Over the weekend, I saw a commercial for the rural lifestyle retailer Tractor Supply Company called “Stronger Together." Like many current ads, it thoroughly communicates that Tractor Supply Company cares about the health and safety of the customers and employees in its stores. More than anything, it increased my respect for a retailer I haven’t thought of in years because it shows they understand how to address these concerns.

What made this COVID-19-themed safety commercial feel different is that it ended with a tag for a microsite, TractorSupply.com/StrongerTogether. Rather than spending time talking about tactics that make us feel safe like “contactless payment” or platitudes like the ubiquitous “commitment to safety,” Tractor Supply Company backed up its safety message with information that showed how they were acting on that commitment. The intent was clear – to build trust that Tractor Supply Company has its customers’ best interests in mind and is taking its COVID-19 safety measures seriously.

At its heart, this direction is central to the guidance we have offered at Kaplow Communications for nearly 30 years – empathetic communication is key because it resonates with what consumers value most.

This communications approach is echoed on many top retailers’ websites. But the list of those not addressing how their stores are protecting returning customers from COVID-19 is much longer. And by overlooking the opportunity to address consumers in the most empathetic of ways, they may be losing the trust and loyalty of their base.

But the key to driving traffic back to their physical stores lies within the communication of three simple truths: the need for safety, trust and innovation. Everyone can discuss their safety messages in a variety of ways – via press releases, social media feeds, TV commercials and more – but those who embrace an integrated approach that transparently displays this messaging across all channels are more likely to see a bigger return.

Learn from the Past

A strong case study can be found by looking at a different complex time. In 2007, toys from a variety of manufacturers were recalled due to inconsistencies in how they were produced in China. The issues caused many gift-givers to swear off buying anything other than toys “made in the USA” for the holidays. However, what many shoppers may not have realized is that the majority of toys are manufactured in China.

At the time, I worked in the Toys“R”Us communications department, and to save our holiday sales, we made the critical decision to overhaul our communications strategy. Before 2007, if media or customers contacted us about product safety, we would politely refer them to the CPSC or the Toy Industry Association, explaining that we were not safety experts.

That all changed in response to the industry crisis. We knew that in order to bring consumers to our doors, we needed to proactively demonstrate our understanding of what was most meaningful to them, which was their safety. To ensure they trusted us and our plan, we elevated ourselves as the safety experts. This was communicated in a variety of ways:

  • We installed Safety Boards in all our stores which provided product recall and general play safety information.
  • We developed a new system that allowed the register to block the sale of recalled items.
  • We worked with all toy and baby product manufacturers to increase product testing. Before the crisis, products arriving from China and other countries were tested randomly. We ensured every batch we received was tested.

These steps were strong, but the key to driving the business forward was in how we messaged this to our customers. To do that, we developed a 360-degree strategy that involved a series of real-time communications including press releases, callouts on our main retail page and a microsite which housed information about product recalls, as well as the dissemination of seasonal safety tips related to play. Our method of building trust around our safety protocols through communications was rewarded with strong foot traffic and an increase in sales.

While it’s impossible to know if today’s retailers looked to the past when designing their approaches, one thing is clear. Retailers, like Tractor Supply Company, who have turned safety into a foundational pillar across all communications channels are likely to connect with their consumers on an emotional level.

This level of transparency lets customers know their concerns are being heard and addressed as comprehensively and effectively as possible. Rather than focusing on sales-specific messaging, like “contactless drive-throughs,” they have established that their places of business are as safe as they possibly can be during the pandemic.

Keep up the Omnichannel Strategy

Of course, more than a decade after toy retailers faced a quality control crisis, technology allows consumers and retailers to interact in new ways. Before the pandemic, omnichannel strategies – those that seamlessly combine in-store shopping with online methods – were talked about in terms of their convenience. They save time and allow customers to order items that aren’t in-stock online or in their local stores.

Since the country’s lockdown, omnichannel has become more important. It offers retailers a way to slow the sales decline at physical stores, while offering a message that empathizes with consumers’ concerns. But, as the country reopens, instinct may drive retailers to reduce messaging around omnichannel while positioning the in-store experience as part of the return to normalcy.       

This is a mistake. Over the past four months, omnichannel has become a standard bearer for safety messaging, showing shoppers how they can stay safe while buying necessities. Reducing communication around it risks alienating customers who are not yet ready to enter buildings. This lifeline is essential to communicating safety and trust. While understanding that there may be shifts in consumer behavior, we need to keep consistent messaging through multiple touchpoints to speak to everyone no matter where they fall on the comfort scale.

Omnichannel also acts as a long-term communications platform. What started as a way to blunt the convenience of online shopping has transformed into a viable means for traditional retailers to continue to sell consumer products, food and other items as safely as possible. Now, the messaging must further evolve, elevating the safety message for those not ready to enter physical stores while still encouraging in-store visits, as well as standard convenience message. This approach will set retailers up for the present while addressing continually changing shopping habits of the COVID generation who may never feel the need to shop inside of a store. Most importantly, it shows they care.

While many retailers are opening their doors and discussing safety, it will be interesting to see which come out on top. My bet is on those that put the consumers’ heads and hearts at the forefront of their decisions.

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Bob Friedland, Senior Vice President at Kaplow Communications, has more than 20 years of experience guiding retail, health & wellness, consumer goods, consumer technology, corporate communications and thought leadership communications programs.


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