Consumer experience in the time of coronavirus

April 15, 2020 | By Donald Chesnut

How empathy can help consumers get by and businesses survive

Our daily experience of going to the store has changed dramatically. Features that once made shopping easier, such as hand-held price scanners for self-checkout, are now landmines. Self-checkout is a great enabler, but the hand-held scanner is now a huge drawback. Faced with one on a recent trip to the store, all I could think about was getting home to wash my hands for 20 seconds – or maybe 20 minutes, considering how many other hands had gripped that scanner.

Businesses need to take all these concerns seriously – no matter how inconsequential they may sound. Ensuring that customers feel safe, understood and in control is no longer a luxury. It’s the only way to survive.

That’s going to mean something a little different for each retailer. For some, it may require adjusting hours to accommodate vulnerable shoppers. For others, it’s moving all operations online for the time being. In my experience, the best place to begin improving consumer experience is by thinking empathically, by asking: What do people care about now, and how can I address their needs? In a customer-centric world, retailers are truly in the business of shopping, not the business of selling. Understanding how a person feels throughout the shopping journey is paramount. Here are a few insights to how to create the best consumer experience in the age of coronavirus:

Make shopping safer for seniors.

For senior citizens and people with compromised immune systems, going anywhere right now is scary. Many grocery stores and pharmacists have wisely established dedicated “senior hours” for the elderly to pick up what they need before the stores get crowded. To make the experience even safer for seniors, you can encourage them to move to online shopping. While that can be a daunting task for many seniors who are on their own, you can set up proxy systems that help tech-savvier family members handle the shopping and payment.

Deliver high-touch service with no-touch strategies.

People are thinking twice about what they touch. You can help by introducing people to no-touch payment options they have never considered before. Start by encouraging them to leave cash in their wallet and use a card instead. Next, don’t bother asking for a signature. In 2018, we adjusted our global standards to give you the option to not require signatures when accepting a Mastercard card. You get paid either way.

Better yet, if a customer’s card has the contactless symbol on it, you can show them how to pay by simply tapping their card, or if they have a mobile wallet, their smartphone. Contactless payments are a win for the cashier, and a win for the shopper. To be sure people get everything they need during this period, we’re working to raise payment limits on contactless purchases in markets across six continents. To help sales associates walk people through their contactless options, we’ve developed training materials that include answers to frequently asked questions. Sales associates will need all the help they can get calming customer’s frazzled nerves. 

Build a window into your stockroom.

The coronavirus is making many brick-and-mortar businesses into online business almost overnight. But the increase in online commerce has a number of unfortunate side effects, including unpredictable in-store inventory and lack of delivery time windows. While things like automating real-time inventory take time and money, there are other quicker solutions that can get you through this period – and continue to benefit you in the recovery beyond.

The trick is to figure out ways to keep customers apprised of what’s going on. Beyond commerce apps and websites, leverage the range of digital services – including social media –  to keep customers aware and feeling in control of their orders and your services at a time when most of us are feeling like too many things are out of our control.

For instance, harness your Instagram or Twitter account to let people know when you’ve made a new batch of cookies, or that key limes are on back-order. Or offer to whip up special rainbow cupcakes for the disappointed birthday girl.

Empower people to do it for themselves.

When we are all feeling helpless and isolated, one of the most important things we can deliver is a sense of control. After all, giving a person the feeling of control has always been a primary driver of a great experience. To that end, in this time of COVID-19, we have been working on several new technologies to help banks and businesses empower people to better adapt to their new reality.

For instance, as people grapple with mounting financial uncertainty, we have designed a repayment calculator, a new digital tool for money management that allows people to budget before, during and after they make a purchase. If a customer is eyeing a new flatscreen TV, the calculator, launching soon, can help them determine how long they would be paying it off, calculate different options (paying the same amount over time or including an occasional larger one-time payment across the lifecycle of payments) and what the total cost would be.

Just as people want to see where their money is going, it’s becoming increasingly important to know where their products are coming from. Shoppers in Portland, Oregon can already trace the journey of their seafood via Mastercard Provenance Solution, a blockchain system that delivers a clear record of traceability through any supply chain, with shoppers simply scanning a QR code at the point of sale to view the journey. We are now working to extend this blockchain capability to other kinds of supply chains, and this deep visibility is also critical in the wake of COVID-19 – without it, you can’t adequately prevent or manage gaps in distribution. That way consumers never have to wonder what’s safe and what is not – and companies can better manage their inventories to make sure they can deliver what consumers need.

As unnerving as this global pandemic has been, I personally find comfort in knowing we are all going through this together. It’s that sentiment that will help us – as individuals and businesses — through this challenging time and, hopefully, will teach us to be more empathic when it’s all over.

Donald Chesnut, Chief Experience Officer