Retailers take a high-touch approach to COVID-19

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Retailers are on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, our largest public health crisis in more than a century. They are helping to give apprehensive consumers the essentials they may need to maintain some sense of normalcy during a period of deep and ongoing uncertainty.

Many stores have found ways to offer special care to some of the most vulnerable consumers by scheduling blocks of shopping time that are exclusive to them. This a public service to the communities in which these stores operate, and it further cements customer loyalty, which is essential to brand trust.

PwC research finds that brand trust helps influence the vast majority of customer purchases: some 70%. During unsettling times, knowing which companies to trust is even more important to consumers. In the midst of today’s public health crisis, retailers are uniquely positioned to help nurture brand trust by serving as a lifeline for older consumers, while also realizing their mission to serve stakeholders. 

Five steps to bring vulnerable shoppers into the digital fold

1. Understand the behavior of older consumers

Adults 65 and older represent a growing population segment, but they are not a monolith. Wide disparities exist across age, ethnicity, income, health, nutrition and lifestyle. 

Many lead active lives, filled with physical, social and intellectual pursuits, while some struggle with memory loss, depression and limited transportation options because they can’t drive anymore. 

Overall, this segment of the population is more tech-savvy than it was two decades ago: In 2000, only 14% of older adults were online. Today, 73% are. And some 50% own smartphones. To better serve this diverse population, leading retailers begin by understanding their behavior.

2. Leverage loyalty data to anticipate consumer needs 

Loyalty programs represent a wealth of information about product choices and frequency of purchases, allowing retailers to anticipate shoppers’ needs. Even if some shoppers don’t use loyalty cards, their shopping habits typically mirror others in their cohort.

Retailers can analyze cohort data across dimensions (age, geography, income, etc.), and then use lookalike algorithms to predict buying patterns. They can also prioritize order profiles (characteristics of orders) for the neighborhoods most affected by the spread of the virus by tapping epidemiology data.

3. Simplify the ordering process

Use loyalty and cohort data to create prefilled shopping lists based on what older shoppers typically buy. In an environment in which many state and local authorities have issued stay-at-home orders, offer hybrid solutions such as the following:  

  • Set up a call center for older shoppers to call in their orders, if they prefer. These shoppers typically enjoy the social interaction that a trip to the store affords, so offer that social component by phone instead. Call center operations are relatively simple to set up, and can be staffed by employees who are working at home.
  • Create a simple digital interface these shoppers can access easily. Provide telephone support to ease the transition to online shopping, and offer similar substitutes for unavailable items. Once older shoppers are set up with a digital account, send a weekly reminder with a personalized “starter” shopping list of items they typically buy, further simplifying the ordering process. 

4. Offer convenient fulfillment options

Convenience and safety are particularly important to older shoppers, whose health is paramount during this crisis. Offer multiple fulfillment options, including: 

  • Curbside pickup
  • In-store pickup
  • Home delivery on demand
  • Pre-scheduled weekly home delivery 
  • Use algorithmic order allocation for home delivery via a distribution center — or from a store — to minimize split orders and reduce shipping and handling costs. 

5. Launch awareness campaigns

Inform older shoppers — as well as their families and caregivers — about the special considerations available to them. Target the outreach via a variety of channels, including regular mail, email, telephone, social media and in-person outreach when shoppers come into the store. 

Encourage participation in these programs by offering loyalty points and rewards. Sustained outreach and awareness campaigns can educate older shoppers who previously were unwilling to shop online about the digitally enabled convenience that younger shoppers value.

Looking ahead to recovery

Business leaders overwhelmingly agree that an organization’s purpose is central to business success. And purpose is about helping bring human attributes like empathy into the customer experience. In the face of a public health crisis that may render older consumers particularly vulnerable, retailers have an opportunity to lead with purpose. The decisions consumer-facing companies make today will likely have a lasting impact on their relationships with customers well past this current crisis and into the recovery.

Contact us

Tyson Cornell

Consumer Markets Industry Leader, PwC US

Eric Shin

Consumer Markets Tax Leader, PwC US

Tom Puthiyamadam

­Global Digital and Consumer Markets Advisory Leader, PwC US

Melissa Palmer

Consumer Markets Assurance Leader, PwC US