The new digital dawn of post-pandemic retail

Lara Ewen

Retail has shifted since the start of Covid-19, and the drive toward digital has become more pronounced. Some 90% of jewelry retailers now have online platforms, according to Bain & Company’s Global Diamond Industry 2021–22 report. “The pandemic rapidly accelerated e-commerce, even for independent US retailers,” it states.

The move is a direct result of retailers looking to meet customers where they shop.

Consumers are buying more online than before the pandemic,” says John Harmon, senior analyst at global advisory and research firm Coresight Research, which specializes in retail and technology. “While sheltering at home, they were disconnected from retail stores as gathering places, and they discovered new online shopping channels. Now, consumers are more open to online shopping, yet their attention is more fragmented.

Nearly half of consumers are still reluctant to visit public places in general, he adds, citing a Coresight consumer survey from April.

Even stores that had previously invested in e-commerce have seen a shift.

We already had online scheduling, and we were already doing FaceTime for people who were long-distance,” says Babs Noelle, owner of Alara Jewelry in Bozeman, Montana. “But pre-pandemic to now, what’s changed is the volume of business we’re doing.

She attributes this to customers continuing to spend their discretionary funds on jewelry instead of luxury travel. “And probably the biggest change I’ve seen is people who never shopped online before for jewelry, suddenly figuring out how to do it.”

Covid-19 has helped more consumers get accustomed to digital, agrees Mike Simoncic, managing director at Alvarez & Marsal Consumer Retail Group.

The consumer has shifted their behavior to be more online and is therefore more conditioned to do things in a virtual environment,” he says. “In terms of what’s changed for digital, virtual experiences are expanding efficiently and rapidly. The biggest shift is the idea of the consumer’s willingness to purchase and buy online.”

Yet stores that embrace technology are still seeking a balance between digital and in-person connection.

A lot of us got used to buying and selling out of our living rooms,” says Matt O’Desky, owner of The Diamond Room in Texas, which has private showrooms in Austin and Dallas but has seen an increasing number of out-of-state clients since the pandemic began. “Sometimes we have our clients take pictures of their hands, and we can render it. But I think there needs to be a happy balance. We don’t want to lose that interaction. I don’t want to go to virtual appointments. I want to meet with people in person.

Seamless experiences

Instead of thinking of e-commerce and brick-and-mortar as separate entities, Harmon says it’s important to see the two as part of the same shopping journey.

The jewelry industry is leveraging technology to offer consumers the same experience that they would have in a store,” he says. “Retailers are offering consumers the ability to try on products through advances in AR technology, or customize products to their exact specifications and speak with consultants — some through virtual chats, and others live, just as if consumers were in a store.”

Harmon believes these advances lead to higher conversions both online and in-store, because consumers are more informed and confident about their purchases. “[This] is particularly important for high-value segments like jewelry and luxury,” he says. “For example, Signet Jewelers reported that at its retail banner Ernest Jones, 20% of its in-store business is now the result of appointments that were made online. And of those appointments, over 70% result in a sale that’s four times higher, on average, than what a walk-in customer spends.”

Alara Jewelry embraces the idea that customers will be doing their research online, or that they’ll want information after store hours, says Noelle. “A lot of people love to do the initial dipping their toe in the water online, without having to come to a store. If they text us after 6 p.m., they’ll get an automated message telling them we’re gone for the day. Then, the very next morning, they will get a response from us.”

She does much of her initial communication digitally, especially with younger customers. “I don’t know why people shop for jewelry in the middle of the night, but our website has blown up since Covid-19,” she remarks. That’s why she believes it’s so important for businesses to be thoughtful about their online image.I don’t think bells and whistles are important; I think having a high-functioning website is important, because it instills confidence.”

How tech can help

Online shopping is just one step in the technology journey consumers are making, according to Harmon.

Chatbots and digital shopping assistants can help retailers deal with the labor shortage,” he says. “And they’re able to work 24/7, when stores are closed.”

Technology can also make a salesperson’s job easier and more effective, he adds. “Handheld devices such as tablets can put a customer’s purchase history in the sales associate’s hands. And artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) excels at finding relationships among data and making forecasts, and can assist in making intelligent product recommendations.”

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Source Rapaport

This article was first published in June 2022 in a special Rapaport supplement titled Retail in the Digital Age.

Photo © Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash.