September 23, 2020

COVID-19 Shoppers Seek Secure Experiences Now More Than Ever

By Mike Cassidy, Signifyd lead storyteller

It is no secret that retail is in the midst of a re-calibration brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has changed consumers' habits and thinking.

The shift to online shopping has been nothing short of stunning. Buy-online-and-pick-up-in-store or at the curbside is transforming from being a nice-to-have to being a must-have. And a new cadre of online shoppers is giving every indication that their turn to eCommerce is not a short-term thing, but a life-long routine.

It is a lot. But with their typical resolve and resilience, merchants are recognizing the inflection point and turning it from a challenge to an opportunity. As with any transformation, responding to the COVID-inspired Great Acceleration requires a new way of thinking. And that starts with re-imagining the customer experience.

Admittedly, the term is well-worn, but "customer experience" as a buzz phrase has gotten such a workout because it is so important. And while the phrase has been around forever, the elements of a superior customer experience are not a constant. In fact, what is happening with customer experience in 2020 is on a scale of other dramatic retail transformations. Think of the expansion from all brick-and-mortar all the time to omni-channel retail. Or consider the change from eCommerce on the desktop to mobile commerce on the smartphone.

In 2020, safety is the new customer experience. For the physical store, that means taking into account consumers' COVID-19 anxieties. Retail leaders should roam their own store aisles while channeling their customers. What is off-putting? Where is social distancing a challenge. Take note and address those shortcomings.

Customers need to feel safe online, as well as in-store

Getting in-store experience right means limiting the number of shoppers inside. It means signage encouraging social distancing. It means masks, plastic partitions at checkout areas, and constant and conspicuous cleaning. It means gently reminding customers of these best practices, so that both customers and associates feel secure and valued.

"Retailers have to demonstrate that they are providing a very safe shopping environment," says Shelley Kohan, Chief Strategy Officer at The Robin Report and an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "It is changed how we have to do business."

The need for security, of course, extends to eCommerce shopping excursions as well. In the age of COVID, not only does everything feel more uncertain, the portion of commerce conducted online has grown with unprecedented speed. With non-essential stores closed and with some consumers hesitant to return to stores once they opened, eCommerce has been receiving its star turn since the onset of the pandemic in mid-March.

Consequently, eCommerce sales in April doubled over April 2019, according to Signifyd eCommerce Pulse data. They peaked in May, rising 317% year over year. Online revenue growth subsided as consumers settled into a pandemic routine and stockpiling gave way to planned digital shopping trips. But sales have remained well above 2019 levels with year-over-year increases averaging 139% for the five full months so far of the pandemic.

As interesting as how much was being purchased online was who was doing the online purchasing. Buyers who rarely or never bought online flocked to eCommerce. The number of new customers making purchases from the more than 10,000 merchants on Signifyd's Commerce Network more than doubled in May over pre-pandemic figures. Signifyd defines a new customer as one who has not made a purchase from a merchant on the Commerce Network for at least a year.

New online shoppers are developing an eCommerce habit

These new customers soon showed that they were not short-timers. About half of them returned for multiple purchases within 30 days. The cohort of new shoppers arrived online without the need for expensive acquisition strategies, such as bidding against the competition for digital advertising. Instead, they arrived out of necessity and liked what they found once they did.

So, in this case, the challenge for retailers was not acquiring the customers. The challenge is keeping them. And that is where online security comes in. As part of the customer experience, providing customers a sense of safety is as important as powerful site search, accurate personalization, seamless checkout, timely fulfillment, and helpful customer service.

Customers want reassurance that their credit accounts are secure and they hold merchants responsible when something goes wrong -- no matter that merchants are victims in such crimes as well. For instance, 55.1% of respondents in a 2020 Signifyd poll conducted by Survata said they had seen fraudulent charges appear on the credit accounts. That was up from 43.6% in 2019, by the way.

Of those who had suffered a fraudulent charge, 42.5% said they were left with a negative impression of the retailer with whom the fraudulent charge was made.

Even when charges are legitimate, things can go wrong if customers are not reassured. Shoppers want to hear almost immediately by email that their order has been confirmed. Nearly 41% said they expected a confirmation within minutes. And 18.5% said they cancelled an order when they either did not receive a confirmation in a timely manner or saw that their order status was "pending."

It turns out meeting new customers' high standards is all the harder exactly because there are so many new customers. New customers arrive at a site with no order history. A story must be built around the details of their transaction, but with little to go on. Is this the type of customer who travels a lot and might display an IP address far from her or his geographical billing and delivery addresses? Does travel explain the mismatch in those two addresses?

It is the sort of thing that slows an order down and leaves a new customer with a sense of insecurity.

So, given the complexity of human emotion and retail operations how should retailers approach this new era of security as the new customer experience?

Nine ways to reassure wary shoppers in-store and online


  • Limit the number shoppers inside physical stores. Consider shopping-by-appointment and virtual sales sessions and consultations.

  • Install abundant signage: social-distancing markers on the floor, one-way aisles, designated and separate entrance and exit doors.

  • Erect plastic shields at checkout. Provide abundant hand sanitizer. Remind associates of shoppers' anxieties and make sure associates know they are valued and that their good health is a priority.

  • Require face coverings for all customers, associates, and store staff. Remind customers that it is for the good of everyone.

  • Clean constantly and conspicuously. Cleaning is no longer something that is best done out of sight. Customers are reassured, knowing that surfaces are regularly disinfected.


  • Continue to follow best practices when it comes to securing customers' data. Consider stepping it up a notch as cybercriminals appear to be taking advantage of the chaos caused by the coronavirus to prepare more sophisticated attacks.

  • Assess your risk-management teams and tools. Are you prepared to review orders quickly and reassure customers that their orders have been received and their goods are on the way? Are you seeing a rise in cancellations? Dig into the reasons. Speed is all the more important now that consumers are turning to buy online, pick up in-store or at the curbside.

  • Optimize curbside pickup. Signifyd data shows curbside and pick-up-in-store orders were up nearly 250% during the first week of September, compared to their pre-pandemic levels. In-store and curbside pickup offer comfort to shoppers who are not ready to spend much, or any, time in a store. Be sure to hone your operations so you can provide pickup within an hour or two, while being able to confirm the identity of the customer picking an order up.

  • Provide a separate and distinct area for in-store order pick up to avoid creating congestion around customer service or checkout areas. Allowing space to maintain social distancing is vital both for physical health and peace of mind.
No question, retail is in the midst of a challenging time. But it is also a time of transformation and opportunity. Now it falls on the industry to seize that opportunity while embracing a new era.