Last Call for Customer-Centric Retailing

Dario Martinho
May 17, 2022

From this week, face masks are not mandatory anymore on European Union flights and airports (except in Spain and Italy), more than two years since the start of the pandemic. We may all feel like the pandemic days are about to be something of the past and that things are now getting back to normal. The truth is that some things may actually be changed forever. People worldwide spent these last two years adapting to the “new normal” and, although most of us wanted our lives to get back just as they were, some changes came with interesting challenges. It’s not just about people adapting to a new world. When people start to have new habits and think in different ways, the global market has to adapt as well.

One of the most affected areas was, without a doubt, the travel industry and now, two years later, things seem to be moving forward in a new direction instead of going back to the same place. Last year, online traffic increased by 11% in the travel industry, more than any other (ContentSquare, 2021). Airlines must face the reality of a changing travel experience in a post-pandemic world and create flexible solutions to meet the needs of the “new normal customer”.

online traffic by industries in 2021

The world was already on a fast-paced journey to digital transformation and the pandemic came to accelerate the rhythm of change. Many customers who were hesitant regarding online shopping are now comfortable with that new habit, and generations Y (millennials) and Z were already shopping online not only for plane tickets but for everyday things like groceries. These times, when the world stopped for a moment, brought much uncertainty, and a strong effort to strengthen digital solutions can be quite a challenge. Fortunately, many airlines are facing this situation as an opportunity and that can only lead us to an exciting future in travel.

Flying Above and Beyond Expectations

Customer-centric OTAs and travel suppliers are moving to the next level. Let’s take the example of Airbnb which just launched a new way of selling travel, based on the experience that customers are looking for. Or Amazon introducing a beta in the US to sell digital travel experiences. Airlines such as Southwest which was already leading in digital experiences just introduced additional mobile self-service options to enhance and personalize the customer experience along the travel journey. Travelers will be able to add for example an upgrade for priority boarding before leaving to the airport, instead of having to queue at the airport or call the contact center. All airlines understand now that their business model and digital ecosystem needs a serious revision.

Imagine someone — we all know this person — who started a new job in this post-pandemic scenario. What new challenges come to mind for this consumer who now has to create a whole office in the house? The journey has shifted completely. This person will spend some time on a thorough search for the right products and maybe find out some other products or services that were unknown before. There’s the space for recommendations where the store will gain the customer’s trust and loyalty.

It’s not just about providing the right product, the expectations are already high. The companies who manage to surprise their customers by going beyond are the ones who will win this innovation race. The companies who do this properly make their customer feel they matter all the time, and right in the device we all can’t seem to leave — the smartphone. It’s Amazon that lets you know your new ergonomic chair is arriving today, it’s the fitness app that sends you a notification that you haven’t been working out for two weeks, or any food delivery service that sends you a reminder that tonight is perfect to order tacos from your favorite place. When it comes to travel it shouldn’t be any less than this.

The Future Customer Experience is Now

If we agree that the customer journey has severely changed with the last pandemic then it’s imperative for airlines to invest in extensive research on user experience. Airlines could learn a lot from retailers that are investing in this customer experience more than ever, and it all starts with how much they prioritize user research. Tesco, one of the largest supermarket chains, realized how many customers were tired of commuting to the office in the city center because they didn’t have the ideal conditions to work from home. The result is that Tesco is now creating flexible office spaces inside their supermarkets. This is a clear example of companies that listen to the customer’s needs and provide solutions beyond expectations.

Concepts like innovation and flexibility have never been so crucial and, in the end, it’s all about who takes off quickly to this transition. The airline industry has been able to reach a certain level of modernization since the general adoption of the internet, however, this evolution is still deeply rooted in the same concepts and flows from decades ago. Low-cost carriers, for example, have been driving digital adoption and agile commercial policies, gradually augmenting their products. Even these companies are now realizing the need to move to the next level to remain relevant. It’s urgent to implement leaner technology and processes or rather to simplify and get rid of unnecessary processes.

The latest digital retail platforms, tools, and methods are getting increasingly important for airlines if they want to become true retailers. Air Asia aims to generate 50% of its revenue with non-travel / non-aviation related revenue by 2025. The ultimate goal is that airlines become completely customer-centric in every area. It requires getting away from legacy technology fast, which was built around transactions and not around the customer. This could mean the end of booking classes or fare filing and the beginning of a simplified and flexible process. Alongside innovative platforms travel suppliers will be ready to adopt existing next-gen services and, at the same time, guarantee a first-class ticket to future trends.

People want to travel, and only a few airlines have really used the pandemic to lay the foundations for the transformation journey and move with full speed - and low risk - to ensure they have a state of the art customer proposition. With additional challenges - and opportunities - that sustainability and new mobility models present there will be a lot of new players joggling for positions and some unforeseen ones such as rail becoming stronger again. At the beginning of the next decade, in 2030, we forecast a fundamentally different travel experience. If airlines do not grab the opportunities of digital retailing they risk increasingly turning into operating units for the players who will.