Few industries have been harder hit than retail in 2020, other than travel. In Australia, lockdowns, followed by ongoing social distancing restrictions, have entirely disrupted the traditional ways retailers engaged with their customers. However,  as 202o draws to a close, it brings hope for a brighter 2021, in which Australia’s vibrant retail sector can master Covid-normal and return to a more prosperous period.

Navigating Covid-normal is dependent on retailers finding new ways to provide exceptional customer experience (CX) that not only adheres to industry regulations but meets and exceeds consumers’ evolving expectations. Technology’s growth in the retail industry was well-underway long before the pandemic, sparking discussion about the future of the industry and the relationship between businesses and consumers. And while traditional retail will always be part of the fabric of the high street, technology will play a crucial role in the provision of memorable CX practices that will come to define retail in 2021 and beyond.

Contactless customer experience

As a result of the pandemic, businesses had to pivot to a no-touch model for the delivery of goods and services. Traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers turned to eCommerce and implemented new socially-distanced processes such as click and collect. While bricks-and-mortar stores have reopened across Australia, the contactless experiences are here to stay, evident in customer preferences. For example, customers are likely to opt for self-checkout at supermarkets or larger retailers, or even avoid physical stores altogether. With agility, convenience, and safety three of the obvious benefits, expect contact-less customer experience to be prominent.

Exceptional customer experience from anywhere

Retailers today want to equip themselves with the tools and abilities to not just solve problems from anywhere, but provide superior customer experiences, irrespective of where it is being delivered from. While the proliferation of eCommerce has been essential for retailers to serve a potentially global audience of tech-savvy, omnichannel consumers, it’s perhaps harder to provide the same level of personal, meaningful experiences without face-to-face interactions on a shop floor. But in 2021 chatbots, targeted data-driven marketing, and flexible payment options will allow retailers to provide customer experiences akin to those a shopper would expect from a physical store.

Customer retention

It’s far more expensive to acquire new customers than it is to retain existing ones. For retailers, every customer matters – perhaps more than ever before – and with marketing budgets likely lower as businesses contend with post-pandemic financial issues and JobKeeper payments set to stop next year, customer retention will take on even greater precedence. Loyalty is essential, and this will result in an even greater focus on areas like customer rewards and loyalty programs. Even customer acquisition will revolve around attracting the right long-term audience as opposed to random acquisition at any cost.

Self-service in B2B

While self-service has long-been prominent in B2C retail, driven by faster service speed and sheer flexibility, the adoption of self-service models will accelerate in the B2B segment, too. Whether from manufacturer or wholesaler to retailer or across franchise retail outlets, self-service will become more prevalent in 2021. The main drivers of this trend are faster service speed and sheer flexibility.

Value consciousness

Irrespective of size, many retailers – from international chain t0 family-run highstreet businesses – have been forced to cut costs. Now that the cost savings are obvious, many businesses are sceptical about reverting to their pre-pandemic expenditure levels. This could range across marketing, infrastructure, and even IT costs. Software vendors who provide better value will be preferred, so expect to see more retailers investing in an integrated technology stack, rather than in numerous siloed platforms. Integrated platforms will allow retailers to streamline processes, understand customers better, and spend more time on consumer-facing, revenue-generating tasks.

The pandemic has rapidly accelerated digital transformation within the retail industry; with years-worth of technological adoption occurring in a matter of months. The benefits of technology are not just for the short-term, though, but represent the long-term foundations on which to implement the processes that will meet and exceed customer expectations in 2021 and beyond.

Vijay Sundaram is chief strategy officer of global technology platform, Zoho.