Let me tell you about the wild goose chase I went on for a tiny collectible figurine.

It started out simple enough: my daughter asked for a L.O.L. Surprise Doll, a kind of 21st century version of the beloved Beanie Babies from the ‘90s. What I soon discovered was not only were the L.O.L. Dolls limited edition and in scarce supply, it felt like every child within a 10 mile radius had to have one.

Only a couple years old, the L.O.L. Dolls brand already dominates a toy category that’s saturated with dolls. How? My daughter would tell you she loves their YouTube content and the satisfaction that comes with unboxing her dolls. Meanwhile, I’d tell you I see L.O.L. Dolls advertising everywhere I go whether I’m shopping online, browsing social media or at home watching whatever kid’s programming is on the TV.

What L.O.L. Dolls understands is that product alone won’t help them stand out from the competition. In the retail industry, where volatility has increased by 250% since 2010, consumers will always value price and quality. But with more options than ever before, buyers expect more than a good deal from the brands they shop with. Combining child psychology with scarcity tactics, the L.O.L. Dolls brand created something much more in demand than the toys themselves: the customer experience.

Instead of competing on product and value, brands are investing in their retail customer experience to keep consumers coming back for more—well beyond the initial purchase. Winning retailers aren’t just meeting their customers’ expectations; they’re also deploying these experiences as quickly as people demand them. In an industry defined by innovation, retailers need insights that move as fast as consumers do. As customers’ preferences and buying behaviors continue to evolve, so too must the retail customer experience.

Convenience and value are coming into focus

If there’s one thing marketers have learned from quarantine, it’s that consumers crave convenience and value. A lot.

Nine out of 10 consumers are more likely to choose a retailer based on convenience. These days that means offering features like online shopping, instant fulfillment and curbside pickup—anything that simplifies the customer’s path to purchase. Since the start of the pandemic, 79% of US consumers began shopping for groceries online, a 39% increase from pre-COVID times. But when grocery stores can’t fill customer orders or struggle to keep items in stock, 20% of shoppers say they’ll leave their primary grocer for one with better ecommerce offerings.

With unemployment on the rise and incomes continuing to fall, customers are shifting their spending largely toward essential items and spending less overall. Consumers are swapping out clothing and other non-essentials in exchange for personal hygiene and cleaning products as they increasingly prioritize their health and safety.

These shifts in consumer behaviors were accelerated by COVID-19, but they’re likely here to stay for good. Even after the lockdown ends, only 37% of consumers plan to go back to shopping in physical stores, suggesting most are going to stick to online services. Moving forward, retailers need to prioritize building experiences that are both easy to use and offer the greatest value to their customers.

Leading retailers know to listen to their audience

To further connect with their customers, brands are beginning to leverage a tool every brand already has access to: social media.

Armed with social data, brands can keep a pulse on both big picture trends and specific consumer interactions to craft personalized experiences at scale. And tools like social listening enable retailers to distill those thousands of data points into actionable insights to inform how they talk to both individual consumers and their audience at large.

Social data can help retailers better connect with their customers by surfacing pain points and addressing them in real time. Remember that run on toilet paper at the beginning of the lockdown? People were quick to share their horror stories online and several brands, like Who Gives a Crap, took to Twitter to update customers on the status of shipments and when inventory would be back in stock. Sometimes, letting customers know that a solution is in the works can go a long way to smoothing over delays or issues.

Listening also gives retailers the inside scoop on how consumer behaviors have changed since the start of the pandemic—and what trends are here to stay. Where people shop, for example, is changing; 25% of consumers shop more often at locally owned stores and buy locally-sourced products. Additionally, 59% of consumers say they’re likely to continue curbside pickup even after the pandemic ends. Retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond and Walgreens are already accelerating the rollout of their buy online, pick up in store offerings.

The ability to analyze real-time, unsolicited customer feedback gives retailers the ability to pivot campaigns as needed or adjust the buyer experience. Rather than play catch-up or react to larger market shifts, retailers leveraging tools like social listening can stay ahead of trends and be ready for customers on the channels they want with the service they need.

Brands need to be online more than ever before

Maintaining relevance in a customer-driven marketplace means the customer experience has to be consistent everywhere, regardless of which channel (physical or digital) consumers start and end their journey on.

Consumers today expect a consistent buying experience that moves with them, whether they’re at home on their computer, in a physical retail store or on the go on their phones. To reach shoppers stuck at home, retailers are investing in previously untapped channels like mobile commerce. Target recently announced its products were available for purchase through Instagram Checkout while Walmart saw a 160% increase in daily downloads for its mobile app. Customers are also reaching out to retailers on social more; in Q2 2020, retailers saw a 72% increase in the average number of daily inbound messages received compared to Q2 2019. With brick-and-mortar stores mostly out of the question, digital channels like apps and smartphones play a significant role driving the customer experience.

More importantly, retailers need to bring the in-store experience online, recreating the same level of personalization customers expect when they’re in a physical store. For Walgreens, this means creating tools to make it easier for shoppers to refill prescriptions online and offering product recommendations to further personalize the experience. In the social distancing era, make-up brands like MAC and Ulta Beauty are employing AR technology on their mobile apps so customers can sample products they would normally try on in stores.

Pre-pandemic, a retailer’s physical store was once considered paramount to the customer experience. That no longer holds true, and with no guarantee physical stores will make a comeback in the near future, retailers need to invest in their digital channels to engage with their customers.

From acquisition to relationships

The old saying that it’s the journey, not the destination, holds especially true for retailers as they navigate a changing marketplace. If there’s anything I learned from those elusive L.O.L. Dolls, it is that the process of hunting down and finally getting one of those dolls is more rewarding than the toy itself. And that experience alone is enough to keep my daughter asking for more.

In today’s competitive landscape, it’s the experience brands can provide to customers that will separate the market leaders from those struggling to stay relevant. But what recent events have revealed is that winning retailers don’t just meet customer’s expectations—they’re able to stand up those customer experiences as quickly as people ask for them. As consumer behaviors continue to rapidly evolve, brands that aren’t afraid to listen and respond to their customers stand the greatest chance of thriving in this volatile landscape.