As brands and retailers strategize to target and build loyalty with customers in the post-pandemic marketplace, new research from ‘near me’ marketing SaaS solutions firm Uberall and its MomentFeed brand reveals how COVID-driven digital acceleration has given birth to a hybrid customer journey that mixes online and in-person behavior when shopping locally, according to the newly released report, The New Face of Local.
“Our report shows that as economies re-open, consumers are much less likely to distinguish between online and offline, and instead prefer a consumer purchase journey that blends physical and digital experiences in a non-linear fashion,” said Nick Hedges, chief strategy officer and EVP North America, Uberall, in a news release.
Google is #1 for local business information
The overwhelming majority of consumers (69 percent) use Google to find local business information, including reviews. However, more than 20 percent also use Apple Maps, Yelp and/or Yahoo to find information about nearby businesses. Industry specific websites and apps (e.g. travel, real estate, restaurants) are also important, with one out of five using these platforms.
“Google is the center of gravity for local search but it’s not the only site consumers turn to for local information,” said Greg Sterling, VP of Insights at Uberall, in the release. “People use a range of directories, sites and apps, which often change by industry or category.”
Local stores remain important to consumers
Despite the significant growth of e-commerce over the past year, less than 18 percent of US consumers prefer to research and buy products exclusively online. By comparison, 74 percent rely on stores at some point during their purchase process, even if the transaction ultimately happens online. Indeed, a little understood fact is that stores support e-commerce: 66 percent of consumers are more likely to buy something online if they can return it to a local store.
“This is a strong indicator that consumers want a real-life experience in their journey—whether to evaluate the physical product in a store and/or the convenience of being able to take it home the same day,” said Hedges. “Though the internet is having a profound impact on consumer decisions, both enterprises and SMBs need to understand the relationship between online and offline behavior to succeed going forward.”
Non-branded searches became more dominant amid COVID
Already the majority of searches, the researchers found that non-branded search queries became even more dominant during the pandemic. Non-branded search is the what (“bookshop near me”), before the who (e.g. “Barnes & Noble near me”).
“The increase in non-branded local searches is a complex phenomenon, largely driven by the value consumers place on proximity, immediacy, and convenience,” said Hedges.
Engagement with online business listings in 2020 was flat—2021 data indicates rapid recovery
COVID disrupted normal consumer activities in 2020. Safety protocols and related restrictions dramatically reduced or eliminated in-person business visits in the U.S. That led to a 1 percent decrease in click-to actions on business listings in search (calls, clicks, directions). However, Q1 2021 saw a big uptick in engagement and actions, an upward trend that will likely continue throughout 2021 as businesses reopen.
“The data shows that a return to in-person shopping is slowly but surely reaching pre-pandemic numbers,” said Hedges. “Furthermore, the importance of local stores can’t be understated. The data shows that Americans are willing to go out of their way in many cases to support local businesses that they trust.”
Some industries fared better than others
As consumers reduced or stopped visiting stores and indoor venues in 2020, industries like finance, retail, and government fared better in terms of click-to actions on local listings. They were able to deliver alternative customer experiences over the phone or through their websites.
- Government saw the biggest increase in local listing engagement, with a 93 percent overall increase in actions taken from local listings, and a 115 percent increase in clicks to websites. This suggests citizens were seeking information from government officials on the latest regulations and restrictions, testing and vaccinations, unemployment, and more.
- Retail saw a 58 percent increase in clicks to websites, indicating a big e-commerce shift.
- Financial and leasing services grew by 10 percent with the largest shift going to click to call.
In the restaurant, entertainment and travel categories, which were heavily impacted in 2020, there was a decrease in listings engagement and online actions across the board. Conversions for many of the companies in these industries depend on in-person experiences that are difficult to directly replicate online.
- Travel saw the greatest decline in actions at -47 percent year-over-year, not surprising given extensive travel restrictions in 2020.
- Social and entertainment industries were also greatly impacted with a -32 percent year-over-year decrease.
- Restaurants fared better, given the ability of many to pivot to online ordering, takeout and delivery; however, there was still a decrease in actions of -18 percent.
As more people adopt hybrid shopping behaviors, in an evolving and unpredictable environment it’s critical for businesses to bring more of the in-person experience online and to integrate online and offline assets to deliver consistent customer experiences across channels.
The report features survey responses from over 1,000 U.S. consumers and analyzes the local online performance of nearly 80,000 business locations.