What the phenomenal rise of the online consumer means for your organisation

New online habits could be here to stay – so what does that mean for your organisation? This guide unpacks the shift in consumer expectations, along with three things to consider. From keeping pace with digital experiences and de-urbanisation, to building trust with effortless services, now’s the time to invest in change.

Key points

  • The growing number of Australian online shoppers are now also likely to be more comfortable accessing services online.1
  • The digital revolution has leapt several years into the future.
  • This is an opportunity to rebuild trust, with effortless, personalised services, and an understanding of local communities.

During a year unlike any other before it, the events of 2020 accelerated the trend towards digitisation. As social distancing, border closures and lockdowns became commonplace, the way we all live and work changed, and the home became much more central to everyday life.

As consumers moved quickly to online channels, organisations met the many changing demands on their operations with new solutions. And as a result, more people did more things online than ever before – working, learning, watching, shopping, socialising, and more.

In other words, the behaviour of people changed. And that has implications for every organisation that deals with people.

In Australia, online shopping grew 57% year on year in 2020.2 Australia Post’s 2021 eCommerce Industry Report notes “an incredible step-change for eCommerce in Australia,” with online shopping accounting for 16.3% of retail spend – well ahead of pre-pandemic predictions. More than 9 million Australian households shopped online, including 1.36 million for the first time ever.2 And according to a recent ABS Household Impact survey, a third of respondents say they prefer to shop online now more than they did before the pandemic.3

Similar shifts were seen across other sectors. PwC analysis suggests a 30%-plus growth in uptake of telehealth, remote learning and online fitness and personal training during the pandemic.4 More than 27% of businesses used e-signatures and other document management tools during the pandemic crisis.5 Electronic signatures and remote contract witnessing became an increasingly important way to keep deals moving virtually – from buying a home to negotiating a business acquisition.6

Even major B2B sales decisions have seen a shift away from the traditional face to face model. Rather than being a short-term “pandemic workaround”, McKinsey global analysis suggests two-thirds of B2B buyers prefer remote human interactions (such as video calls) or digital self-service – even for $1million+ purchase decisions.7

Here are three things you can do to meet the expectations of the new online consumer.

1. Benchmark your digital channels against your competition

Over a period of months, the COVID-19 crisis has brought about years of change in the way companies in all sectors and regions do business.8

Increasingly comfortable online, consumers are more willing to seek out smart gadgets, apps and systems. This is likely to continue to speed up adoption of new education and learning platforms, rearrange work patterns and workplaces, change family life, and upend community structures.

According to a McKinsey Global Survey9 of executives, companies have accelerated the digitisation of their operations, customer engagement, and supply-chain processes – by three to four years. And the market share of digital or digitally-enabled products in their portfolios has accelerated by a remarkable seven years.

Along with leapfrogging the digital revolution by multiple years, the crisis brought about a sea change in executive mindsets when it comes to the role of technology in business. In a 2017 McKinsey survey8, nearly half ranked cost savings as one of the most important priorities for their digital strategies. Now, only 10% view technology in the same way. Instead, more than half say they are investing in technology for competitive advantage, or refocusing their entire business around digital technologies.

Has your organisation kept pace? Customers may increasingly judge their experience with you against their recent experience in any sector. Look at what other organisations do differently to find opportunities for improvement.

2. Create effortless service access, while humanising digital experiences

Trust matters more than ever. An overwhelming 82% of global customers believe a company’s trustworthiness matters more than it did before COVID.10 Yet trust in both government and businesses had been diminishing, falling to record lows in 2018.11

This could be an opportunity to differentiate in a competitive market. How you respond, lead and communicate today will either reduce or enhance that trust deficit.

To do this, it’s important to share a clear and genuine sense of purpose – a rallying point customers can believe in. That could including sharing your commitment to environmental and social policies, and ways you continue to put the safety needs of both customers and employees first.

There are also ways to design trust cues into different aspects of your customer experience. For example, provide accelerated pathways for urgent cases. Keep customers informed of progress, and empower employees to fully resolve customer issues – not just take responsibility for one part of the process.

The less effort it takes customers to access your services, or resolve any issues, the more they will trust you to deliver on your promise. Connected services, such as public and private sector organisations working together, can help to improve the overall experience and solve more complex customer problems. For example, the way banks and government provided access to credit under the SME loan guarantee scheme,12 or Australia Post working with banks to provide a physical branch network.

Look for other ways to maintain that sense of human connection. When a customer contacts your call centre, they might be delighted to be offered a video call with a real person who can take as much time as needed to address their question – not just an automated chat bot.4

Offering a greater choice of channels and support may also help more vulnerable customers embrace digital transactions. By understanding how different customers want to engage, and adopting a continuous improvement mindset for service operations, you can meet their needs with more thoughtful digital experiences.

3. Tap into the growth of the community and the demand for localisation

The pandemic drove many Australians to bunker down in their suburban homes, changing the narrative of urban life. The work-from-home experiment overwhelmingly demonstrated that employees can be just as productive, if not more so, working from a remote location.

As a result, we may see a move away from highly populated city centres. With the promise of a healthier and cheaper way of life, many Australians are exploring a new lifestyle in suburban and regional areas – including millennials, families and young professionals ready to boost local economies.13

As working from home becomes mainstream, consumers continue to prioritise their ‘home hub’ for purchases – such as in-home food delivery, cooking, entertainment streaming, and buying homewares, home electronics, appliances and gardening goods.2

People also saw the value in their local communities after a period of enforced physical disconnection. The shift to ‘buying local’ has been profound – and it includes a patriotic sense of doing our bit to help the Australian economy, along with the small businesses that make our local neighbourhoods so vibrant.

This de-urbanisation trend may mean re-thinking your operations and supply chain strategies. The combination of convenience, accessibility and safety could make local suppliers more appealing to customers – and help you build resilience into your networks.

What does this mean for your organisation?

Many organisations are now in a ‘transition phase’, shifting from crisis response to a more considered longer-term strategy. Understanding the changing needs of your customers, employees, and broader stakeholders – including regulators, investors and suppliers – will be fundamental to these decisions.

That may mean more proactive measures to deliver services safely, provide transparency across every touchpoint as you build trust and confidence, and provide greater choices of channels, apps and tools to access products and services.

Until recently, the shift to digital platforms was all about business and customer efficiency. Now, it will be important to humanise technology, and build in a more personal touch. Ultimately, that means investing in skilled talent and reliable partners, so you make the most of tools, platforms and channels that serve your customers wherever they want to be. At home, in their communities, or online.

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This article is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be specific advice for your business needs.

1 Experts Say the ‘New Normal’ in 2025 Will Be Far More Tech-Driven, Presenting More Big Challenges, Pew Research Corner February 18 2021

2 Inside Australian Online Shopping, 2021 eCommerce Industry Report, Australia Post, March 2021

3 ABS Household Impacts Survey, November 2020

4 COVID-19 Collaboration Series - Reimagining Customer Experience post COVID-19 into Recovery, PwC

5 Australian business adopts a decade of tech change in a year, AFR, September 23 2020

6 A new digital economy; Electronic transaction reform, Australian Banking Association 2021

7 Omnichannel in B2B sales: The new normal in a year that has been anything but, McKinsey, March 15 2021. Data based on McKinsey COVID-19 B2B Decision-Maker Pulse surveys, n= 3,000+ across 12 countries.

8 How COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever, McKinsey October 2020

9 McKinsey Global Survey, McKinsey October 5 2020

10 State of the Connected Customer report, 2020 Salesforce

11 COVID-19 Collaboration Series - Reimagining Customer Experience post COVID-19 into Recovery, PwC

12 New loan scheme good for small business, Australian Banking Association, March 2021

13 Post-COVID, Australians go back to grassroots, Bernard Salt, The Australian June 20, 2020