Globally, the COVID-19 crisis has brought on many rapid changes in the way consumers behave and spend, especially since March 11; the day the World Health Organization announced that the novel coronavirus has resulted in a global pandemic. What significance does customer loyalty have during those tough times? Beyond rewards, what can businesses in the MENA region do to raise customer loyalty in the COVID-19 era and its so-called ‘New Normal’?

The Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Consumer Behaviour

Nielsen conducted shopper behaviour research to figure out how and when consumers started showing behavioural changes. The research started back in the beginning of the pandemic in China but was quickly expanded to countries around the world affected by the virus. Monitoring consumer trends from when COVID-19 news reached the general public, Nielsen’s research discovered that consumers go through six behavioural stages based on their awareness of the COVID-19 spread in their communities: 1. Proactive health-minded buying: Increased interest in the acquisition of products that maintain well-being or health 2. Reactive health management: Prioritization of products for infection containment (e.g. face masks) 3. Pantry preparation: Higher purchases of shelf-safe products and increased store visits 4. Quarantined living preparation: Increased online shopping, decreased store visits and first signs of strain on the supply chain 5. Restricted living: Possible price gouging due to limited supplies and deterred online fulfillment 6. Living a new normal: Increased health awareness even as people return to their typical daily activities The research also found that although consumers took around two weeks to move from one stage to another in countries or areas close to the initial outbreak, consumers in countries where the outbreak started later – like countries in the MENA region – it happened much faster. It’s safe to assume, therefore, that consumers within it are at stage six. The EY Future Consumer Index on global behaviour and sentiment shows that people emerging from lockdown remain deeply cautious. It shows that “48% of people in China strongly agree that of consumers in China strongly agree the way they live will significantly change in the long-term as a result of COVID-19 but they are spending more again.

The aforementioned index additionally asked people about their expectations regarding household spending changes in a range of categories over the month of June given their ongoing social distancing situation continues. A big chunk of customers expected to spend more or significantly more on fresh foods (62%), personal care (47%), beauty and cosmetics (29%) and clothing and footwear (33%).

So, what can we take away from these insights for the current period? As far as we know so far, consumers are looking to enter the ‘New Normal’ with a healthy diet while looking after their appearance, health and wellness. They have relatively increased health awareness and are still cautious as they return to their daily activities and they’re willing to spend more (given China is our leading indicator). And most importantly, it’s important to keep in mind that consumers of all age groups have been persuaded by the quarantining and social distancing nature of COVID-19 to digital solutions and spending more time online.

How then can we acquire and sustain customer loyalty as we navigate the ‘New Normal’?

Ways to Gain and Maintain Customer Loyalty

1) Let Customer Experience Lead the Way

In order to increase your customers’ loyalty and gain the trust of potential customers, you need to have a continually updated understanding of their experience with your business. The most trusted source of information about your customers’ experience are your customers themselves, so, make sure you conduct regular surveys and market research to that end.

2) Tailor Promos and Loyalty Programs to Suit the Consumer’s Current Needs

Although consumers may not be very price-sensitive in times of crisis, making price discounts and promotions like free shipping will help you nurture trust and goodwill between you and your customers. Increasing loyalty points and rewards programs encourages customers to stay long-term.

In an interview with Retail Customer Experience published last month, head of retail partnerships at Cover Genius and the former eBay and Walmart leader Peter Paine suggests that you should “make your experiences sticky and trusted: offer your customers convenience and personalized add-on protection services that will provide them with that safety net and reassurance during uncertainty and cement your brand as a safe pair of hands now and into the future.”

Base your loyalty programs and promos adding value that consumers need to lead a healthy and convenient life while providing digital solutions to do so at every step of the way.

3) Seamless Digital Experiences Are Now a Necessity

Convenient digital presence is now more important than ever. As the COVID-19 pandemic is making people stay home longer and avoid contact with other people as much as possible, they’re trying to use social media channels, e-commerce websites and mobile applications to accomplish as much as they can.

Your customer retention and loyalty can be at the risk of plummeting if your customers find it challenging to reach you online, whether to communicate with your brand or utilize its services. The substantial growth of convenient services like Amazon, Netflix and other giants shows us that convenience can massively affect loyalty.

4) Honest Communication Is as Essential as Ever

Consumers and your customers’ spending habits and behaviours are changing rapidly, but don’t let that distract you from the importance of letting your customers know how much you care about their needs. Make sure you also communicate the internal measures you’ve taken to adapt to the COVID-19 situation and bring them the best experience while maintaining your employees’ safety and your company values.

During the ongoing difficult times, working closely with your customers can have the added value of building stronger and long-lasting customer relationships. So, focus on striking the right tone, be compassionate and maintain transparency.

5) Become an Expert on Subjects Relevant to Your Brand

Whether through engaging content on you social media or blog posts on your website, make sure you communicate to your customers, potential or existing, how much of an expert you are in your field.

If you have all the answers to the questions about or that could lead to your products and services, you’ll be giving them a sturdy motive to trust you.

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