When the coronavirus pandemic first struck the UK, starting in the days and weeks before lockdown was fully in place, many businesses started to communicate with their customers by email, social media channels, TV, Radio and on their websites, to try to explain what steps they were taking to deal with the risks of infection. This escalated once the lockdown was announced, with everyone from car breakdown and insurance providers, to supermarkets and coffee manufacturers, all providing ‘COVID updates’ regularly. Whilst the value of some of these communications is perhaps debatable in some situations, it’s good to see that keeping customers informed has been a priority for many businesses thus far. Research shows that the response of brands to this crisis is having a real and tangible impact on consumer behaviour, with 65% of survey respondents stating that the ways in which brands responded and communicated at this time had a huge impact on the likelihood of them buying from the brand in the future.
At the time of writing, COVID-19 lockdown restrictions are starting to ease in the UK (at various stages in the individual countries) and many non-essential retailers in England have been able to open their stores this week for the first time since March 2020. This has not been straightforward, with several areas needing to be considered, including:
Now that things are changing again, it’s more important than ever that retailers consider their communications and the messaging they are sending out to customers to provide the reassurance that is needed in order for people to consider in-store shopping a safe and enjoyable proposition again.
In this article, we look at examples of which retailers have been doing great things during the pandemic with their customer communications, and what other retailers about to reopen can learn from the successes (or failures) of other brands to give their own business the best possible chances in the post-lockdown era.
Having had very little time to prepare and make changes ahead of the lockdown, the UK’s major supermarkets generally seem to have done a really good job with keeping customers informed about things like changes to opening hours, the introduction of priority slots for key workers or elderly/vulnerable people to do their shopping and the changes people will notice in stores.
Tesco, who of course own the biggest market share in the UK, have had this tweet pinned to their main Twitter account since 24th April 2020.
There’s been a lot of change, so here’s a quick recap of our latest helps for our customers, colleagues and community. Please visit https://t.co/FG9jzcoz3Y for more information. #EveryLittleHelps pic.twitter.com/NbgKcaTxth— Tesco (@Tesco) April 24, 2020
Along with a link in their bio to a page on their website where people can find out more if they wish:
They have also been sending out regular email communications (from their CEO) to customers whenever any major changes occurred. The message is always along the lines of getting through these difficult times is a team effort – with Tesco, their staff and customers all being in this together.
A similar theme runs through the messaging from other supermarkets too, such as Aldi:
Helping those who need it the most during the current climate is extremely important to us. Without the community and all our amazing customers, we wouldn't be the Aldi we are today.💛 pic.twitter.com/z9mDqroh4Q— Aldi Stores UK (@AldiUK) June 3, 2020
Other retailers, who were lawfully able to stay open during the lockdown, but chose to close stores temporarily (and sold online in the meantime) so that they could put measures in place to help protect staff and customers include home improvement brand Wickes. Alongside keeping customers in the loop on social media and their website, Wickes also used their regular radio sponsorship (Absolute Radio) to regularly update tradespeople on that side of their business too, until stores recently reopened.
Our stores are now open. We've put strict social distancing and safety measures in place to protect our colleagues and customers.— WICKES (@Wickes) May 19, 2020
Click here to find out more: https://t.co/Ag4dqcK0al pic.twitter.com/jgR92jxucW
Then you have the brands who are actively singling out key workers, such as NHS staff, to offer little freebies and discounts. Pret and Greggs have offered free food and discounts to NHS workers, and Domino’s Pizza have apparently given away free pizza to the value of £4 million to key workers since March.
For the last 4 weeks we’ve been delivering free pizza to key workers across the country. The £4m Pizza Thank You was the least we could do, to show just how thankful we are. pic.twitter.com/tTY4VgD0eR— Domino's Pizza UK (@Dominos_UK) May 15, 2020
Several designer brands, such as the Armani Group, announced that its manufacturing plants would stop making luxury designer goods and start making single use medical overalls for use by front line workers, as did Prada’s Montone factory. Many high profile brands, like Gucci, also donated money to efforts fighting COVID-19 in various countries.
Brewdog, the brand famous for their IPAs, announced that they were switching some of their production from beer to the much in-demand hand sanitiser, which they donated free to NHS staff and vulnerable people.
The examples could go on and on. Brands like these stand out because they didn’t just email their customers about how they were changing some processes at this time, they actively did something to practically help. Some of these companies were unable to carry on as they did before lockdown, so making a positive change like this was perhaps easier than for brands who still had their usual workload and responsibilities to manage, but which brands will be remembered once this pandemic is just a memory?
Back when lockdown was first announced in the UK, several retail brands came under fire for allegedly putting workers at risk in pursuit of profit. Not only did Sports Direct owner, Mike Ashley, have to apologise back in March for a number of controversial decisions made around the shutdown and his self-described “poor” communications to staff and the public, his businesses have more recently been accused of forcing some furloughed staff at House of Fraser and Sports Direct to work whilst outlets are closed.
The owner of pub chain Wetherspoons has been heavily criticised for his communications towards and treatment of his staff during the crisis. The hashtag #boycottwetherspoons trended on Twitter for some time, showing that people are taking notice of brands that conduct themselves badly at this time.
At a time when consumers are closely watching what brands are doing from an ethical point of view – time will tell whether these actions and accusations have a knock-on impact on footfall and profit in the long-term.
In this day and age, it’s usually a guarantee that someone will find fault with a company’s communications in some way. However, taking inspiration from some of the brands who have got things right so far in these strangest of times, there are a few key principles that can help make sure your retail brand can make the next few weeks and months as smooth going as possible.
With all of the uncertainty in so many areas of life at the moment, people really want as much clarity as possible and to know what to expect if they shop with you once lockdown measures lift somewhat.
Don’t feel that you have to package up your new ways of doing things in pretty words to make the changes more palatable; no one really wants to read that at the moment. Just be direct and concise in your communications about how things will work when shoppers visit your store. Keep it simple and straightforward; some bullet points in an email to customers and a poster-style visual to share on social media can be all that is needed. If you have the resources, making a short video to explain and illustrate how the changes will work can be of value too.
B&Q have used their video about the reopening of their kitchen, bedroom and bathroom design services as a good way to also introduce staff wearing PPE and what this will look like, in addition to outlining how the service will work as a whole for the time being.
Yes, you want your communications across any and all channels at this time to be clear and simple, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be clinical, impersonal and unrelatable either. This is a time when lots of people are worried about a number of different things in a way that they probably haven’t before. Consider how your communications at this time can reassure people without patronising them, can show some personality without being flippant and can let people know that you understand things are really unusual right now, but you’ve got their back when they shop with you.
Lidl are a great example of this. As a company who takes a fairly light-hearted approach to marketing and advertising comms in general, they understand the balance between staying true to their brand personality, but also understanding their customers have genuine concerns at the moment. They keep the ‘Big On’ phrase that they are known for and strongly associated with, but also express that they are prioritising customer and staff safety.
We're Big On keeping our customers and our colleagues safe and that's why we've made a few changes to our stores 🛒🙏 pic.twitter.com/V1xON0t7U8— @LidlGB (@LidlGB) April 18, 2020
You know your customers better than anyone, so you’re best placed to understand the barriers that could stop them from shopping with you and make sure that your communications at this time are tailored to these concerns.
It could be something as simple as updating or confirming your opening hours on your website and your store’s Google My Business listing.
It could be that you’re a clothing store and your fitting rooms are going to be closed at this time. Is your returns policy clear in relation to this? Are you extending the returns period or the reasons that you will accept returns if customers cannot currently try clothing on in-store? What will you do with returns so that they can be resold again safely – or can they not be? Make sure that you explain the process clearly so that shoppers don’t need to worry about the possibility that they could be stuck with clothing that doesn’t fit them – this is something that could make the difference between shoppers choosing your store over one of your competitors.
An example of a brand who have thought about their customers and their concerns that go beyond the shopping experience itself at this time are Pets at Home. Their stores have been open throughout lockdown and their website clearly explains what changes their stores have made. Alongside this, they also provide lots of other useful content for pet owners who are worried about anything from keeping dogs entertained when they can’t go on as many walks as they are used to, to FAQs that include information on whether your pet can catch or spread coronavirus.
Making sure that your brand messaging is appropriate but strong enough to cut through the noise at the moment is a challenge, but it certainly isn’t impossible. We hope that some of the examples we have shown you have given your business some ideas about how best to communicate with customers at this time.
If you want any help with your marketing, PR or social media strategy, don’t hesitate to get in touch.