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It goes without saying, the “new normal” is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t help when the press can’t seem to keep their stories straight from one day to the next—and I don’t mean that in a “fake news” sense—I simply mean that with the ever-changing daily landscape, no one can keep up. It’s this confusion, together with reports and predictions that on the best day equal a vague horoscope that leaves everyone feeling lost in a sea of non-information.

So, how do we all cope with this so-called “new normal,” and how will it ultimately impact the true nature of customer engagement? The answer is not as complicated, nor is it as stark as some have been led to believe.

Let’s for a moment put aside the idea of a timeline. After all, that is a moving target on the best of days and one that will continue to lengthen and shorten as the next few weeks play out. That aside, the phases are what first need to be understood. Whether this plays out over weeks, months, or even years, there is one certainty: the market will be re-established in steps.

Currently, as we all know too well, we are caught in the isolation phase. A place where we all sit at home, missing the old days, sitting in our pyjamas while we dream of a day when we can finally get a haircut and a decent meal. That day is coming, mark my words.

Okay, so the next phase is where non-essential retail gets to reopen. Yes, it will be chock full of monitoring and distancing, but the good news is that people will begin to reintegrate, even if it’s slightly Orwellian for a short time. There will be watchful eyes, along with scientific safeguards, and so on, but seeing real people will happen, and haircut appointments and restaurant meals will be plentiful.

Next, of course, is the “treatment” phase: borderline miracle drugs that will help people through tough bouts, but will prevail over the illness. And though not a cure, people will go out knowing that the worst is behind them.

And lastly, there is the “cure” phase. This is where a vaccine is introduced to eradicate the virus from the global population, the time where things truly are back to a new version of our “old normal.”

That said, what do retailers do now to get them through all these phases and back to prosperity? If we have learned anything through this, a whopping four weeks so far, is that old habits die easily. People have embraced new channels to interact whether through social media, video and chat, and so on. All of these old, yet newly embraced technologies, have very recently received the recognition they deserve. Long gone are the predictions for a slow, gradual growth in online shopping for grocers.

With that, retailers must ask themselves if they are willing to invest in these new channels, or if they are willing to let the world move on without them. Oddly, this narrative is not new. Embracing even not-so-new technology has been a stepping stone for many retailers for quite some time now. The way in which engagement technology has been marketed for over five years has been along the lines of “The Future is Now.” But was it?

The technology may have been there, but the true essence of digital transformation and all the “magic” that goes with it was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg for the majority of the population. Yes, there are always early adopters—both from the merchant and the customer respectively—but many stood in the shadows watching and waiting for the tipping point.

But when the global outbreak suddenly hit the gas pedal on technological adoption, the mantra of “The Future is Now” was actually right now. It’s at this point where the ability to leverage data and technology to create a better and more modern, dare I say meaningful, customer engagement experience is now the new normal.

If people want service and a great experience, and retailers want to remain competitive, then they must be able to deliver using whatever new purchase model is created. Whether that be in-store or, what is more likely, online and in-app to drive people to a store for pick-up, the new normal is just that: new. In fact, I will make one prediction: Many may switch permanently to online-only shopping. For some retailers, especially grocers, their ability to differentiate has changed forever.

People have never wanted to be forgotten. But with the constant noise of the outside world, a retailer not reaching out regularly wasn’t noticed, until now. We as human beings are by nature social creatures, so that same retailer who rarely reached out has become needed as people are now looking for connection, although that definition might also change.

My advice: Embrace this new normal where people are willing to connect through any channel, anytime. Of course, retail isn’t going anywhere. But it’s changing, and for the better. What used to be called engagement—a once-in-a-while visit to a store or restaurant—can now be an ongoing two-way conversation.

If this is the new normal, then normal just got better for everyone.

Andrew Armstrong

Andrew Armstrong

Chief Customer Officer

Andrew Armstrong is the Chief Customer Officer at omNovos – working globally with customers to design world-class customer engagement programs. He’s a prolific writer and speaker on topics including customer loyalty, personalization, and retail marketing technologies. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter - his open approach to all topics usually leads to a fun discussion and a few laughs.