Production and cargo ships might have been stalled, but shoppers keep on moving. For retailers short of in-demand goods, this could mean losing some customers for a long time.
In 2020, many manufacturers halted or slowed production of items due to the pandemic and are now struggling to fill jobs needed to return to full production. Other goods are short of market, having been stuck in ports here or abroad.
Meanwhile, the appetite for these goods is peaking as consumers seek exciting ways to use their unspent entertainment budgets and government stimulus checks. Further, 73% of shoppers told IBM they want to return to stores after being vaccinated. Yet retailers should not expect them to pay more, or wait. Consumers have a lot more buying options now than even before the pandemic, and many offer free or expedited delivery as a purchase incentive.
It’s time to offer a surplus of engagement. Here are some major items that are reaching unicorn status, and some suggested ways retailers can keep shoppers in touch until goods are available and affordable.
1. The bonus room is becoming five-star luxury. Lumber prices have soared 300% since 2020, according to the National Association of Home Builders, as new-home construction boomed during the pandemic. It takes about two years to build a mill, so even wood producers that would like to step up capacity can’t do so immediately. Additionally, they face a labor shortage, which likely will cause homeowners to put off new projects.
What retailers can do: Satisfy the customer's desire to improve their homes in alternative ways, by showcasing window treatments, floor coverings and other cosmetic DIY endeavors. Ikea’s “Inspiration & ideas” website page, which offered pandemic-coping suggestions in 2020, includes an “Inspiration by room” section with space-refreshing concepts from the hallway to the kitchen. Ideas like this can be carried a step further through in-store and online tutorials that also promote store merchandise (and expertise).
2. Appliances are hot! From chest freezers to washing machines, appliance sales surged during the pandemic due to more use and to old-fashioned upgrading. However, because many appliances are imported from China, shiploads of them were delayed or are still docked in ports, awaiting workers to unload them.
What retailers can do: Offer loaners. Independent appliance retailers, for example, have stepped in to lend short-term appliances, even refrigerators, to customers waiting for back-ordered products. This option will likely be remembered, as will the experience, so it’s an opportunity for the retailer to ensure the service is top-tier. Another enticement, for people awaiting back orders, is to offer ancillary bonus items, such as a limited-supply of free detergent or dishwasher pods. Retailers may find manufacturers – especially online startups – eager to enter such collaborations.
3. Bicycle sellers dealing with chain reaction. A fish doesn’t need a bicycle, yet for a while bicycle shipments were floating right above the fishes, docked in Chinese ports at the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, sales of cycles rose 78% from January to March, compared with the same period in 2020, and that follows a 38% increase over the same months in 2020, according to NPD Group.
What retailers can do: In addition to promoting specials on upgrades and bike refurbishing (assuming even the parts are available), cycle shops can initiate share-and-swap programs, where customers add or sell their bikes to a pool of rentals. To enhance the shared-riding experience, bike shop operators can include personalized tour maps and organized group outings, which support the biking community. As for customers who still want to order a bike, a reward program like that of California-based Performance Bike, can give back-order priority to VIP members.
4. Pool parties are getting cleaned out. Americans installed nearly 100,000 swimming pools in 2020 – a 23% increase from 2019, according to research by Goldman Sachs. Then, in August 2020, a massive fire broke out at a factory operated by chlorine producer BioLab, stalling production. Consumers do not want to hang up their swimsuits, however, and retailers feel the pressure to offer solutions to pool-party planners.
What retailers can do: Pool sellers can turn the chlorine shortage into a “keep in touch” opportunity by offering to notify registered customers once supply is replenished. This option can be in the form of a reward program that gives priority notification to members, similar to how the North Face XPLR Pass program provides members early access to limited-edition collections. Retailers also can follow the lead of BioLab and provide welcome advice to pool owners on how to keep their pools clean through the shortage.
5. Table steaks getting medium-rarer. Food prices are spiking across the country, but meat products face the added dilemma of short-staffed processing plants that were forced to reduce production during Covid-19 outbreaks. Further, a lot of livestock perished in a deep freeze that hit Texas in early 2021. At the same time, diners are starved for more than tableside attention – they want to taste those long-missed dishes they (still) cannot make at home.
What retailers can do: A lot of restaurants have begun playing up meat alternatives and good chefs are rising to the occasion. The presence of plant-based proteins on restaurant menus rose 118% in 2020, The Washington Post reported in early June. Those restaurants range from everyday chains like TGI Fridays (which in late 2020 expanded its meatless menu) to Manhattan’s celebrated Eleven Madison Park, which reopened in June with a meatless menu that promotes something we all can dig into: sustainability.
Consumers quickly adapted to new ways of shopping during the pandemic and reassessed their priorities. Now vaccinated, and with a little extra cash to spend, they will likely cross any bridge that makes their path to purchase easier. For many, fulfilling that need simply requires that the retailer shows it is working hard for them.
Bryan Pearson is a Featured Contributor to The Wise Marketer and currently serves as a director and strategic advisor to a number of loyalty-related organizations. He is the former CEO of LoyaltyOne.
This article originally appeared in Forbes. Be sure to follow Bryan on Twitter for more on retail, loyalty, and the customer experience.