Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, shoppers have been increasingly shifting online as the convenience of ecommerce becomes clearer and the options continue to broaden.  The pandemic has only increased this, with a growth of 79% year-on-year since March. We can all agree customer experience has been fundamentally changed by it.

In 2021, retailers must focus on providing an effective, digitally focused customer experience. 2020 exposed stagnant designs, siloed rationale and complicated customer journeys – which can ultimately cost retailers sales and customer loyalty.

As we kick off a new year, there’s five key trends redefining the future of customer experience that we’ve outlined in our ‘Future Disrupted: 2021’ technology trends predictions report.

Trend 1: Customers are more digitally focused across all demographics

A significant part of the changes to our lives due to the pandemic has been restricted access to brick and mortar stores. Melburnians will remember all too well the many months where visiting some stores in person was simply not an option – and this was reflected across the nation in varying levels.

This change in the digital shopping experience, from convenience to necessity, has resulted in the diversification of customer demographics. What used to be reserved for ‘digital natives’, has now become an avenue for all customers, including those that would previously avoid shopping online. Now people of all generations have become more confident and comfortable with online shopping. Retailers must consider this new and expanded range of online shoppers in 2021.

Trend 2: Rich and personalised content will be king

With this newfound and varied customer base, it’s more crucial than ever for retailers to hone in on their CX strategy, to create greater value for both customers and the business. Guaranteeing a seamless and personalised experience for customers is critical, and data analytics will be integral to this success.

Retailers need to be able to meet and serve customers where they want, when they want and how they want, as shoppers want to be offered the products or services they’re looking for in a dynamic way. This kind of integrated delivery is rooted in cohesion from design to content and technology, with location and analytics greatly impacted retailers’ ability to deliver rich, personalised content. All of these capabilities combined create a differentiated experience that directly links retailers to customers and excites them.

Trend 3: Customer experience must balance the physical and virtual

Over the years we’ve seen the CX environment expand beyond the physical into the virtual, and the past year has seen this rapidly evolve. In 2021, retailers must think about how best to balance the virtual and physical CX communication for the best customer exchange. Understanding the customer journey will be critical to dividing whether each customer is best addressed by a digital assistant, self-service technology or by a human in a call centre. These decisions need to be made seamlessly and across multiple platforms for the best outcome.

Trend 4: Data-driven strategies will be central to customer experience

Leading retailers are gathering and understanding data to gain visibility into customer behaviour. Once a retailer has a full picture of the customer behaviour, the data can then be utilised to address individual customer needs in a systemised way – which is where automation comes into play.

Automation goes a long way towards improving efficiencies to streamline and provide an enhanced real-time experience. As retailers continue to adopt chatbots and AI-driven natural language processing bots, these will increasingly take a retailer’s first- and early-stage interactions with customers.

Trend 5: Evolving infrastructure to meet customer expectations will become critical

Streamlining the customer journey through data insights and automation will be key to securing maintaining relevance (and sales) in an increasingly crowded marketplace. A ‘digital-first’ mindset; secure, cloud-optimised networks and infrastructure; smart use of AI, automation, APIs and analytics; and data management, together will lay the foundation for creating and sustaining a positive customer experience.

With customer experience the defining theme for the next year, the winners will be those who pay close attention to the power of the customer journey and do everything in their power to make the virtual customer interaction an unforgettable one.

Michael Slip is general manager for customer experience at NTT Australia.