It’s hard to remember a time when a news item or article wasn't centred around the pandemic – but as a global crisis that has touched almost every point of everyone’s lives, it's hard to avoid. Faced once again with stay-at-home measures, retail stores deemed non-essential are being forced to shut during a key sales period, and customers are faced with shopping online until at least early December.

Before the pandemic, the retail industry had slowly been heading further into the online space, but this forced shift to operating largely online is still a drastic change for retailers, reportedly speeding up retailers' digital transformation by an average of six years. Long term, this temporary removal of physical stores, which have arguably been taken for granted in recent years, could actually mean bricks and mortar stores become behemoth, but as part of an established omnichannel strategy.  For now, however, retailers are faced with the challenge of capturing that irreplaceable shopping experience - currently ranked as the second most important consideration when shopping - solely via their online channels, all in the lead up to Christmas. So what can retailers do to ensure customers receive an experience that can rival that of in-store?

Be empathetic The pandemic has led to stress, fear and sadness for consumers, meaning that human, empathetic conversations are more important than ever in the customer service experience. Ensuring staff are ready to respond empathetically and build a meaningful experience is crucial. While at one point, an online transaction or customer service query's success was measured by speed and efficiency, now, the focus is on human conversations.

Be proactive Further to offering excellent service, there’s now an expectation that retailers know the previous interactions of the customers – furthering the feeling that they’re dealing with a friend, not a stranger. Knowing the ins and outs of prior purchases, from delays, to product issues, showing proactivity and reaching out is deemed admirable.

Offer valuable customer service Today, immediate and simultaneously personal and flawless service is expected – perhaps an easier task when dealing with a consumer in the flesh as opposed to online. Luckily, technology can be a retailer's best friend when it comes to offering excellent online service. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation are enabling businesses to offer second-to-none service for straight forward issues, in turn, freeing up the customer service team to support on those more complex queries which need the human touch. This is vitally important at a time when consumers may be feeling frustrated at the lack of face-to-face time. In these instances, focusing on building and nurturing these relationships, rather than seeing them as a single transaction to be discarded as soon as they're resolved, is where retailers will see the long-term value.

Fill the physical gap with a solid omnichannel offer For today’s customer, being available on multiple channels is no longer enough - having an omnichannel strategy is now expected and provides customers the autonomy to move seamlessly between channels. A good omnichannel presence guarantees consistency, whereby each conversation - no matter what channel - starts where the previous left off with no need for repetition of information. 

So while retailers may not be able to recreate that pre-Christmas shopping buzz online, there are still ways to heighten consumer experience and leave them feeling cheerful after their online shopping experience.