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Virtual Is the New Reality

What to expect from the post-COVID customer experience

A crowd of people walking

As more people get themselves vaccinated, we’re seeing hospitalizations and deaths decline, while social gatherings are picking up, and it seems comforting to return soon to the life we enjoyed before the pandemic. But don’t be fooled. We’ll never return to that pre-pandemic existence, because the adjustments we’ve had to engineer over the last 15 months have created permanent changes in our expectations, and many will have considerable staying power.
Consider the work-from-home phenomenon, for instance. Analysts now predict that even though offices will certainly open up again and people will return to work in them, many of us would choose to continue working remotely if given the chance, at least part of the time. And companies are conflicted, because face-to-face conversations and interactions lead to better team productivity and a closer-knit corporate culture, but the freedom offered to employees in terms of where they choose to sit with their laptops and Wi-Fi connections is also highly desirable.
A number of pandemic-inspired changes will likely have even more staying power than WFH, particularly those that businesses have made to become digitally closer to their customers. The pandemic dramatically accelerated every business’s rush toward digital solutions, as they searched for better, more efficient connections with customers – customers they could no longer serve via in-person interactions. Forbes reported that some 95% of business executives said they were searching for new ways to engage with their customers, while 97% said the pandemic had accelerated their digital transformation efforts.
And transform they did. E-commerce has been on a steady growth trajectory for the last three decades, with the annual increase in the volume of e-commerce hovering between 10% and 20% virtually every quarter since the 2008-9 financial crisis. But in the second quarter of 2020, e-commerce jumped quite abruptly, with the result that 2020 saw an increase in e-commerce of 44%, the highest annual jump in more than 20 years, nearly triple the 2019 figure of 15%! Retail e-commerce now accounts for some 21% of all retail sales in the U.S., with Amazon alone doing nearly a third of it!
The same factors that led to the jump in overall e-commerce, however, also super-charged the booming market of direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands. Allbirds shoes, Dollar Shave Club, and similar D2C companies eschew traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores, and are beginning to significantly undercut larger, store-bought brands. Their incursion began years ago, but the pandemic has sped their progress. And many D2C brands appeal more directly to Millennial and Gen Z consumers, often using a commitment to green practices or other socially beneficial causes.
And speaking of Millennial and Gen Z customers, it’s easy to view this more as a generational change than a technological one – a generational change that has suddenly been accelerated by the pandemic. As the theoretical physicist Max Planck once quipped, “Science advances one funeral at a time.” I think it’s fair to say that many things in our economy and culture progress one generation at a time, as well. Older generations are inherently more resistant to change, while for younger generations “new” things often don’t represent change at all. One young woman, for example, when discussing some companies’ resistance to the continuation of pandemic-inspired WFH policies, commented that “Some bosses…feel like we’re not working if they can’t see us. It’s a boomer power-play.”
Indeed. If anything, the COVID pandemic has accelerated the transfer of power from one generation to the next, something that can only be good news for the customer experience, which is destined to become even more electronic, flawless, and frictionless.