Embracing Digital To Meet Consumer Needs Through COVID-19: A Conversation with Ace Hardware
Taking place in late July 2020, The Stagwell Group’s Transformation Summit offered a moment in time to look back and reflect on the changes the ad and marketing industry has seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For brands, the most significant of these changes has arguably been the acceleration and shift to the digital ecosystem, so when our partners at The Stagwell Group tapped us to deliver a session, we knew our experience with our client ACE Hardware would be beneficial for fellow marketing industry professionals to hear about. Below, we present a recap of the fireside chat between our Managing Director of North America, Valerie Davis, and Mark Lowe, Ace Hardware’s Director of their Digital Center of Excellence.
This interview was adapted from a live panel discussion on Thursday, July 30th as part of The Stagwell Group’s Transformation Summit.
Valerie: Since ACE was already on the path toward digital transformation pre-COVID, could you tell us how that journey started, as well as how COVID-19 may have accelerated your journey in digital transformation?
Mark: We started back in 2016, and at that time we were in the process of looking to upgrade our website to better represent our local stores and what makes them unique, and through that, to better serve our customers. We launched that new website in 2018, and the following year in 2019, we rolled out a host of new features like same-day delivery. This project set us up well for the COVID environment because we had the digital capabilities to keep up with customers’ changing needs.
From a digital marketing perspective, the business has really been leaning in and further leveraging digital as a means to reach consumers and support key initiatives we’re trying to do as a brand and support our stores.
Valerie: So with the reality of COVID setting in, and knowing that it has forced a faster shift in consumer mindset toward digital, Ace was fortunate to be deemed an essential retailer, and from the numbers we’ve seen demand for your products was not an issue. But a lot goes into getting products in the hands of consumers. Can you talk about ACE’s approach and how you pivoted to meet that shift in customer needs?
Mark: Yes! As you mentioned, we were very fortunate to be deemed essential and to continue to serve the neighborhoods our stores are in. And at ACE, that’s what we’re all about, we exist to help others, so, as things were unfolding quickly back in March, we listened to our customers’ feedback and were able to launch curbside pickup on the website. Curbside was something we thought about and had done some small tests for, but we were not in a position to roll that out yet. We fast-forwarded that feature given the feedback we received and also recognizing the overall shift in how consumers were shopping.
We added messaging on the website about curbside pickup on the product pages, the check-out page, and in our emails. We also educated our stores on how to execute this new feature, and we accomplished all of this in under a week. While there is room for improvement in the future, our teams were galvanized by this big challenge, and they really stepped up to hear the voice of the consumer and pivot to meet it.
Valerie: Absolutely! So, talking about the pivoting and some of the messaging on the website, can you speak more specifically on your marketing strategy shift during COVID-19?
Mark: The Spring season is a really busy time for ACE, with people spending more time outside completing home improvement projects and taking care of their lawns. Given that, in March of this year, prior to COVID, we were gearing up for different local and national events, and we had to take a moment to pause and look at our messaging and see if it still aligned with the stay at home order. We did end up pivoting across all of our marketing channels, and being digital, we were the tip of the spear in getting that new messaging out quickly. As many businesses started to close, we had to get the message out that as an essential business we were still open, and we used display ads and video campaigns to accomplish this.
One of the things that we all learned during COVID is that properly washing your hands takes 20 seconds, and ironically if you sing the ACE jingle four times in a row that takes the 20 seconds. To do our part in helping the communities stay safe, we got a video of some kids having fun with the jingle, and we released that out over social media. (check this out below!)
Valerie: That’s actually one of my favorite ads!
Mark: Yes, and we know these are very serious times, but we thought this would be a great and fun way to get the message out and help the communities.
Valerie: Based on much of the research I’ve seen, the consumer mindset shift to digital is really here to stay. If you were to look to the near future, the next six months to a year or so, what would ACE’s priorities be on your continued path to digital transformation?
Mark: While none of us have a crystal ball, I think it is safe to say that we will not be going to a situation we were in pre-COVID, and these consumer behavior shifts are here to stay. This time has really galvanized our thoughts on pushing forward through our digital evolution, and even has us thinking about what the next evolution of the curbside pickup could be. Also, we are thinking about how we can better optimize our distribution centers so that we can get items to our customers even quicker.
Before the pandemic one of our big goals for the year was to improve our UX, and we’re also continuing to lean heavily into that. So many things that we learned going into this have just been reinforced, and we’re harnessing new learnings from this time to continue to meet consumer demands. The importance of digital as a touchpoint, whether customers are using that first or whether they’re using that in lieu of going to a physical store, has never been more important.
Valerie: I couldn’t agree more and not just because of the role that I play in it all but having seen this trend across all of our brands and recognizing the need to move in this direction. What advice would you give retailers in terms of having to adapt quickly to meet consumer demands in this fast-paced environment we’re in today?
Mark: The key is to meet the customer demand and understand what the customer need is and be able to adapt to it. One of the things that we tap into a lot is our store owners and associates. They are on the front line every day getting real-time feedback from customers on what they truly need, so communicating with them is essential for us to meet the changing needs. If you don’t have that line of sight into the voice of your customer, making sure you have that is a great place to start.
Valerie: I just want to close by saying it has been wonderful working with you through this process and I know our team has really enjoyed it. I think ACE stayed true to who they are as a brand being “the helpful hardware store” during this time, and that all the pivoting in messaging and meeting consumers’ needs with curbside pickup really resonated with your audiences.
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