Covid-19 has given a whole new meaning to the customer experience. As soon as news hit of the initial 21-day lockdown period that began 27 March, customers went into overdrive with crowds gathering at retailers to stockpile supplies.

Since then, buying patterns have adapted to online shopping and contactless services , and now that we have moved to level 3 lockdown, consumer wants and needs continue to change at speed.

This according to Nathalie Schooling, CEO of customer experience company nlighten, who says: “It’s not only the basic needs of consumers that have changed, but a whole new set of customer expectations and ideals are being introduced into the mix.

“Our research tells us that customers want to feel as though brands and companies are acknowledging that things are no longer the same, and that they are making an effort for us all to transition into a ‘new normal’ together.”

Schooling highlights some of the current anxieties, concerns, and expectations of the South African consumer as they continue to navigate their new reality:

* Paying it forward and supporting small business – Customers are being cognisant of not only how they are being treated by retailers, but also how company staff are being treated at this time. They are also showing a desire to support small businesses and switch to local suppliers. Many are turning to the little guy to buy their goods in effort to help those who have suffered financial strain and are even prepared to pay slightly higher prices. This presents an opportunity for smaller businesses to build their customer base and create great experiences for customers to return. Established companies should also be looking at how they can collaborate with smaller suppliers and further goodwill.

* Responsible pricing and available stock – Whilst there is a general understanding that things are tough for everyone and customers are not necessarily expecting huge discounts and specials, they are wary of cost-fixing and inflated prices. This goes back to the awareness of how retailers are treating their customers. If certain price increases are unavoidable, a simple explanation helps ease any customer anxiety. In-store communication, signage or email communication are some options. Another growing frustration for many is lack of stock, or failure from brands to mention stock limitations. This is especially disappointing when items have been advertised.

* Hygiene practice and social distancing enforcement – It goes without saying, that the more hygienic the environment, the more comfortable the customer will be to shop. Staff not wearing their PPE is enough to make customers walk straight out the door. Enforcing social distancing is also a top priority. Our research has found that crowded stores make customers anxious and they would rather go elsewhere. Contactless payment options are also a preference for customers right now, such as snap scan or EFT.

* Better customer service and easy ordering – Empathy at this time is critical, as customers are feeling afraid and uncertain of the future. They want to feel that their challenges are understood and those brands that put themselves in the customers shoes and make their lives less stressful are thriving. Things like open and responsive communication, solutions-based services and easy ordering & delivery are high on the customers priority list. The pressure is on to make the customer experience a really good one.

Schooling believes that these customer expectations are completely rational and within reason. She highlights that South Africans are known for not speaking up when it comes to bad service, and that in fact, nonchalant attitudes to customers’ needs has just come to be the norm or what’s expected.

“We are in the middle of a global health crisis, and this level of apathy cannot continue, especially if brands want to survive. It’s important for South Africans to speak up and to voice their concerns, so that shopping can be a safer and more efficient experience for everyone,” she says.