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Has coronavirus signalled the end of shopper marketing?


The global coronavirus pandemic has forced people inside and made things very, very different for retailers both physical and digital.

Simon Hathaway, MD of retail innovation agency Outform says the crisis could spell the end of shopper marketing – but it could also prove an enormous opportunity, given that everything has changed for good.


I worked at a shopper marketing agency once.

I even claimed the discipline was dead, as the insight that had transformed in-store communication ran out and struggled to evolve; with so many of its ideas, practices and practitioners not changing in a decade.

Just as the legacy ad agencies struggled to get past the 30-second TV spot, shopper marketing agencies were stuck in the aisles battling clean store policies to activate brands in retail. And that was a bit old-hat when almost everybody is only ever a click away from a purchase.

Despite the omnichannel-fication of shopper behaviour, so many shopper marketers (and retailers) would scoff at eCommerce – in fact, it was the digital agencies that really led the way. But a global pandemic has forced everyone inside. And almost everything is online – for now.

The impact of coronavirus

Non-essential purchases have been nixed and a retail environment that was once a brand playground is now completely different. Sampling campaigns are out of the question – nobody wants to dive into a VR headset, and they’re definitely not up for any face-painting. The old-school shopper marketing approach is all but paused.

That’s because shopper attitudes have changed. Pre-lockdown budgets comprised three components: time, money and frustration. Now the dial has shifted – those three points are still priorities, but retailers and marketers have to twist to match customers’ need states. 

For time, it’s about maximising an open store’s efficiency in a safe way that complies with regulations. Do you limit the amount of people allowed in-store, or do you implement a one-way system? Which works best depends on the actual physical set-up, and the right option can save huge amounts of time. In these two metre-apart times, it saves an awful lot of stress, too. 

Money still comes into the equation, but people are just focussing on what’s important – they might have been laid off, furloughed, taken a pay cut and so on. Our supermarkets are no longer full of buy-one-get-one-free deals or discounts, as people buy what they need – at RRP. At the same time, the discounts and offers are all sitting in our inboxes, as non-essential e-tailers do their best to coax us to ‘buy now’. Truth is, 20% off a new GPS isn’t on the agenda. 

The frustration now takes on an entirely new meaning. Before, you’d get frustrated at pretty much any item being out of stock. Then, pre-lockdown, there was the massive pasta and toilet roll stockpiling saga. Now we’ve all become a little more polite, and our retailers have reset their supply chains to deliver for a nation in lockdown. That’s led to a more limited assortment, and the shortage of some ‘luxury’ items that give us a sense of normality.

The fact that people just can’t get certain items impacts them much more than it usually would; as does the lack of readiness some stores seemed to have in terms of setting up efficient social distancing measures; as does any breach of cleanliness; as does an endless list of precautions you wouldn’t have thought twice about six months ago.

What can sellers do?

Which brings us to what retailers can actually do. To say ‘The future will look like X’ would be a little naïve, given we were all certain the coronavirus was ‘just like the flu’ a few months back. But what I can do is speculate on how we can adapt the retail environment for today’s customers, and those tentatively returning post-lockdown. 

My hunch is this: The new frontier will focus on cleanliness. The idea of a ‘clean’ store that shopper marketers now face will be just that – clean both hygienically, and in terms of stocking the essentials. We’re working on tech that reads customers’ temperatures prior to entering retail environments. That might have sounded a little odd a few years back, but today it makes the most sense in the world. 

We’re going to see less touch. For some, the idea of entering a packed shopping centre and having to drag a finger across a giant screen will fill them with dread. Touchscreens will evolve with antibacterial solution, and other triggers like gesture and voice will find their way into the mix and woo shoppers with their hygienic – albeit less developed – ways. 

Naturally, omnichannel players are the clear front runners in this weird scenario, and the smart players are chasing the opportunity to make retail an API in every piece of marketing communication and media.

Now more than ever, people are scrolling Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and so on; the amount of cookery classes, top tips and nutrition deep-dives is off the scale. Retailers that use these platforms to offer direct connections to purchase are going to create a much stronger connection with customers now, and will be in a more advantageous position in the future – they’ll be ‘the shop/item/thing I could get easily during lockdown’.

Exceptional measures

Of course, crystal-ball gazing holds no guarantees – much as I hate using the phrase, this is unprecedented. The return of the weekly shop is going through a boom not seen since the heady days of the hypermarket. Whilst we all want to shop local, the daily trip to the convenience store just doesn’t seem as convenient to people now – getting it all done in one lump is the natural choice.

We’re also seeing an uptick in direct-to-consumer wholesale activity, and the cafe I once popped into for my morning brew is now selling me the coffee beans and having them delivered direct to my door. That’s something many thought had been consigned to the past.

Shopper marketing was becoming less and less relevant, because just like the legacy retailers, it was not changing. We are now in a time of great change and nobody has a concrete answer – if they say they do, they’re lying.

The future for retail and shopper marketing could be very exciting – it’s going to have to search out new insight into new buying behaviour and expectations of retail post-pandemic, but transformational ideas will happen, and they’ll be driven by creativity and technology. Those who dare to innovate will make retail great again.  

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