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This article was contributed by Todd Blaschka, Chief Operating Officer at TigerGraph

COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation among businesses and revolutionized ecommerce as we all adjusted to fluctuating lockdowns and quarantine mandates. The U.S. ecommerce market experienced ten years’ worth of growth in three months in early 2020 as consumers shopped almost exclusively online. COVID-19 created surpluses of some items, increased demand for other items (toilet paper), and disrupted supply chains worldwide. A year-and-a-half later, consumers are continuing to spend, with Americans spending $765 more per month than this time last year. Meanwhile, the pandemic forced businesses into a “distributed everything” model with partners, suppliers, and customers in different locations. Consumers have adapted to supply shortages and unpredictable product availability as they become savvier with their buying behavior. Smart businesses learned to “listen” to consumers, meeting them where they are with what they need when they need it — and personalization is what made this possible. Enterprises that embraced graph technology, AI, and machine learning to highlight connections between different datasets were better equipped to tailor customer interactions, predict supply shortages, and model for various business scenarios.

Business reimagined

At the start of the pandemic, businesses had to rethink, readjust, and reprioritize — all in real-time. The business world shifted from regular, predictable cycles to a distributed, everything-as-a-service model. Businesses had to examine how customers were now interacting with the company. Also, businesses (and ultimately consumers) had to contend with operations and supply chain disruptions. This included the 2020/21 global chip shortage along with shortages of pharmaceuticals, industrial machinery, auto parts, kitchen accessories, and many more items. These shortages prompted more questions: “What orders does my business already have with customers?” “How are these orders going to change once chips are available?” Businesses were struggling to map out various outcomes to multiple business planning questions, while consumers were taking a more direct approach to searching, shopping, and buying.

The new norm of ‘distributed everything’ brought with it an expanded definition of “fulfillment as a service.” Fulfillment extended beyond purchasing transactions to include the gathering of consumer information online — specifically, information that can help the business determine what the end-user is looking for. Meanwhile, the automated, distributed supply chain transferred power to the “people edge.” Consumers were able to purchase insurance directly from an algorithm-driven website rather than via a broker. How can businesses build loyalty in this new virtual, DIY consumer shopping model?

Creating consumer value and stickiness

Since 2020, consumers have learned to embrace the concept of ‘buy online, pick up in store’ (BOPIS). However, the way in which a business engages with a potential customer determines whether there will be a curbside pickup. Today’s better-informed consumers have greater expectations when it comes to personalization. If I’m shopping for life insurance, I can get multiple quotes online from multiple providers in moments. If I get a personalized quote that seems to match my lifestyle and concerns, that will resonate more than a generic template quote.

“Hello! Have your life circumstances changed? Time to reevaluate life insurance! Call your agent today!”

“Hello, Todd! It looks like you will have a child in college next year. Here’s what we are seeing among other members like you in the Bay Area… Would you like to learn more to see if we need to make some adjustments to your current plan?”

Which of the above messages is more compelling?

Similarly, if I visit a sporting goods store online and see real-time recommendations and offers related to my current search and recent buying history, I’m more likely to buy. Travel loyalty programs with customized recommendations for trip packages related to my searching about The Maldives will get a better result as well (especially given many people’s post-vaccine urge to resume travel). And if you think this extra personalization doesn’t matter, consider this: Even now, consumers continue to adjust their buying behaviors as 30 to 40 percent of consumers continue to switch brands or retailers. Every business needs to ask how they can help customers (or potential customers) by adding personalized value to their shopping experience.

Distributed consumers, ever-changing trends

The post-pandemic consumer has become educated, tracking supply chain trends and worldwide product shortages. Today’s consumer is not only seeking product information, but also how long it will take for that product to be delivered. If one retailer offers a sound system product but takes four weeks to deliver, the shopper will likely buy the same product on a competitor’s site if it can reach him in one week.

Today’s consumer also isn’t interested in excuses — especially when it comes to convenience. Survey results indicate that only one in five (21%) U.S. consumers say they are forgiving retailers and brands for COVID-related service disruptions. When it comes to in-store or curbside pickup, customer experience matters as well. A crowded parking lot, long wait times, and/or limited inventory at my local store means I may shop elsewhere.

COVID-19 has forced many businesses to adapt to different communications, travel, and supply chain infrastructure models as people moved from urban cities to more remote areas. Businesses should monitor real-time population data that align with evolving urbanization trends. What may prompt an impulse buy or increase demand for certain items? Businesses must then communicate with producers, manufacturers, and suppliers at every touchpoint along the customer buying journey — from click to delivery (or pick up) — to ensure a consistent customer experience.

Know thy customer

“Distributed everything” — data, people, and devices — continues to accelerate. How can businesses keep one step ahead of the curve to anticipate, address, and meet consumer shopping trends? Graph technology, AI, and machine learning can help uncover relationships among diverse sets of data — connections that yield key consumer insights. An insurance company may have your information in many business units, systems, and silos (life insurance, homeowner’s insurance, etc.). If that company can link data within these disparate smokestacks and examine not only your policy history but the characteristics of other people with similar policies in your area, you are more likely to get a personalized recommendation.

The smart company works to model the entire business around how their customer thinks, what they want, and how they act. In a distributed world, a singular business commitment to customer personalization is the difference between a purchase and a loss.

Todd Blaschka is the  Chief Operating Officer at TigerGraph.

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