6 minute read 15 Feb 2021
Female shopper collecting items from masked store owner

How to elevate customer experience in a post COVID-19 world

By Sukesh Choubey

EY Global Delivery Services SAP, Microsoft and Supply Chain Leader

Supply chain and technology professional with extensive global experience.

6 minute read 15 Feb 2021

For consumer businesses finding themselves in the next normal, now is the time to reimagine what the new normal means.

Three questions to ask 
  • How has COVID-19 shaped consumer behavior?
  • How can CPG companies gain a competitive advantage by embracing this new reality and adopting emerging trends?
  • How will frictionless shopping solutions help CPG companies gain competitive advantage?

We are all living in unprecedented times and the pandemic has radically impacted our everyday life. Each one of us has seen the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the consumer psyche and businesses alike. During the lockdown, consumers stockpiled essential goods such as groceries, dry foods, and other household products, in wake of the impending crisis. This spike in demand for essentials disrupted the supply chains for most of the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies. On the other hand, non-essential (good-to-have-goods) product companies, such as apparel and luxury products, witnessed a sharp decline in sales. Other factors familiar to many included restricted travel, remote working and growing economic concerns.

Some of these changes in customer behavior seem to be an irreversible trend, forcing consumer goods companies, more than others, to realign themselves to the new normal. Consumer Products and Goods (CPG) companies can gain a competitive advantage by embracing this new reality and adopting emerging trends would help consumer businesses thrive in the new normal.

1. eCommerce acceleration

Online presence is no longer optional for CPG companies. Many small and medium companies did not invest in eCommerce until recently. With consumer shift to online channels, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there has been a growing demand for eCommerce platforms. Leading grocery retailers prefer to reduce online friction by simplifying the buying experience for essentials with the use of apps. Curbside pickup has proved to be one of the most conducive frictionless solutions for both retailers and customers. A leading sports retailer converted some of its stores into fulfilment centers to manage online orders. Food and beverage players identified the shift in consumer behavior and launched online D2C channels during this period. In addition, there was growing disintermediation using B2B eCommerce portals by CPG companies for their sales representatives, especially during the pandemic.

Business buyers seek simple, flexible, on-demand ordering experiences – a process that works best for them, at the time they desire. Back in 2015, Forrester found that nearly 75% of B2B buyers said that buying from a website was more convenient and efficient than buying from a sales representative.1 It would seem very likely that, were the same research conducted in 2021, the percentage would be even higher. In the future, digital adoption is expected to grow further and would be a key driver for growth for many consumer businesses.

2. Digital In-store experience

With a growing affinity for online shopping, CPG companies need to reinvent the in-store experience to reduce friction and ensure customers see value in coming back to stores. Digital engagement has accelerated tremendously, and leading companies have innovated quickly to replace traditional, in-store experiences. As the economy has begun opening, physical stores have seen a slight uptick in consumer traffic. This indicates that physical outlets will have to test modified in-store layouts to prevent customers from being in crowded situations and enable contactless shopping solutions to address health concerns.

Leading retail chains have been testing store traffic control using advanced queue management techniques, one-path shopping designs, and queueless buying options for popular products. Frictionless solutions (e.g., scan-and-go, click-and-collect, drive-through checkouts), buying/try-out kiosks are also some formats that are being used to reduce physical touchpoints for customers. Athletic footwear (A&F) players have seen store shutdowns but have also benefited from continued technology investments. Some A&F organizations have ramped up content marketing and adjusted subscription prices for digital fitness programs. It’s likely stores will become more conceptual and experiential, with customers being engaged in a better way through digital athlete training regimes.

There is also a growing preference for AI store assistants to supplement the customer experience with product information and recommendations. AI can also answer questions as well as take orders for customized products that have a different color, stitching, size or accessories. Now is the time for consumer companies to invest in the data, technology and systems required to deliver exceptional consumer experiences. Organizations that can understand customers better and adapt faster are likely to be the next customer-experience leaders.

Consumer companies must invest in the data, technology and systems required so they are able to deliver the kinds of exceptional consumer experiences that will give them a competitive edge and position them as the next customer-experience leaders.

3. Dynamic and agile supply chain planning

During the lockdown, inventory management became a problem as people started stockpiling and manufacturing went on freeze temporarily. A spike in online sales, abrupt consumption patterns, disrupted supplies and unpredictable future have made organizations realize that what worked till now, will not work in the future. How can companies accurately forecast demand and capture the impact of situations such as a pandemic? An effective way would be greater collaboration for demand sensing between retailers and manufacturers, especially for anomalies. Furthermore, automation of sales operations and creating a digital environment to manage their entire supply chain is critical if companies need to build sales resilience.

4. Innovation in customer connect

While people continue to remain socially distant, bringing offline experiences online will ensure they continue to connect with the brands they identify with. Even though digital marketing has been a focus for CPG companies, greater impetus must be placed on leveraging new age communication channels to create deeper engagement with consumers. Some social media platforms have already enabled CPG companies to gain higher traction by personalizing communication compared to traditional marketing channels.

Additionally, influencer marketing, YouTube channels, blogs, etc., are all being used to create excitement around brands, new launches, etc., and drive the end-users toward purchase. Companies are constantly innovating new ways of connecting with consumers. Adopting technologies, including Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), will completely change the way brands communicate, launch new products and engage with consumers, all while ensuring the safety of consumers is not compromised.

As social distancing continues to be the norm, bringing offline experiences online will ensure continued customer engagement with an organization’s brand. The next step, however, must now be a bigger focus on leveraging new age communication channels with the aim of creating deeper consumer engagement. 

To remain relevant and adapt to changing consumer behaviors, CPG companies must adopt agile operating models to lead in this dynamic environment. Digital is becoming an integral part of the customer’s purchase journey. Organizations need to analyze consumer consumption data in existing digital channels, modify assortments, build a robust network, and simplify and optimize UI/UX to enable a better customer buying experience. Physical stores should allow frictionless shopping, redesign store layouts, streamline store operations and reevaluate store networks to increase consumer confidence in physical channels. This must be supported by flexible delivery models and robust supply networks (fungible stores and warehouses).

A superior personalized experience can be achieved by enabling a seamless purchase journey for the consumer with close collaboration between physical and digital channels and being innovative in building omnichannel capabilities. In the long run, achieving these objectives will future-proof organizations and help them retain their competitiveness.


The COVID-19 pandemic has created what many expect to be irreversible trends in customer behaviors. But there is a competitive advantage to be gained by CPG companies that embrace this new reality and adopt emerging trends, such as agile supply chain planning and innovative ways to connect with customers.

About this article

By Sukesh Choubey

EY Global Delivery Services SAP, Microsoft and Supply Chain Leader

Supply chain and technology professional with extensive global experience.