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Empathy in retail: staying on track in the time of distancing
 — July 28, 2020

Last month, I joined a webinar hosted by the ecommerce club of London in partnership with The Fashion Network. Speaking with ecommerce expert Alex Green, and live chat leader Riccardo Boccia from Decathlon UK, we covered a range of topics on connecting with — and selling to — customers in the time of COVID-19. 

One of the most interesting (and surprising!) themes that emerged was the idea of empathy in retail. 

Since then, I’ve been digging deeper into this topic, thinking about how retailers can be more empathetic to their customers. The context we’re living in today is full of uncertainty and unrest. So retailers need to ask: do our customers know that we understand how hard it is for them, and that we’re taking action to make their lives easier?

This theme was echoed in our three-part webinar series that just closed out this week. Heyday spoke to industry leaders from food, cosmetics and sporting goods, and one of the most important success factors was having the tools in place to listen, talk and converse with customers. And, we know that listening is the cornerstone of empathy. 

Listening has also extended into customer conversations too: when we speak to retailers – whether they’re big organizations like DAVIDsTEA or smaller shops like Fody Foods – getting the right tools in place to provide real value in conversations that showcase they have an open ear on the other end of the line (or, in our case, chat), is top of mind. 

Prior to 2020, empathy could have simply been a concept written on a wall, or in a values statement, for many leaders and brands. Today, the facts and figures are pointing to a clear reality: empathy is fundamental to your retail brand’s success. 


Consumers are worried, they are struggling, and they need our support — your support.

Let’s take a look at these stats from McKinsey’s recent retail studies:

  • In the United States, 26% of buyers say how a company treats its employees will influence buying decisions 
  • In China, 65% of customers say they care more about the safety of a product their purchasing than prior to COVID-19 
  • Globally, safe, contactless checkout will continue to be a priority for 74% of consumers in the long-term 

The above stats add up to a relatively specific story: consumers are thinking differently about when, and how they spend their dollars. And, crucially, they want to buy from companies that care about humans, companies that care about the true measure of their impact on the world. 

Recent conversations and reading on the topic have led me to these three key items to consider in the next phase of your retail planning, especially if this is top of mind for you too (and it should be.) 

1. Know that when it comes to being authentically empathetic, the work starts from the inside. 

You can always have a brand video, a social media post, or a campaign that tells a story around empathy. But if it’s not reflected in the core culture of your organization, it will catch up to you. What if your customer service team feels a huge discrepancy in the way they are treated, and what you’re telling the outside world? That discrepancy will be felt – and translated – on the other end of the service line. 

COVID-19 allowed a lot of brands to flex their true colours when it comes to culture. On the one hand, you have giants like Shopify who give their employees extra cash to create a work from home space, and announce that working from anywhere is here to stay. In the United States, Google and Facebook offered parents flexible time blocks to educate their kids. 

The inside work also is reflected in the decisions made during the time of crisis, even when it feels like your business is up against a wall. Roots, for example, reported significant losses like many other retailers, but they pivoted their production to produce non-medical masks and keep customers safe, while donating 500K to frontline workers. And, Airbnb, despite the massive disruption to the global travel industry, acted fast to set up a $250M fund for hosts impacted by cancelled trips. 

The main takeaway: those who show they care through authentic actions towards employees and community will improve their trust with consumers – and brand reputation – in the long-term.

2. Critically evaluate your brand purpose. 

When the going gets tough, brands that outlast the others are those that have a clear purpose that’s tangibly understood and felt by their customers. One of our recent webinar panelists, marketing and leadership expert Yan Martin, sums it up perfectly right here. 

“Building a brand purpose that lays the foundation for a strong, lasting message is a process that requires companies to dig deep. If the global pandemic – or the parallel social justice movements – have made you realize that your brand’s purpose is shaky, start your overhaul from the inside with your own team and culture. In other words, practice the promises you want to live out with your customers within the walls of your own organization.” 

One of our clients, Decathlon, does this remarkably well. Decathlon is focused on making sport accessible to as many people as they can. They do it through helping and inspiring people through sports experiences – and this is backed up – and made possible – by the decisions they make around customer experience. 

When we added Google’s Business Messages to Heyday, Decathlon Singapore jumped at the opportunity. Why? It offered a new way to make sure last-mile shoppers were getting the level of service they need, and ensured an open channel for assisting any shopper in the buying process. Decathlon wants you to get the right equipment to stay active, and their decisions cascade from that clear purpose. 

3. Make things easy for your customers, wherever you can. 

One of the retail leaders that I follow religiously on LinkedIn – Carl Boutet – commented on this report from Ernst & Young. The report states that 50% of consumers expect their lives will change significantly in the long term. Almost half of us think that things will never go back to life as we know it. 

When you think about it: that is a stressful statistic. No one knows what the next normal looks like. 

You can’t step inside the psyche of your customers and let them know that it’s all going to be O.K. But, what you can do, is this: make things simple, reliable and seamless whenever, and wherever you can. When uncertainty can be removed, do it. When reliability can be inserted, do it. 

Here are a few ways that you can action on that in today’s retail climate with AI powered chat.  

1. Automate answers to your FAQs. 

Your customer service team shouldn’t need to work around the clock . But, on the other hand, your customers should be able to get answers to simple questions at any time. Automate questions to answers around return policies, store hours, location, and anything that doesn’t require a human in the loop – the higher volume, less complex questions.

2. Provide order tracking updates and shipping information. 

The rise of ecommerce shopping isn’t going anywhere. Which means there’s no time like the present to tighten up automation for your order tracking. Give customers immediate answers on where their order is, and make it simple and easy to find via chat and messaging. Send them proactive updates when the status changes on whatever channel they like to use: Messenger, WhatsApp, Email, you name it. 

3. Connect people to human product experts on your team when it matters most. 

Automation can get you far when it comes to efficiency and even personalization. But there are certain times, especially in the time of distanced shopping, where having a human in the loop is key. Give customers the option to speak to a rep on your team for complex questions when they’re chatting with you online. Or, prompt them to book an appointment in-store, where they can speak to one of your reps in-person about their purchase (with a mask on of course). 

The above examples are small, quick wins that you can take to make your customer experience better. An experience that shows you’re listening, you understand life is tough right now, and you’re trying your best to make things simple and seamless. Those small steps can have a huge impact on building lasting relationships well into the future — whatever that might look like. 

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