Gearing Up for the Post-Pandemic World: A Q&A with Salesforce’s Caila Schwartz

The last 12 months shook up the retail industry like never before, but now the dust is starting to settle. With COVID-19 vaccines being distributed and states opening back up, we need to anticipate the near future and gear up for the post-pandemic retail landscape. 

To that end, we’re thrilled to welcome Caila Schwartz to the Vend Retail Blog. Caila is a Senior Manager for Strategy and Insights RCG at Salesforce. She analyzes real shopping data collected on Salesforce’s Commerce Cloud platform to identify trends in consumer behavior across the retail and consumer goods industry. 

We caught up with Caila and asked her to share some thoughts on what’s in store for the retail industry in the coming months. 

Check out what she has to say.

Consumers adopted new behaviors when the pandemic hit. What are some of the most notable ones you’ve seen?

There are two behaviors that stand out to me. The first is that consumers are shifting their spending into new categories. Health & beauty, home goods, and sporting goods all saw the highest growth rates in purchases last year. Meanwhile, apparel and footwear had growth below the industry average. 

The Covid consumer was more interested in goods that would make their home lives more comfortable, their weekends at home more entertaining, and their Zoom faces ready for prime time. We also witnessed a significant growth in online grocery purchases. Whether out of safety or just convenience, online grocery had a big moment in 2020. 

Overall, I think this is something that will change post-Covid (except for groceries). Once life is more normal, consumers are likely to migrate back to apparel, and I suspect the swing back will be large.

The second behavior, and the one that I believe is more likely to stick around, is a change in how consumers prioritize their time. In pre-covid times, we see that consumers typically shopped online in the morning and the evenings. This usually coincided with commuting hours. But in the absence of commutes, we see less online shopping activity occurring in the evenings. 

The majority of shopping happens between the hours of 8 am and 12 pm, local time. Evenings are sacred now. Especially as remote work seems likely to stick around for most post-Covid, I don’t think this is a trend that’s changing any time soon.

What will retail look like in a post-pandemic era? 

2020 was a year of massive digital transformation across the retail industry. The number of online shoppers across the globe increased by 43% year over year in 2020 as some consumers turned to online shopping for the very first time.

In response, organizations prioritized digital projects that were 3 years out on the roadmap and stood them up in a matter of weeks or months. I anticipate this digital-first trend continuing to develop, even in our post-pandemic world. This means smaller store footprints and less inventory. We will see store layouts prioritized for order picking and fulfillment as buy online pick up in store and new last mile models become even more mainstream. 

I also think the store will have more experiential features, like this new Beautycounter store that has a live streaming studio.

The reality is that Covid didn’t change anything, it accelerated trends in digital adoption that we were seeing happening in small increments. This meant that retailers had to pivot quickly and for the future it means continuing to close the gap between the digital and physical experience.

It also means that consumers are not going to go backwards. Digital-first is here to stay. And while there will be some recalibration once life looks more normal, the digital behaviors that consumers adopted over the last year will not be easily lost.

What can retailers do today to effectively gear up for a post-pandemic world?

If your brand is diversified across both online and brick and mortar stores, your top strategy play should be all about omnichannel. It doesn’t matter if you operate one store or 5,000 stores, consumers expect a unified experience across all touchpoints. The obvious next step is implementing a buy online pick up in store strategy. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Managing consistent inventory and pricing across your stores and online platform is critical. Serving up real time inventory visibility and arming your sales associates with customer data across the shopping journey are also table stakes.

The new reality is that consumers expect a consistent experience across all points of their journey. They don’t see different departments or channels, just one brand. Make sure that your brand story and experience is consistent across all of them.

For everyone, including ecommerce pureplay brands, it’s all about shopping at the edge. What does this mean? According to our research, modern shoppers have 7.6 different engagements with your brand before making a purchase. Those engagements occur across a myriad of devices and platforms. 

One of those touchpoints that was thrown into the spotlight in 2020 is social media. Orders coming from a social referred channel grew by 50% in Q4 2020. According to our research, consumers self-reported that they’re spending more time on social media. Forty five percent reported that they increased their daily time spent on these platforms since the onset of the pandemic. 

It’s all about understanding your customer, finding where they like to spend their time, and embedding your brand into those platforms. And it’s not just the commerce experience. Marketing, commerce, customer service, and loyalty should be embedded across the platforms and devices your customers use the most. 

Can you give examples of retailers that are doing it right? 

I think everyone should be looking at Target for a best-in-class BOPIS example. Not everyone has the scale to implement BOPIS, curbside, and delivery in the same way that Target can, but there are several things that Target does that anyone can and should be emulating. 

The first, and in my opinion, the most important part of their BOPIS offering is that they put the focus on their customer. They know who their customers are and what they value. This means that they’re putting efficiency first when it comes to picking up an order. Using tools like geofencing through their mobile app, they can anticipate when a customer is nearby and have that order ready to go. They also give their store associates the ability to compensate customers who may be waiting too long at curbside. The process is built to be seamless and customer-first.

Another brand that is poised for great growth is Elf Cosmetics. Most of us know Elf products from their prominent displays in the beauty section of our local pharmacies and department stores. But they are also selling direct-to-consumer online. Their inclusive and trend-forward brand has an incredible community of beauty influencers, lovers, and experts. They are pushing the boundaries of shopping at the edge while also creating and engaging a great community.

Learn more about the retail trends that matter 

Retail is constantly changing, and the trends above are just the beginning. Make it a point to stay on top of industry insights by paying close attention to what’s happening in your vertical, and by following retail experts like Caila.

To learn more about Caila and her work, follow her on Instagram (@data_candy) or connect with her on LinkedIn

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.