Is empathy the new brand equity of retail?

by Mimi Nicklin. This is a new world where the customer IS our organisation.

by Mimi Nicklin. 2020 will always be the year that was. A year that saw us shop from home, browse from bed and try on a new shade of lipstick via an app. We bought our nappies in bulk and swapped weekly shopping for store cupboard stocking, as we reframed our entire engagement with our favourite stores. As South Africa opens up in the months ahead, old habits will gradually return but, as we know, it barely takes a month, 21 days to be specific, to form new habits and today we all have firm new habits.

If we want shoppers to head back to our stores with zest, we might use this time to reassess how we reward them for doing so. Ultimately, our experiences of these months won’t be forgotten. Surveys show that 80% of companies think they deliver great experiences, but only 8% of customers agree. As we embark on our retail regeneration in the months ahead, we might consider that we could shift the focus from trying to fit the customer into our organisation, to a new world where we recognise that the customer IS our organisation: that their experience, of our experience, is the only experience; and of our key retail challenges, the first will be to protect and enhance this for each one of them.

As shoppers begin to head back into malls and stores, it will be our deep empathy for their choices, and their needs, that will ensure that they openly step through our doors. We know from developments in behavioural economics, that shoppers make decisions in seemingly irrational ways, influenced by emotional, social and behavioral drivers. It is only through the true understanding of these, of having empathy for these needs, that we can get close to solving the puzzle that is the shopper decision-making journey.

Deeply resonant insights will only be found through listening, empathetic listening – the type of listening that allows the marketing and trade teams to truly bundle products that make sense to the shopper and not only to our shelf space. The form of insight that increases promotional effectiveness by 20-30%. The form of insight that stops us from treating buyers as homogenous, rational, price-driven robots. A form of insight that moves us away from a world that is relying on offering bigger discounts as the hook. Retail fodder that feeds instant gratification, and may indeed provoke an instant sale, but that doesn’t understand the human behind the wallet and therefore has not and cannot fuel a repeat purchase.

Empathetic marketing

Whether in food retail, luxury goods or the local car showroom, an empathetic salesperson and store journey can make the difference between a customer’s decision to stay and shop or to retreat to their phones in the hope of finding a more rewarding experience elsewhere. Given that we know that it is emotions that drive sales, we shouldn’t underestimate the fact that people are looking for understanding more today than ever before. It’s a subconscious cry for help that humanity is exuding en masse. Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Perhaps this should be our rallying cry for retail in the weeks ahead?

As we navigate through these months, and our renewed store plans, it’s worth remembering that as our world rocked, so did our confidence and our spending. Mutual understanding isn’t just about our ability to offer physical protection from the virus circumnavigating the globe, but the feeling of safety and comfort that familiarity and authenticity offers. That our stores can offer. As we adapt our customer experience strategy to post-Covid times, the focus on offering ‘easy to understand, easy to use and easy to access’ solutions, that bundle products smartly and budgets together, will be received with more reward than ever before.

This level of understanding represents the new future we all so nervously look toward; where a stores’ values – its humanity and its understanding – will ultimately lead to increased financial value that rebuilds our stock, as well as our future.


Mimi Nicklin hosts Empathy for Breakfast, a weekly breakfast show, and a podcast, Secrets of the Gap. She is also a mom and an author, and her debut book, Softening the Edge, will be out soon.



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