Email Crisis Control: Retailers Say It's Their Main Channel During Pandemic

Email, which some once saw as the ho-hum channel, has become a lifeline for retailers during the COVID-19 pandemic, judging by Renaissance: How Email Marketing Helps Brands Thrive Again, a study by Epsilon. 

Epsilon spoke to 10 clients from June 17 to June 30. Most agreed that email has been their most important channel during the crisis. Their messaging has typically focused on:   

  • COVID-specific messaging like safety information, policy changes, relief efforts and supply chain updates.
  • Changes in business operations — i.e., curbside pickup. 
  • Business-as-usual marketing campaigns, including those not relating to COVID-19. 

Many of the respondents have also used email for promotional offers, including “free shipping, 10% off and curbside pickup —and specific product offers. Some used it for updates to product mix and value-added offers,” the study notes.

Another benefit of email is that it has driven the most online sales traffic, partly due to the shift from brick-and-mortar. 



Email has also utilized to divert traffic from overloaded call centers, and it is the most agile channel, allowing brands to adjust communications on the fly.  

What’s more,  COVID-19 improved perception of the email channel within their companies. Typical remarks included:

  • “A valuable way to communicate to customers that while stores were closed, they could still shop online.” 
  • “We’ve proven that there are ways to make email fast to market (which hasn’t always been the case).” 
  • “The value of email marketing is more understood across the organization.” 

Meanwhile, a large majority of the respondents described email platform stability as an important asset in a marketing partner. 

Many also cited analytics & reporting and client service & account management. And half said data integration and privacy & security are key.  

But only some ranked dynamic content or marketing service as important, and but a few said the same of artificial intelligence. 

The marketers interviewed agreed that brands must have a crisis communication plan in place. 

One said: “We would have been more on target with initial contact regarding COVID, and earlier than we were. Paying better attention faster in terms of what worked vs. what didn’t work in email, and what was selling well. “

These general findings are supported by Epsilon PeopleCloud Messaging stats from earlier in the pandemic. 

These include an 8% increase in unique open rates month-over-month in April, a 12% boost in open rates for COVID-themed emails in March, and a 350% increase hike 

One retailer experienced a 150% rise in online conversions.

Driving this perhaps was a 50% increase in retail emails in March.

What’s next? Consumers are becoming accustomed to the convenience of digital channels. Over 40% of those who have ordered groceries online plan to do so again, Epsilon has found.  

Moreover, one in seven consumers are unsure about when they will feel safe to return to retail storefronts. The most important driver across most generations is when the government says it’s safe. 

How does a retail brand communicate during these uncertain times?

“The consensus is clear: Brands must stay connected with consumers when chaos ensues — and email is the best way to do that,” Epsilon concludes. 


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