Pandemic changing retailers’ approach to communication

Mihai-Alexandru Cristea 16/12/2020 | 15:22

Retailers have had to update their strategies considering the unprecedented situation generated by the coronavirus pandemic, and since so many customers have now moved online, digital messaging is a crucial component of those strategies. But brands need to be conscious of what, where, and how content is distributed and positioned and make sure they are flexible enough to properly serve their customers, wherever they may be. 

By Romanita Oprea


In this context, Epsilon has defined four messaging strategies for retailers to effectively and consciously communicate during the COVID-19 disruption: acknowledge the current environment rather than gloss over or pretend; create content to engage; create communications that add to the conversation; and make your message count.

According to MediaPost, in March, COVID-themed emails were opened more often than business-as-usual emails (28 versus 25 percent), indicating that timely and highly relevant messages are more appealing. At the same time, deletion rates significantly jumped from 7 percent in March 2019 to 11 percent in March this year, reinforcing the higher immediacy and shorter shelf life for communications in the current environment. Moreover, according to the same source, deliverability has improved from 87.1 percent in 2019 to 87.9 percent in 2020, while 89 percent of COVID-19 emails are hitting inboxes.

“The COVID-19 retail communications you’re sharing right now should not just be tied to products and sales, but also engagement and relevancy with audience. On a statistical level, Mobile Marketer has seen mobile gaming jump 24 percent in just two weeks as people are growing more reliant on anything indoors for entertainment. Shoppers are ready for some levity; we’ve already seen an uptick in more lighthearted, optimistic, and entertaining content and communications. Retailers should mix in unique content types, such as infographics, articles, videos, recipes, how-tos, and more. Business-as-usual promotional offers that speak to necessary savings are important, but may come across as off-tone during this time,” Kelly Nickerson wrote on Epsilon’s blog.

At the same time, McKinsey & Company points out that organisations that can quickly reimagine their omnichannel approach to create a distinctive customer experience will recover faster from the pandemic. Analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 showed that customer experience leaders saw a shallower downturn, rebounded more rapidly, and achieved three times the total shareholder returns in the long run compared to the market average. The pandemic has changed consumer behaviours, some permanently, a study by the company finds, and in order to keep their position on the market and in the soul of consumers and even to grow, retailers need to make sure they take some important measures such as doubling their digital efforts, pushing more innovation into omnichannel, transforming store operations, reimagining physical networks, and embracing an agile operating model. “E-commerce sales in apparel, department stores, and beauty products have increased by nearly ten percentage points, on average, since the onset of the pandemic. In grocery, e-commerce penetration, which has risen from 2 to 3 percent before the crisis to 8 to 10 percent during its peak, is expected to settle at twice the previous ‘normal’ level, 5 to 7 percent, by year’s end,” McKinsey & Company writes.

Another McKinsey survey of US consumers found that 64 percent of respondents have felt depressed, anxious or both over the past several weeks, and 39 percent said that they would be unable to pay their bills after one month of unemployment. Leading organisations are reorienting their customer experience efforts to meet their customers’ primary needs, such as safety, security, and everyday convenience. These actions will inevitably speak louder than words in a world where companies are increasingly advertising a message of “we are here for you.” By consciously providing empathy and care during this crisis, companies can build a foundation of goodwill and long-lasting emotional connections with the communities they serve.

“Just as this pandemic has changed all our lives and made us change all our habits, including consuming, we have also changed as a company in terms of communication, message, and mix. As an immediate reaction to these changes, we adapted our marketing and communication strategy. We focused more on the channels where all of us are present at the moment: digital and TV; we came up with new messages (for example, during the lockdown period, when news sources were assaulted by the number of new infections, information about the new virus and so on, we started to promote the idea of optimism, to imagine what we would do when the situation would allow it: going out in nature, taking outdoor walks, cycling),” said Elena Claudia Gheorghita, marketing manager at HERVIS Sports and Fashion.

According to its representatives, HERVIS’s communication is all about a healthy lifestyle. Just as nutritionists recommend a “permanent diet” to follow throughout life, meaning we should pay attention to the food we consume every day, they make a similar recommendation to their customers, focused on exercise. One month of going to the gym or two months of running are not enough… nor are a few days of swimming. “Our actions represent us, and this is the main message we communicate to each of our customers. We offer them technical support, the products they need for a healthy lifestyle – a constantly active one. And we come up with lots of contests, challenges, and rewards, to make it easier for them to maintain this lifestyle. Last but not least, I’ll mention the specific actions we engage in. Our clients have always recognised that our actions are the most attractive and powerful. It is like a brand of its own, but this own brand is constantly being reinvented. Many of our competitors are inspired by our campaigns, which flatters us and challenges us at the same time, as we’re constantly trying to push our limits and get out of the comfort zone,” added Gheorghita.

For Answear, the pandemic led to an increase in the number of online shoppers and orders and its audience was much more open to communication on digital channels, so the overall impact was positive. According to Raluca Radu, country manager at, the company is mainly focusing on online marketing and digital channels in its communication because these are the channels where the audience has moved right now.

“In this mix of channels, the importance of YouTube and Instagram has grown since the pandemic started and we are including these channels along with Facebook, Google, and online publishing websites in our marketing mix. TV had always been an important channel for us, but its relevance has also grown, with the number of TRPs available in Romania having almost doubled since the beginning of the pandemic as people have definitely started spending more and more time watching TV, so it will be an important channel in our mix for future actions as well,” Raluca Radu explained.

The company’s communication budget decreased by 20 percent this year because of the absence of the events channel. They have reinvested or reallocated part of that budget, but not all of it, as they were able to achieve sales targets with a lower investment. “We’ve learned that simplicity in communication is the ultimate creativity. We focus on simple messages highlighting benefits for our users. Furthermore, our communication is more about the visuals and the fashion styling featured in our photoshoots. It is not an easy task, but our visuals and videos need to create that sense of style that makes users hit the “buy now” button on an impulse,” added the Answear representative.

In the case of Fashion Days, marketing budgets have doubled over the last two years and its representatives are aiming to stay on the same track in the coming years. In 2020, Fashion Days’s spending in Romania will add up to around RON 40 million (digital, non-digital, creative investment, etc.), which reflects its goal of challenging Inditex’s leadership in local fashion retail within a couple of years (together with revenues made through eMAG Fashion).

“We know we are very strong in terms of customer benefits: we deliver extremely quickly and refund clients instantly, and returns are very important in fashion. We also have a strong network of delivery to lockers: the share of these orders in Bucharest is almost 30 percent, as people tend to prefer this option during a pandemic. Along with our great pricing campaigns and a huge variety of brands, these key attributes are at the core of our customer-centred approach. Still, we understand that we need to do more in order to become the default fashion destination: so we are constantly growing the Romanian Corner, where local designers are bringing a unique flavour to the mix, and we engage with our customers through CSR activities by encouraging them to donate clothing and talking about social responsibility,” said Robert Berza, general manager at Fashion Days.

Moreover, Berza says that the Fashion Days app is a top channel: more than 50 percent of traffic and 70 percent of orders in Romania are generated through the company’s iOS/Android apps. They have invested in AI, harvesting lots of data to improve both user experience and the mix of brands and offers, and they’ve created lots of in-house content to drive engagement and curiosity. “We have been an app-first (not just mobile-first) company for a couple of years now and we understand that this represents the spine of our business. We obviously have a mix of tracking tools and digital platforms, but I believe these are common sense tools that every business should be using. In our case, being a purely online player pushes us to navigate through tons of data and find valuable insights. But we won’t share the recipe of how we do it,” Berza added.

This year, the company also made its first TV commercial, created by Papaya Advertising, as the pandemic led them to investing more in TV. And Berza says that Fashion Days will continue to do so, driven by the belief that customers are now rapidly changing their habits and they are open to trying new experiences and brands. The company wants to be present, visible, talking about its benefits and its values, to capture people’s curiosity and hopefully their willingness to try it or to stick to it. Video advertising (TV, YouTube, etc.) is the most powerful medium for pushing strong, emotional messages, as well as rich visual ones, which are part of the Fashion Days DNA.

In the past, Fashion Days would put a lot of focus on communicating rational benefits for its clients: the big range of products, great prices, and sales campaigns or fast delivery and returns. Its mantra was “we have so many (rational) advantages that we need to push them strongly, and as a result customers will know why they should order from Fashion Days.” “But this chapter was (just) an important foundation of our marketing strategy. Once we scored high on these rational attributes, we understood that we had to move towards more emotional ones. And that’s where creativity kicks in: when you talk about trust, innovation, good will, generosity, caring, etc. I believe our fall campaign as well as our recent CSR & Black Friday ones showed that we put a high value on creativity and having the courage to stand out,” Robert Berza explained.

In turn, Hervis’s marketing strategy is just as important as other aspects of its business. “It is not enough to focus on a marketing strategy that makes us known enough to have traffic in stores and online. We need a whole mix of other functions: providing the right products for our customers, offering them things they are interested in, having a well-prepared team to advise customers and provide all the necessary information during the acquisition process, a well-performing flow of procedures, and the list goes on. We believe that each Hervis employee represents a communication channel to the end customer, because each one contributes to the final result. And the sum of our individual actions defines us as a company,” Gheorghita added.


Black Friday

Hervis’s predictions showed that this year’s Black Friday sales would be 20 percent lower than last year’s. “According to our estimates, sales of black & white goods increased, while others dropped. On Black Friday, we usually get high sales for items related to winter sports and experiences. But in the context of the pandemic, when everything is extremely uncertain, it is obvious that the whole buying process was different,” said Elena Claudia Gheorghita.

For, Black Friday 2020 brought a 35 percent increase compared to 2019, and in fact they met all of their 2020 targets even though they had been considered very ambitious. “What was surprising regarding Black Friday was that not everything happened on that particular day, but during the whole second half of November, as the higher sales were spread across several days,” Raluca Radu noted.

At Fashion Days, this year’s Black Friday meant almost 450,000 products sold, while donations made through the 9 containers they placed in Bucharest, Cluj, Constanta, Timisoara, and Brasov exceeded 8 tonnes of clothes and footwear.  Moreover, the event ended with sales of over RON 80 million for Fashion Days, with the app still as the main source of orders, accounting for over 80 percent of the total order value, maintaining its yearly growth. The number of orders placed also grew by 25 percent, while the average shopping cart value was similar to last year’s – almost RON 460.

“We are going through a very different year, so we decided to also have a different Black Friday, and came up with the common sense edition. On this occasion we reminded buyers that we had prepared the best offers for them, and at the same time we launched a challenge for them to do some good by donating some of the clothes they were no longer wearing. As a result, we were able to collect over 22,000 pieces in the first few days, meaning over 8 tonnes of clothes and footwear, which will be given to the Clothes Bank in the coming period to be distributed to people who need them. We were happy to see that by involving and mobilising the community we could make significant donations to disadvantaged groups and we thank everyone who responded to our invitation, as well as people who are going to donate in the future. We strongly believe that it’s important for these donations to be a recurrent and #debunsimt (common sense) gesture for us all,” said Robert Berza, General Manager at Fashion Days.

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