandemic and associated lockdowns hit consumers’ pockets. With the key holiday shopping season only weeks away, retailers will likely be stepping up their efforts at winning the hearts and minds of shoppers.

Cameron Beveridge, Regional Director for Southern Africa at SAP, says: “Data from a recent survey of more than 1000 US consumers could hold vital insights for local retailers as they aim to salvage what has been an historically challenging year. The pandemic has done little to lower expectations around customer experience. Retailers must take heed of consumer needs and empower shoppers with choice and convenience.”

The recent survey of US consumers conducted by SAP found that two-thirds of consumers will be shopping online this holiday season, with nearly a quarter (24%) of that shopping taking place via mobile.

“New social distancing norms and the continued rise in popularity of online shopping services has forced retailers to prioritise digital experiences along with physical in-store experiences,” says Beveridge. “Customers today want retailers to provide seamless, personalised omnichannel experiences that put their needs and expectations first.”

To achieve this, Beveridge advises that retailers prioritise their efforts along three specific areas, namely:

1. Giving shoppers the freedom to control their own brand experiences

The rise of digital channels and self-service options have empowered consumers to take charge of their experiences with brands. In the US survey, 92% of shoppers said they want control over their experience when shopping or interacting with a brand.

“Consumers want choice, and won’t hesitate to switch a brand or provider if they aren’t satisfied with the experience. Retailers need to maintain open lines of communication with their customers to ensure they are up-to-date with their expectations, and can deliver the experiences they deserve.”

2. A seamless blend of physical and digital

Online shopping boomed during the strictest parts of lockdown, and consumer appetite for online or mobile shopping has not abated.

“Retailers, however, should not ignore the physical shopping experience in a country where less than 2% of all retail sales are online,” says Beveridge. “Instead, they should seek to blend digital and physical shopping experiences in innovative ways to attract and engage shoppers.”

In one recent example, a leading South African retailer launched a future-ready concept store at the Mall of Africa in Johannesburg. The store combines a range of innovations – self-checkout booths, sampling vending machines, electronic shelf labels and price check booths – to create an enhanced customer experience.

3. An omnichannel approach to customer service

Retailers should first and foremost focus on removing frustrations or friction in the shopping experience. One in five US shoppers said their top requirement is helpful and prompt customer service.

“With the growing popularity and adoption of automated customer service channels such as chatbots, consumers are increasingly comfortable interacting with non-human customer service options,” says Beveridge. “The key for consumers is to get an answer quickly. In fact, sixty percent of US shoppers listed speed as the most important factor of successful customer service interaction with brands.”