“Empathy in retail” has become a buzz-phrase that’s critical for both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers for 2021.

If you’re in retail, you’ve already figured out that 2020 changed the industry irrevocably. There’s no going back, and the only constant will be change itself.

There’s also no denying that retail shoppers have undergone some profound changes of their own.

Their growing commitment to sustainability and other public issues are affecting their buying behaviors and brand preferences. Their willingness to commit to brands often turns on the humanized public “feel” of a brand or a product.

We’re at a tipping point, one at which old notions of the hard sell and the pushy up-sell won’t serve anyone.

The Heart of the Matter: Your Brand’s Emotional Centre

Empathy is your ability to appreciate the experience of others and their feelings about it.

To empathize deeply is to feel their experience yourself and understand its meaning from a perspective similar to their own.

It involves intellect, sensitivity, compassion, maturity, and emotional intelligence. Most of all, it requires a willingness to put oneself in another’s place in order to help or serve them more effectively.

From now on, empathy will drive brand focus on providing solutions that appeal to emotion and stay in consumers’ memories as a result.

The emerging truth: retail shoppers want engagement that extends beyond the limits of individual transactions, and they’re going to give their loyalty primarily to brands that show themselves to be “sympatico” with their customers.

And it’s got to be real.

It can’t be fake, because consumers are getting very good at recognizing and rejecting insincerity, empty marketing ploys and hype, disinterest in shoppers’ feelings and expressed values, or PR stunts designed to reflect a brand’s supposed friendliness, reliability, and sustainability.

In other words, success is now about building direct, meaningful, optimistic, caring relationships with people, rather than merely transactions with payment card holders.

It starts with being kind.

The Retail Value of Kindness

Find ways to show kindness to consumers in all your dealings with them.

In brick-and-mortar, retailers can take advantage of strategies that help shoppers to relax so that they come to treat a store almost as an extension of home. Aim for warmth, openness and relatability.

This might involve training employees to diminish their distance and level of formality in relating to in-store shoppers, and to express personal interest in shoppers’ stories.

It should extend to providing environmental design, ergonomic and technical elements to make in-store experiences more meaningful and more comfortable, and less purely commercial.

It might mean adopting “last mile” tactics (like contactless purchase and delivery) to take otherwise normal burdens from customers for safety and convenience.

It could even be something as simple as Nike’s use of aromas to make their stores’ atmospheres more pleasing and relaxing to shoppers. Their study, now several years old, showed that the practice increased shoppers’ purchase intent by 80% or more.

That sort of kindness pays.

In e-commerce, however, showing kindness becomes a different sort of proposition.

The Tao of E-Commerce Kindness

An essential part of empathy in online retail is adaptive customer service and support. More consumers are interacting with retailers and brands from home; the number of “work-from-home” customer service personnel is also growing quickly.

It’s on the latter to provide support that’s friendly, personal, and satisfying to shoppers in terms of both “hard” questions with objective answers, and emotional boost or benefit.

Many consumers already feel trapped by current social and behavioral restrictions, and their frustration levels are higher than usual. They’re missing the customary forms and frequency of human interaction.

This makes so-called “normal” customer service requests and calls more immediate and potentially more frustrating for them. But it also means that there’s a unique opportunity for skilled customer service representatives to reduce tension, become personally connected, and cement merchant and brand loyalty through kindness, compassion, and understanding.

Retail’s investment in the redevelopment of online customer service resources will pay off very well in terms of customer response, ongoing engagement, and brand loyalty. This is an area in which many consumers think e-commerce customer service is falling short.

For the record, that investment should include visible retailer participation in the well-being and fitness of work-at-home customer support representatives themselves. They need at least as much retailer empathy as customers do, and maybe more.

If you’re interested in learning more about effective and emotionally supportive customer service as a cornerstone of empathetic retail in 2021, customer engagement platform provider Comm100 has a useful resource archive. You should take a look…

So What Do You Do?

Retailers who understand and perhaps even share the predicaments facing their shoppers in 2021 will already have figured out that marketing plans for this year shouldn’t depend on aggressive, in-your-face tactics.

Instead, compassion and better communication should be the focus. The real substance of brand stories this year should reflect compassion, meaningful and ongoing connection, and mutual support as keystone values.

Make no mistake: there are some real challenges here. In late 2019, Braze retained Forrester Consulting to take a closer look at the ways in which consumers formed opinions about “brand humanity.”

The resulting report is fascinating reading, but we can provide you with some quick take-aways.

  • Approximately 97% of the retailers Forrester surveyed acknowledged the critical importance of genuine human communication and personalization to the success of their business.
  • Retailers recognized that customer demand for authenticity and meaning in connections is real and rising, but they admit they’re having a tough time grasping their customers’ circumstances and needs. This, the study revealed, is the primary challenge facing them.
  • Genuine empathy, humanity, relatability, and improved communication yield significant rewards in terms of revenues and relationships with consumers.

There are some measures retailers can adopt to build a bridge of empathy and support between their e-commerce businesses and their shoppers.

  • If you’re wise, you have an ongoing content strategy that’s under continuous review. That strategy speaks to your brand storytelling, market personae, marketing strategy, specific tactics, data gathering and metrics, and more.

If empathy and emotional connection aren’t currently driving your content strategy, you need a reboot.

It isn’t enough that your empathy be present and genuine. It also has to be visible and focused.

  • Be open, visible, and direct in making shopper safety a priority. Given the events of 2020, personal and public health are on everybody’s minds all the time. So, think about what you can do to show you care for your customers’ well-being in every aspect of their contact with your business or their use of your products.

Remember that for this purpose, no measure is too small. Keep it real.

  • Sadly, 2020 also brought financial chaos and outright ruin for many businesses and individuals. Your shoppers may still need or want your products, and that’s great – but they may also need your help with responsible spending if you want to keep them as customers over the long term.

If you really want to show empathy for their financial hardships, think about the financial impact of your pricing, payment options, discount policies and tactics, returns policy, shipping methods, and delivery options. Make them as beneficial as possible for your shoppers. Explain openly and simply to consumers exactly what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

  • You can’t be shy about addressing customers’ emotional needs in ways that reflect your empathy and your own personal commitment.

The reason for this is that empathy frequently inspires empathy in response, and leads to the building of emotional bonds and loyalties that don’t break easily…so be open, willing, and genuine.

Some Parting Empathy

The key is to figure out what your consumers want or need emotionally.

Then you can use that information to determine how you can relate, how you offer support to consumers, and how you use emotional storytelling to grow your business.

That’s how to generate ongoing empathy-based relationships in 2021 and beyond.

We want to leave you with some wisdom from a Deloitte Digital blog post from 2019, entitled “Driving brand loyalty with emotion.”

The opening headlined text tells the story: “The ability to recognize and use emotional data at scale is one of the biggest, most important opportunities for companies.”

This isn’t merely still true; it’s actually prophetic, in light of all that’s happened since the post’s publication.

Among other things, the post’s authors, Tim Greulich and Jennifer Buchanan, noted how powerfully emotions impacted customers’ actions and their willingness to give their loyalty to brands, especially at specific times involving events outside the realm of marketing.

They also note the ability of empathy and emotion to create what amount to friendships between retailers and consumers, rather than just relationships with brands. They clearly saw in 2019 that “…emotional data is key to building reliable, meaningful, loyal relationships with customers, that stand the test of time.”

In 2021, retailers must find their way to those human connections consumers want, even if shoppers can’t articulate that need clearly themselves. The path to success is through those connections, and the tools to help retailers connect emotionally are increasingly sophisticated and readily available.

More of that another day…