Even when the relationship is virtual, you must still create meaningful consumer connections

May 14, 2020

One of the many critical questions on the mind of retailers today is, “When we re-open, will my customers come back inside my stores?”

At the heart of that question for store-based retailers is a fear that consumers have developed a stronger taste for shopping online during the Covid-19 lockdown and specifically, a taste for online-only retailers. Of course, digitally savvy retailers are actively working to make online shopping an ongoing habit for their customers.

Now, the question stands, which will win? We would argue that’s a false dichotomy, especially given today’s uncertainties.

You will hear experts confidently say, “it takes 21 to 28 days to change a habit.” If this is the source-of-truth, higher rates of online shopping are here to stay. However, it turns out that the 28 days to create a habit-mentality is a factoid made popular by a book called Psycho-Cybernetics, which is based on a 1960s study on how long it took plastic surgery patients to become accustomed to their new face. And since then, the “28 days myth” is STILL being repeated by respectable research houses today.[i] More recent studies show that changing a habit takes an average of 66 days, and the actual time can range from 18 to 254 days.

The point to take away is that ending lockdown does not save the in-store retailer, and having lockdown continue indefinitely does not guarantee success for the online retailer.

The emerging truth is that there will likely be a case-by-case of store openings and continued lockdowns that will vary by communities and states.

The mood of consumers is, and will likely continue to be, a similar patchwork as the following list of conflicting studies implies:

  • 35% would go back to stores within 1 month[ii] while another found that only 2% will go back within 1 month[iii]
  • 62% said that they expect to do the same amount of in-store shopping when stores re-open and 17% in the same study said they’d shop in-store even more – that’s almost 80% total saying they won’t increase online buying.[iv] In Kobie’s own research, 29% said they would do the same and a whopping 34% said they’d be more likely to shop in-store.[v]
  • 86% of all Americans support social distancing and 72% are more concerned about moving too quickly than too slowly to re-open[vi]

You read correctly – almost 80% of consumers want to shop in-store as much as or more than they ever did before, AND over 70% don’t want to move too quickly to re-open. That means a majority of consumers feel very conflicted.

The verdict: consumers deeply desire the freedom to move back and forth at their own will between online and offline shopping experiences. There is something primal about the shopping experience. It’s not just about the buying experience, but about the connection – connection to the feel and taste of the actual goods, connection to the people selling the goods, and connection to other people out shopping for the goods. The retailers who win in this current Covid-19-driven environment will find a way to facilitate both the acquisition of goods and the feeling of connection even when the relationship has to be a virtual one.

Here are two examples that will sound very familiar that sit on the opposite side of the table. Amazon is moving their known virtual experience with consumers to an in-store experience, while brands like Nike are moving their typical in-store experience to a virtual connection with their consumers.

Moving virtual to in-store – Amazon Moving in-store to virtual – Nike
In 2019, Amazon was focused on both online and in person delivery, opening new store concepts at regular intervals and expanding outposts inside other retailers ranging from lockers in 7-Elevens to staffed return stations at Kohl’s. Their essential brand story starts with their recommendation engine—you bought that so you might like this, others who bought that then bought this, the top items globally are this and the top items in your area are that. They facilitate both the acquisition of goods and a sense of connection to others who buy the same goods. The result is a clear and consistent virtual relationship that they have been busily moving from online to in-store, leveraging signage and display to replicate the recommendation engine in-store. Who better to turn to when social distancing changed consumer needs? While even the mighty Amazon has found logistics a challenge when online sales rise so dramatically, they’ve positioned themselves to be able to continue to connect for the 80% who want to get back in-store. Nike delivers a branded experience wherever the customer enters the marketplace, be it in a retail partner store, their own stores, or in any one of several specialized mobile apps for athletes and shoe aficionados. They have been building their supply chain to pivot as needed. The workout at home phenomenon was even more pronounced in China during lockdown than in the US and Nike was there to support a solid virtual relationship with their in-app personal trainers and workouts. Direct sales increased while stores were closed and then strategically re-opened while the Nike supply chain was able to pivot to meet each change in demand, which lead to solid quarterly results.[vii]


The point is this – connection – both emotionally and behaviorally – is what we have sought in the marketplace for millennia, so the way to answer the question of whether your customers will come back to your stores or stick with you online depends on your ability to continue to connect on a deeper level, whether it is face-to-face or solely digital. It is up to you to create compelling communications that meet your customers where they are today, think outside the box to pivot your supply chain demand and accelerate your digital channels. In order to focus on those key insights and adapt to the new customer expectations, aside from understanding your customer’s habits, you’ll need to focus on helping your customers create new routines. This can be through different types of technology, systematic instructions, creating a friendly atmosphere, clear signage, etc. No one likes disruption, but consumers will handle disruption a lot better if they are guided along the way. And last, using a tool like Emotional Loyalty Scoring, can help you understand what motivates your customers and add attributes for you to segment by based on the tactile experiences. With all of this, you will be set-up to continue to build connections with your customers, long after the crisis passes.



[i] “How Long Does It Take for a New Behavior to Become Automatic?”, Scott Frothingham, Healthline, Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD on October 24, 2019.


[ii] Civic Science, Survey Date April 13, 2020 based on 23,000 responses. https://civicscience.com/comfort-leaving-lockdown-will-vary-by-age-income-and-choice-of-activity/

[iii] Narvar and Forrester, “How Retailers Are Pivoting During the COVID-19 Crisis” April 2, 2020. Cited by eMarketer https://www.emarketer.com/content/when-will-shopping-activity-resume?ecid=NL1014

[iv] Business Insider Intelligence, “Coronavirus Consumer Survey,” April 6, 2020. Cited by eMarketer https://www.emarketer.com/content/when-will-shopping-activity-resume?ecid=NL1014

[v] Kobie Marketing survey of 400 loyalty program members April 17-21, 2020.

[vi] ABC News/Ipsos Poll, “Americans: Social Distancing is Responsible Policy,” April 24, 2020. https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/abc-news-coronavirus-poll

[vii] Rob Walker, “Nike’s Secret for Surviving the Retail Apocalypse

Why struggling retailers should be studying Nike’s pandemic strategy in China”, April 6, 2020.   https://marker.medium.com/nikes-secret-for-surviving-the-retail-apocalypse-b89960117f74