As more retailers re-open and competition increases for tighter purse strings amidst COVID-19, brands need to pay close attention to what customers have to say.

While a minority of customers might be eager to get back to normal without any safety measures, more consumers choose retailers that make them feel comfortable shopping, such as through clear, practical physical distancing and sanitary practices.

For example, a GasBuddy analysis finds that U.S. gas stations with above-average cleanliness ratings had 17% more visits than competitors with below-average cleanliness ratings during the period of January 1, 2020 – April 30, 2020.

In addition to identifying cleanliness as a common component among positive reviews, GasBuddy also finds that how companies take care of employees and the community amidst COVID-19 can move the needle on consumer sentiment. Providing discounts to first responders, paid sick leave for employees, and hazard pay can all make a difference in the eyes of consumers.

When brands fail to take these factors into account — or when they do a great job of adapting to this environment, such as by making curbside pickup seamless — customers let retailers know through reviews. For example, Yelp data shows that one in six reviewers each day includes phrases related to COVID-19, as of the end of March.

Yelp also notes that mentions of service staff by reviewers dropped from a share of over 10% to under 2%, since some aspects of in-person customer service have become less prominent with physical distancing. Thus, retailers need to step up in other areas such as product quality and order accuracy while being clear about how they’re supporting employees and the community.

Prioritizing Customer Feedback

Some brands might feel like they don’t have the resources to analyze customer feedback at a chaotic time like this, but ignoring reviews only makes it harder to correct any problems that prevent customers from returning. In this new era, holding onto customers and giving them a reason to continue purchasing takes on heightened importance and ought to be a part of every go-to marketing strategy.

Plus, analyzing what competitors are doing right can give brands insights into how they can adapt. For example, if customers leave positive reviews for companies based on factors like offering contactless payment methods or making sanitizing wipes for shopping carts readily available, implementing these offerings could be a more cost-effective way to attract and retain customers compared with traditional advertising.

As such, companies may need to shift resources into these areas of customer service and marketing, whether that means hiring more customer experience representatives, discussing safety measures on social media, using technology to analyze customer feedback or a combination of approaches.

To start, retailers should focus their resources on diving into online reviews placed on e-commerce websites, which tend to be more genuine than the feedback left on customer surveys that large brands often deploy.

While analyzing customer surveys might be more straightforward, the sample size tends to be smaller and can yield misleading results depending on the questions posed by the brand. Instead, online reviews can more organically capture what customers are feeling in this environment, while still allowing space to comment on common areas like product/service features and experience.

In addition to looking at online reviews through sites specifically designed to allow for customer feedback, like Yelp, retailers should also look through sources such as social media. As customers talk about brand experiences on these platforms, retailers can get a more complete picture of what consumers want in this environment.

Diving Into Unstructured Data

Unstructured data, such as the text within social media posts or customer emails, can be hard to manually make sense of. Yet in this environment, unstructured data can be even more valuable, as the difference between a four – and five-star review isn’t necessarily about product quality but perhaps about an overlooked area of service related to COVID-19. As such, retailers have an even more pressing need to dive deeper than the structured data of ratings and find ways to turn anecdotes into actionable insights.

Part of diving into unstructured data involves retailers making customer feedback analysis a company-wide initiative, rather than just a customer service function. Different departments, each with their own KPIs, need to be able to review unstructured data to find ideas for improving brand marketing, product development, public relations, etc. By having more hands on deck, analyzing unstructured data becomes a bit more manageable.

Still, not every brand has the analysts and R&D resources to get the most out of unstructured data, nor do retailers necessarily want employees to take the time to read through every type of customer feedback.

That’s where automation can come in, with a growing category of unstructured data analysis tools making it more viable to quickly find insights amidst different types of feedback. For example, brands might already be using a social media management platform to schedule social media posts, and within these tools, retailers can increasingly tap into social listening capabilities to access analytics based on what customers are saying online.

Paying attention to these metrics can be the difference between quickly figuring out what makes customers comfortable shopping in certain stores vs. guessing what customers want and falling behind. In this tenuous environment, retailers can’t afford to wait. Listening to customers now is the fastest way to figure out how to best serve them.