While China was the world’s first test case for the COVID-19 pandemic, it also was the world’s first case for how businesses would rebound from disruption of epic proportions. Global retailers still can learn a lot from how Chinese retailers and shoppers adapted to a crisis that continues to unfold.
E-commerce was the obviously the big beneficiary of the pandemic, with 65 percent of retailers in China believing that the “new normal” ushered in by COVID-19 will be driven by behavioral changes in consumers, most notably a switch in preference from offline to online, according to Kantar data cited in a recent Wunderman Thompson Commerce report. But in an era when engagement across all channels is critical, especially as stores reopen, retailers can’t just focus on empowering their online presence alone.
In fact, China’s retailers did not respond to the lockdown by simply strengthening their existing digital assets. More than two-thirds (69 percent) said they had actively taken steps to develop new routes to their customers and embrace new channels and new technologies.
The Wunderman report highlighted footwear retailer Omoda as an example of how merchants could maximize the value of each channel throughout the pandemic, noting that the company not only leveraged store associates to help fulfill online orders from stores, but deployed digital shopping assistants to help customers shop virtually via chat or video. Secoo, which combines B2B digital services for luxury brands with a customer-facing e-commerce platform, enabled offline retailers to list products on its site and use its delivery network to help them keep selling while their stores are shut down.
On the fulfillment side, Chinese retailers have embraced new B2B partnerships as well as new technologies. One prominent trend has been the role that third-party “online-to-offline” (O2O) services have played, with companies like Ele.me and Meituan providing delivery services for a wide range of consumer goods.
Some of the more innovative examples global retailers can look to include e-commerce company Suning.com, which used robots to complete deliveries in the city of Nanjing where many neighborhoods had restricted access to traffic, as well as JD.com and Meituan, which have been trialing drones and autonomous robotic vehicles to offer contactless delivery.
WeChat illustrates social media’s potential
As many as 58 percent of Chinese businesses also say they have adjusted their marketing and communication strategies to help reach their customers during the pandemic, with social media platforms including WeChat playing a critical part in that success as it allowed businesses to create new retail channels with its WeChat Shop mini stores.
Social remains pivotal for shopper-to-shopper engagement and overall brand awareness—84 percent of consumers in China now recommend products to friends on social channels, compared to an average of 42 percent in other countries, according to Wunderman.
Wunderman highlighted the importance of WeChat in non-essential sectors like fashion and cosmetics in retaining contact with customers even as stores remained closed. For example, underwear and lingerie retailer Cosmo Lady, cosmetics company Lin Qingxuan and JD.com all redeployed staff from closed stores to create and run their own WeChat mini stores to engage with consumers and promote goods through their own networks.
Shanghai’s IAPM Mall, meanwhile, encouraged more than 70 international fashion brands to create WeChat accounts linked to the mall’s own channel.
While global retailers don’t have a WeChat for shoppers in their own country, the moral of the story in these instances is that retailers must take steps necessary to keep consumers engaged throughout their shopper journey with high-quality digital experiences.