Roundtable: Retail marketing challenges in the year ahead

Retail Gazette and Emarsys hosted a roundtable exploring the online marketing challenges of 2021 and how retailers are looking to address them in the year ahead.

The battle to retain the pandemic-induced spike in newly acquired customers, and recent privacy-related changes by Google and Apple that make it more difficult to trust marketing metrics are two key challenges for retailers ahead of the new year.

That is according to a recent retailer roundtable event, where participants were also largely in agreement that personalisation is a powerful strategy in driving successful marketing campaigns.

These topics and much more were discussed as representatives from an array of UK retailers joined co-hosts Retail Gazette and marketing software company, Emarsys, for the virtual event on 16 December.

Senior figures from retailers such as Ideal Shopping Direct, Marks & Spencer, New Era, Next, Rapid Electronics, SportPursuit and THG attended the event, to reflect on a challenging year while looking forward to the opportunities in the 12 months ahead.

Personalisation power

The Emarsys Retail Roadblocks report, which was published earlier this year, states that 85% of the 500 marketers surveyed for the research said personalisation is important to driving both increased revenue and better customer experiences.

The retailers at the roundtable agreed it can be a powerful marketing technique.

“Our strategy is to make every email as relevant as possible,” explained Andrew Bell, head of customer relationship management at SportPursuit.

“Whatever you can do algorithmically to make the content of emails more relevant always achieves results – it’s always a goal to make that a key part of the process.”

Drawing on her experience from working at several retailers over the last few years, another roundtabler remarked: “Personalised emails really do make a difference.”

According to the Emarsys report, though, 24% of marketers can’t easily act on the data they have on existing customers, which holds back their personalisation efforts.

“If you don’t have good data, you’re in trouble,” acknowledged Bell.

But for Ashley Payne, chief marketing officer at Ideal Shopping Direct, the wider retail world misunderstands the meaning of personalisation.

“It should be about treating people differently across a lifecycle,” he commented, agreeing that this relies on good data analysis and management.

“Those who have a team who understand the data and have the in-depth knowledge of customer behaviour will win,” Payne added.

Team structure and technology

A big part of the conversation centred on retailer resourcing. In what has largely become a candidate’s job market due to the high demand for growth retailers to fill new or recently vacated positions, guests debated the balance required between in-house marketing and tech development and outsourcing.

There were retailers who explained they had recruited additional digitally-skilled staff to deal with the upturn in eCommerce in the pandemic, while one retailer suggested his business looks to build many tools and systems in house to help support marketing strategy.

But Emarsys’s research suggests 57% of marketers think there is not enough time in the day for them to do their jobs properly – and with 83% of retailers having swapped out at least one piece of tech over the last year – this is causing significant pressure in marketing and digital teams.

It is raising big questions around how much of this work needs to be outsourced to consultancies, agencies and individual tech providers.

Payne said it is an ever evolving process.

“Always choose the right agency based on the tech your individual organisation needs now and what it’ll need in two years’ time,” he explained, adding it’s important to mix up your in-house expertise and outsourced support continually over time.

Many agencies, he explained, tend to come with their preferred tech partners – and he advised following these organisations’ advice on which providers to work alongside.

Other challenges raised by retailers during the course of the conversation included the difficulties in predicting what type of content will trigger email unsubscribes, and the pandemic-influenced supply issues causing friction among customers.

And due to ongoing global supply chain blockages caused by the pandemic and other international tensions, retailers’ loyal customers are now battling newly acquired shoppers for items that have low availability, said one retailer.

Such a scenario evidently makes it more difficult to foster consumer relationships, and retain shoppers for multiple purchases.

Email engagement rates are not as high as they were this time last year, explained another roundtabler, with people spending less time at home in line with many workplaces opening up again after lockdown-enforced temporary closures.

It was also remarked upon by Payne that a key target for 2022 is to bring marketing teams back together more regularly following long periods of remote working. He suggested retail teams have probably found remote working has been positive from an operational and efficiency perspective, but work is needed to foster departmental relationships again when government guidelines permit companies to do so.

Fergus Walsh, sales manager at Emarsys, who joined the roundtable, said: “Our research shows us that the role of marketing has never been so complex – with those in retail marketing roles needing to balance a whole host of new functions.

“From customer experience, brand, and digital marketing, to CRM, customer retention, and much more, it’s a complicated job. And with the breadth of marketing and commerce channels needed to create customer touchpoints is also stretching marketers to the limit, there’s need for more outside support, new tech and automation.”

He added: “Today’s marketing must be more than just a cost centre for retailers — it must be a revenue centre and a key driver for retail growth. That involves measuring results related to revenue rather than opens and clicks, while exploring, deploying and connecting the full range of channels for customer acquisition and retention.”

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