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18 ways to retain customers in 2019

By Will Gillingham

It’s a well-known pillar of commerce – acquiring new customers costs around five times more than retaining existing ones.

In ages past, retention might have been something of a low-flame topic; a pan set to simmer at the back of the stove, and perhaps stir once or twice when some fledgling start-up pops up in proximity to your presence on the high street. However, the digital age has entirely rewritten the commerce code, and the staggering amount of competition now means that retention is a critical ingredient in the commercial plat du jour.

In recognition of this, we at IMRG have reached out to experts in the field to cultivate an unequivocal list of customer retention strategies, so that retailers stand their best chance of upping their magnetism in an arena where customers are being pulled in myriad directions. We have alighted on no less than 18 grab-and-go pointers for retailers looking to get ahead – let’s get to it.

1. Obsess over your customers

Let’s start with the top-level view. Every decision you make should, to some extent or in some manner, be executed with the customer in mind. Throw yourself into determining their characteristics, their buying habits, their sense of style and their sense of humour.

Commit to learning your customer outright, and you should find yourself appealing to your customers automatically.

Andrew Fowler, UK Country Manager, Apptus: ‘The best way to retain customers in 2019 is the same as it’s always been; obsess over your customers. The differences now are two-fold:

1.     Customer expectations are higher than ever before

2.     We now have access to a wide range of tools to deliver a remarkable customer experience.

‘Customers expect speed. The want fast websites, swift delivery of relevant content, rapid delivery of the right products to their front door and speedy, helpful responses to questions about services and products. Any friction along the customer journey will give shoppers cause to look elsewhere for similar services and products.

‘Luckily ecommerce managers have masses of data at their fingertips – within which lies actionable insight they can use to optimise every aspect of their operations.

‘So, the retailers that succeed in retaining and delighting customers in 2019 will be those that use current and emerging AI tech to deliver relevance and speed, obsessively.’

2. Cut through the marketing noise

The internet-savvy shopper is bombarded by marketing. Website ads, exit-intent pop-ups, emails, social media videos: it’s all a deluge of colour, fighting to be the most vibrant. But it’s the marketing which nurtures and cultivates a personal relationship with the customer which is likely to grant the best retention.

Katie Woodhead, Head of Experience Optimisation, Attraqt: Today’s Gen Z and Millennial shoppers are incredibly well-informed about products thanks to their sharply honed digital skills – they are adept at researching products online via social media and price comparison sites, and are quite comfortable using multiple devices, from mobiles and desktops to in-store iPads to ascertain product information before making purchases.

‘Technology therefore has a major influence when it comes to affecting their purchasing decisions, and retailers who provide the best customer experience across all of these ecommerce channels are the most likely to create a differentiated online experience that grabs, retains and nurtures customer interest over time. In the case of Gen Z shoppers for example, a recent IBM survey found that an individualised shopping experience was extremely important to this generation, a generation that will have seen approximately 200,000 marketing messages before they reach the age of 15.

‘Cutting through this digital noise with an irresistible brand proposition and a personalised and accessible digital shopping experience is therefore something that all ecommerce brands should aim for throughout 2019 if they want to stay ahead.’

Phone pictures

3. Personalise, personalise, personalise

It’s the word which will be lingering just below the surface of every one of these customer retention principles: personalisation. Customers have moved beyond scouting generic marketing collateral for something which resonates with them: they now expect each effort at communication from a brand to be relevant.

Cynthia Lai, Data & Analytics Specialist, Epsilon Abacus: The fundamentals around retaining customers haven’t changed much at all for marketers over the years; obtain an understanding of who your customers are, what excites them and how to get their attention, combined with meaningful, purposeful communications, and, always listen to their feedback to make improvements.

'What continues to intensify however is an ever-progressing need for customers to feel communications and offers were designed specifically for them with their shopping needs and experiences being of paramount importance. Mimicking a retail store experience through digital channels can be tricky but there are ways that these experiential expectations can be met.

‘These are: know thy customer (what their interests are, what is important to them, what excites them, and what it is about your brand that excites them), get their attention using the right channels, give them more meaningful and personal communications, and get feedback and listen.’

4. Hyper-personalise your emails

One of the primary go-to tools in your customer retention toolkit is email. And yet, according to Bluecore, only 10% of emails sent by retailers are personalised.

To really conjure the need to return to your store, the communication landing in your customers’ inboxes should make it seem as if you have a personal relationship with them.

Mike Harris, GM International, Bluecore: ‘For retailers to deliver the experience consumers crave and see high engagement and conversion rates, email content needs to be hyper-personalised to consumers’ browsing and buying habits as well as to their product and category affinities.

‘This depth of personalisation requires the email provider to be able to connect customer identity with online behavioural data and product catalogue data. However, many ESPs don’t support this level of data integration, and as a result most retailers only personalise 10% of their emails, on average.

‘So, what does ‘great’ look like? And what are some of the most effective retention strategies for retailers to employ? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use data to drive triggered emails based on changes in customer behaviours and product assortments. For example, consider triggering emails to customers who viewed items that have since dropped in price.
  • Preserve your margins (and reputation) on full price buyers.
  • Use data to highlight adjacent categories to those purchased, for instance by recommending accessories to someone who bought a dress.
  • Include replenishment strategies for goods that are consumable (e.g. ‘it’s been sometime since you bought makeup - are you running low?’).’

Email

5. Be Human

On the flipside of striking up a fantastic, personal email campaign for your customers is the need to readily admit your mistakes on a human level, rather than in a mechanical ‘this was the system’s fault’ kind of way.

Gavin Masters, Industry Principal, Maginus: ‘Ultimately, understanding the customer and consistently meeting or exceeding their expectations is the most important factor in retaining them. A business can have a thousand little details around the shopping experience to add value to its customer, but if it fails to deliver what the consumer is primarily trying to do, none of them matter.

‘The second most important factor is the ability to resolve issues if something does go wrong. Communication and honesty are the most fundamental parts of this. Admitting fault and coming across as human (as opposed to a “faceless corporate machine”) can often mitigate customer agitation in the event a mistake is made.’

6. Shoot for loyalty

Customer retention is all well and good – it means you have an engaged group of buyers who are willing to shop with your brand. But, as highlighted by Exponea, you can go one further. You can turn that group of willing returners into being a group who only shop with you for the products you provide.

Samuel Kellett, Head of Content, Exponea: ‘Retention is just the start: 2019 is all about customer loyalty. A retained customer continues to shop with you; a loyal customer prefers to shop with you. They become your brand ambassador. So how do you foster loyalty? Create consistent, convenient, personalised customer experiences at scale. That means personalised offers and recommendations for every single customer.

‘You can execute automated campaigns through the single customer view that will customize the customer experience for every user: relevant offers based off browsing history can be shown on-site through overlay pop-ups, email recommendations for products that the customer has shown interest in. Create the experience customers now expect and grow your business through increased loyalty rather than acquisition.’

Specials

7. Read the negative reviews

If customers have felt the urge to write a complaint about a section of your business, there’s a chance that refining that section will pay exponential dividends further down the line. Negative reviews are, in a sense, an optimisation checklist. Reading them and understanding where your business is slipping as well as where it’s excelling will give you the rounded perspective you need to communicate effectively with your customer base.

Michelle McSweeney, Content Marketing Manager, Kooomo: The most effective way to truly connect with your customers and encourage repeat visits is simply through listening to what they have to say!

‘Customer feedback is a gift. Note the types of questions that your customer service team are being asked time and time again. Check out the comments that are being posted on your social media channels. Look at the complaints that are coming through your online store.

‘You’ll learn more from your customers than from anyone else, so listening to them will give you powerful intel. But here’s the catch - it’s what you do with all this information that actually matters. That means that if customers are consistently reporting damaged boxes upon deliver, look into your supply chain and actively identify and fix the problem. Similarly, if shoppers are always asking questions about your returns policy, take the time to make it clearer on your e-shop. Or it could even mean creating a focus group of customers to test out your newest product line ahead of its launch. 

‘Try harder to understand your customers. Earn their trust by making them feel as though their opinion matters. Those customers are the ones who will continue coming back for more.’

8. Cultivate trust

In recent years, ethics has become firmly part and parcel of the retail experience. Climate change is breaching into global headlines, and campaigners are doubling down on their efforts to raise the topic into the public limelight. For retailers looking to retain customers, clearly stating your ethical practices and precautions could well cultivate a level of trust among shoppers, and a want to continue shopping with you.

Melanie Harper, Marketing Manager, Comply Direct: ‘Whether a retailer or any type of company there are some key things you can do to retain customers in 2019 that isn’t relied upon high discounts or free delivery. Show you are trusted – a relationship with a customer is only beneficial if the customer understands that your ethics and ways of working are trustworthy.

‘To achieve the most effective relationships with customers ensure you are transparent in your practices and offer advice and guidance in relation to your service/product. Show respect – ensure your customers know how their data is stored and used and that you respect their details. Treat all customers with same respect ensuring a high level of service. Offer commitment to your customers – ensure your service is hassle-free, ensure your costs reflect your standards and quality and deliver a service that stands out.’

Sapling

9. Broaden your visibility

You can capture data on more or less everything these days, and that data can feed into a detailed, rounded perspective of your customer base. Through understanding personal preferences at a granular level, appropriate offers and targeted product recommendations can be delivered to your audience to ensure those interested parties return to your store.

Jimmy McCann, Head of Digital Strategy, Search Laboratory: This information can be used to inform how much to spend on paid media and remarketing campaigns, what display ads they see (from the products shown, to the urgency messages used), and what email marketing they receive. By personalising the messages that customers receive, you can improve the likelihood that they will be tempted to come back to the site and make a purchase.

‘Bucketing customers by value allows retailers to adjust how much they are willing to spend on paid media, but it has another use too. Once these audiences have been created, similar individuals can be targeted in paid campaigns: by going after individuals with similar characteristics to your loyal customers, it’s likely that you will gain new customers who also have a high lifelong value and are likely to make repeat purchases.

‘Data can also be used to identify when there are opportunities to cross-sell products to customers, as well as the customers most likely to respond well to cross-selling; for example, you can look at a high-value customer’s latest purchases, predict what they are going to buy next, deliver the relevant display ads and email them with a time-limited discount offer.’

10. Remove the friction

If it’s difficult to make a purchase (e.g. the product page is unnavigable, or the checkout page has too many stages), customers are unlikely to want to return and buy again. Speed is the recurring buzzword of the digital age, and shoppers are going to naturally gravitate towards those retailers who have the UI to match their digital competency. It’s for this reason that Klarna recommends that retailers streamline their websites.

Luke Griffiths, General Manager, Klarna UK: When it comes to spending money, shoppers have a near-infinite amount of choice — making the battle for the consumer fiercer than ever. With competition so heated it’s crucial for retailers to go the extra mile to engender the loyalty of both existing and prospective customers.

‘The best way to achieve this? Make the customer journey as smooth as possible, from browsing through to payments and even returns. When shopping online, the last thing anybody wants is a slow, cumbersome and difficult to navigate website. Making sure customers enjoy a 5-star experience at every point of their journey is key. Providing a personal service and offering a range of payment options will boost a customer’s experience and keep them coming back to a particular brand.’

Rippling

11. Manage fraud prevention

Hand-in-hand with the need for a frictionless purchase journey is the refinement of your fraud-prevention measures. These not only hinder the purchase journey for the customer but can also be a costly haemorrhage to your business. Ensuring your customer can pay safely in the most efficient manner possible is important if you’re intending for that customer to buy from you again.

Valerie Candau, Content Manager, Riskified: Outdated fraud-prevention measures hinder the shopping journey to the point of cart abandonment. These cost merchants more than actual fraud. To solve the challenge of efficiently managing risk, while improving customer interactions on all channels, merchants need to adopt a more data-driven approach.

‘Today, AI platforms and in-depth data analysis enables risk management to be optimised, and personalised. To retain a frictionless payment experience for legitimate customers, identity validation measures should be introduced in questionable transactions only.’

12. Communicate your pricing strategy

Do you aim to be the cheapest among your competitors? Or perhaps you don’t intend to inflate your prices for a period of time? Whatever the case, according to Omnia Retail, you should be able to wear your pricing strategy on your sleeve: if customers know exactly what they’re paying upfront, they’re likely to feel more secure about returning to make a purchase.

Berend van Niekerk, Product Manager, Omnia Retail: Be able to openly communicate your pricing strategy and stick to it. If your pricing strategy is to be the lowest of your main competitors and you have the right tooling to execute this continuously, you can openly communicate this. Once customers see that you stick to your promise, they don’t have to check out the competition anymore and will instantly buy at the retailer they are familiar with.’

Money stack

13. Deliver on time

The delivery segment of a purchase has a chance of being the only physical contact a customer may have with your brand. And because of that, a marred delivery experience could well be the tipping point in retaining or losing a customer. To counter this possibility, retailers should ensure their goods are arriving in warehouse-condition, and on time.

Kris Taylor, Head of Customer Success EMEA, Magento, an Adobe Company: ‘Delivery is a crucial part of the shopping experience. Customers care about shipping, perhaps even more than they care about product and price, and they are very unlikely to shop with a retailer again if they have failed to meet their delivery demands. Not receiving the product they purchased within the timeframe they expected can create a negative perception of the brand and cast a shadow over the entire buying experience – especially if the product was purchased for a special occasion. If retailers want to keep their customers coming back, they must avoid disappointing them by managing their expectations, without being tempted by the “under-promise and over-deliver” strategy – anticipating lengthy shipping times can put the customer off from buying in the first place.

‘Equally, being unable to fulfil an order due to unavailability of stock can also create disappointment. Customers will rarely go back to a retailer that wasn’t transparent about product availability and failed to complete their order.’

14. Communicate after the purchase

Having a customer progress through your website and make a purchase is a testament to a brilliantly designed shopper journey. However, that interim period between buying an item and receiving the item has been found by parcelLab to be something of a communication vacuum. Clarity right up until the package is in the customer’s hands is a retention tactic which every retailer should look into implementing.

Tobias Buxhoidt, Founder and CEO, parcelLab: We recently carried out research into the logistics services of the UK’s 100 largest online retailers and found that 27 were not communicating with shoppers at all during delivery. Only 11 communicate with their customers directly during shipping, with the remaining 89 either leaving this to the delivery carrier or the customer receives no updates at all. 

‘By taking control of post-purchase communications, retailers can continue their personalised service beyond checkout through to delivery. Sending regular branded emails informing customers of the progress of their purchases not only builds brand awareness and loyalty, increasing retention, but also enables retailers to share offers and suggest complementary purchases, driving sales. 

‘And when you consider that our research shows that 70-80% of personalised post-purchase emails are opened and result in 0.5-1% of customers immediately making a new purchase, it’s clear that by doing this, retailers will retain more customers and increase their spend.’

Delivery lorry

15. Incorporate returns on mobile

Having a clear and efficient returns policy is a core aspect of retail, and there’s one key way to improve the option to return which ReBOUND have identified as significant in retaining customers: the ability to return via a mobile.

Darren Cousins, Senior UX Designer, ReBOUND Returns: ‘Retaining customers comes down to reducing friction for your best customers whilst increasing efficiency across the whole end-to-end journey, including returns. Mobile ecommerce sales are projected to make up 67.2% of total e-commerce sales this year. If a shopper purchases on mobile, why wouldn’t they return on one? Shoppers old and new will soon expect a slick returns journey powered by machine learning that they can do from their phone, smartwatch or voice assistant. As such, retailers need to get ahead of the curve and make returns a key part of their customer retention strategy.

16. Connect your channels

Retail is no longer a binary concept. Rather than there simply being a physical store and an online store, people can now shop via apps and social media, and gain information about your products from a multitude of other places. Linking these up so that the information being presented is synchronised across all your outputs is important: customers who have previously shopped with you are likely to have greater visibility of your channels, and you’ll want to ensure they can actually purchase the products they’ve seen.

Chris Andrews, New Business Development, ACI: ‘Customer retention is significantly influenced by brand experience, and this is made up of many elements that must work consistently and in harmony. Today’s consumers are more firmly in control than ever and, if a merchant doesn’t provide the experience a customer expects, it is very easy for them to go elsewhere.

‘Millennials and the generations that follow them are seeking a truly omnichannel experience. Today, consumers use an average of almost six touchpoints, with nearly 50% regularly using more than four. Omnichannel customers spend more and have a greater lifetime value, making them a highly desirable customer group. They are also arguably the most challenging to serve, expecting a fast, seamless journey across touchpoints. Merchants that can deliver on this demand will see the rewards in their customer retention rates.’

Unification

17. Offer unique discounts to your customers

One of the most actionable ways to retain your customers is to offer unique discounts to those who have purchased before. This can either be a time-sensitive offer (for example, £10 off if you buy within the next week), or a loyalty scheme (for example, the 5th order is half-price). By rewarding people for shopping with you, they’re more likely to continue doing so.

James Messer, Copy Writer, ShipStation: ‘Create repeat customers by drawing them into your ecosystem and keeping them there.

‘Offering a unique coupon code or discount to your customers increases their chances of buying from you again. Creating a loyalty program that stacks discounts or results in a free purchase is a way to further incentivise customers to come back. For instance, the more a customer purchases from you, the more discounts they’ll receive. Or, take a note from ice cream parlours and offer a free item after their tenth purchase.

‘Figuring out when to include these discounts or promotions is key. One option is to add these to shipping confirmation emails since customers are far more likely to open them to check tracking. Waiting too long and including discounts in follow-up emails or newsletters greatly reduces the read rate. While a 25% open rate is considered good for most types of marketing emails, shipping confirmation emails have an open rate of at least 70%.’

18. Consider using gift cards

In tandem with the concept of unique discounts, gift cards can be a lucrative manner of retaining customers. A monetised card which can only be redeemed with your brand may inspire shoppers to return, or else they can be given to those who are looking to try out your products and thus generate new business.

Malcolm Berg, Sales Director UK, SVS: Our research shows that consumers prefer promotional gift cards over every other offer type. 45% expressed a preference for gift cards in contrast to the next two most popular offers, which polled at just 25% (email offers) and 16% (loyalty points programmes).

‘What’s more, redemption rates on promotional gift cards are very high. They are the tool most likely to cause an unplanned purchase and drive increased footfall – both instore and online. Digital gift cards, in particular, also play a key role in customer retention. They enable consumers to enter into two-way conversations with retailers and, if requested, receive push notifications on everything from promotions, to wallet reminders and birthday rewards. Many retailers also use both physical and digital gift cards for merchandise returns and ‘appeasement’; further enabling customer retention.’

Gifts

In Summary

While these 18 tenets for customer retention are important nuances to be valued in and of themselves, they can be broadly categorised into 2 groupings: personalisation and communication.

In the Information Age, shoppers expect to be known and to be spoken to. They’re likely to be looking for product recommendations which are relevant to them, and they’d like to be given as much visibility on the entire purchase journey as can be afforded to them.

It’s in optimising their strategies to encompass these indispensable aspects of customer retention that retailers can ensure a healthy stream of loyal shoppers, and in doing so, boost profits by margins potentially unobtainable when committing to acquiring new customers.

Will Gillingham, Content Manager, IMRG

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