Challenges and Opportunities: Ecommerce and COVID-19

Astound Commerce UK’s guide to what the pandemic can teach us as it tests us.

We didn’t choose it. It’s a dire public health emergency and a major body blow to the international economy. But the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to think and act in ways that can ultimately make us—and our businesses—stronger.

With those realisations in mind, we’ve created a guide that analyses the coronavirus crisis and identifies the opportunities that are intertwined with the risks. It will allow you to reset your business for the immediate term—and, most importantly, protect and supercharge it for future long-term success. Use this time to make permanent changes that will position your business for growth.

First… the Big Stuff

Take risks. Things remain in flux. You cannot predict what will work and what won’t, so prepare to “fail fast”—but learn faster.

Speed up. Unexpected situations favour the quick and the observant. Recognise the need to stay hyper-competitive as the situation evolves. Cultivate velocity and agility.

Get personal. Maintain close relationships with your people. Allow customers to set the pace in terms of frequency, type of communication, and channel.

Be generous. You may have to accept lower AOV. Don’t fight it, and don’t panic. And whatever you do, don’t damage your brand by discounting big. Show your customers you care through generous offers, new products, service, delivery, and content.

Work on your cadence. You’ll need to work out the right balance of content, promotions, and supportive messages unceasingly. Things will change often and fast. Get used to it.

Tear down the walls. You’ll get great results by bringing operations and customer care together to manage creative, marketing, and trading around customer insight. The new normal: people working across hierarchies, roles, and locations—including from home.

Think Differently

Check where the friction is for customers and your ability to serve and fulfil. Don’t make buying any harder than it is already.

Your to-do list is still there, but all the projects are almost certainly in the wrong order, and some probably shouldn’t be there at all. When rethinking your priorities, consider:

Inventory

  • Shuttered stores are changing into warehouses that can fulfil local online demand.
  • Investigate range extensions and new product lines as habits change. Analyse data continually to determine if shifting tastes are permanent or transitional.
  • Investigate new channels to shift stock, e.g., through Amazon, eBay, Facebook, or Instagram.

Data

  • You’re not driving customer behaviour; it’s driving you. That means you have to be more flexible and make shorter-term plans. Let the data guide you.
  • The need for more data is a given, and it must be centralised and widely available, not siloed in disparate departments. Your customer data platform is thus a top priority. More data translates into better insight, allowing you to spot and capitalise on new behaviours, new customers, new customer types, and new basket combos.
  • Find out where your current business is originating. If you are getting more direct than affiliate or wholesale demand, then you need to replace their conversion efforts with your own.
  • Look deeper. Where is the business coming from? What about customers who do not normally shop online?
  • Mobile is and will remain big, but desktop is back because consumers are stuck at home.
  • Browsing is not sales—but don’t miss the traffic and the pent-up demand that will come later.
  • Personalise and deliver big. Think about lifetime value.

Content

  • Put out fresh content continually. Redirecting the old stuff probably won’t work and sends the message that you’ve decamped, with only the lights left on in your absence.
  • Consider how and where your consumers consume their content, and then go where they are.
  • What value will the lookbook have when your stuff may look better, more real, and more accessible on your staff? Using your own people bolsters your credibility and keeps you connected and grounded with your customers.

Tools

  • Try out the host of platform-native and third-party tools that are available (often on a proof-of-concept basis). They will enable you to optimise performance in a variety of areas and make your unique qualities stand out against those of your competitors.
  • Add personalisation tools so you can respond to changing behaviours quickly and in a way that builds loyalty for the long term.
  • Add new attribution tools so you know who is buying. This will allow you to develop bespoke marketing, promotion, rewards, and sales strategies for each consumer segment.
  • Add tools such as 3-D visualisation, allowing online customers to feel they are in a physical store.
  • Add store-like functions so you can connect staff and customers over Zoom calls for product displays, fitting advice, purchase, and delivery.
  • Add new search tools and ideas; the online journey has changed, and you must adjust accordingly. If you need to save money, look for dead wood to cut. Paid search could be replaced with more organic options, for example.
  • Make better use of the analytics tools you already have. Could they be providing overlooked insights that you can apply immediately?

Act Differently

Surprise and Delight

  • Be generous and be thoughtful; it will be remembered. Grace, consideration, and human decency are among the cornerstones of good online retailing.
  • Do something unexpected. For instance, we have a client who tried a ‘Sale’ for the first time and was pleasantly surprised at how big the uptake was.

Customers Online

  • Customers in lockdown are spending more time online, so monitor their checkout experience. Could it be better?

Products

  • Introduce new products to stimulate your customers’ interest. Offer unique products, such as handbags made from recycled ocean plastic.
  • Introduce more product bundles. These will help you stand out.
  • Is too much choice confusing for customers? Consider narrowing your ranges to make buying easier. 
  • Offer special lockdown-branded products.
  • Are you selling what people want? Look at the trends to make sure you are keeping up.

Orders

  • Keep the site trading 24/7, but restrict orders to fixed periods. This will allow you to organise your fulfilment operations without getting overwhelmed and letting customers down.

Personalisation

  • Identify the traffic that originated from store shoppers, and welcome them in with a ‘Did you shop in our store?’ banner.
  • Look for customers who are in holiday planning mode, or shopping for “Zoom chic” or back-to-work styles.

Loyalty

  • Try for subscriptions with lots of added value. Use Zoom to run beauty classes, clinics, impromptu fashion shows, celebrity advice, and so on.

Content

  • Authenticity and speed beat quality. Less-than-perfect content often connects you with your customers better, particularly with the digital generation.
  • Add content across multiple channels, for example, TikTok.
  • As with products, check the trends so you are keeping up.

Promotions

One of our clients sent out discount vouchers to its Social Media influencers instead of sending free product and was amazed at the uptake and product spend. By empowering influencers to buy what they wanted to share, sales far exceeded both the norm and expectations.

Communications

  • Use ‘at home’ language to sell—start talking about the ‘Great Indoors.’
  • Build excitement with pre-orders for new collections.
  • Email is back, but choose the best time of the week; Mondays usually are optimal.

Search

  • If you have stopped trading for now, make sure you keep the site up for SEO.
  • Monitor onsite search so you can react to new behaviours quickly in terms of categories and placement.

Customer Service

  • Expand the role of customer services staff to include data collection. An Astound client changed its service level agreement (SLA) guidelines because call handlers were spending more time with customers and logging extended personal contact. Customers appreciated the support from other human beings during their isolation; this in turn helped the client learn more about its customers and cut returns.
  • Support customer services with enhanced practical content, FAQs, bots, and so on, so that handlers can spend more quality time with customers.

Work Differently

Success will depend on how prepared you are to collaborate with your colleagues, your partners, and other brands. Check out these scenarios:

Stores

  • Rethink store and ecommerce harmony.
  • A failing store estate may require you to ramp up online. This represents a mutual win-win. You are no longer competing with the store; instead, you’re offering your customers the journey and the experience they want to have, not the one you have imposed on them because the different parts of your business won’t work together.

Partners

  • People still expect quick delivery. Work with partners to develop the best solutions.
  • Collaborate with them on a trial basis in areas such as personalisation, returns management, inventory planning, and temporary hiring.
  • Also consider collaborations with artists to create exclusive products; review your brand ambassador relationships as new people come to the fore who are more connected with current realities.

Colleagues

  • New roles. Once you think about ways to break down the silos, consider expanding the roles of capable people. Introduce split shifts so you have 24/7 focus on customers.

 

Ruthless focus on customers means there will be role overlaps, so embrace them and break down the normal hierarchies. This will include more of your people working from home, which will make them think and act more like customers—and therefore enable them to get closer to your consumer base.

  • New work rhythms. Work more dynamically and informally. For instance, daily stand-ups are going to get business done a lot quicker than weekly sales meetings. And using more granular data on customer behaviour means you can capitalise to it quickly while simultaneously removing friction points.
  • New people. Re-think longer-term hiring strategy. Customer services, analytics, and logistics are all key areas needing more attention and investment. The people you need now may not be the people you need in the future.
  • New connections. Customer service is a sales channel. It must be expanded and brought closer to the centre. Make customer service agents more widely available, for example, through social channels or through digital initiatives.

Brands

  • Two may be better than one: Consider working with complementary brands, sharing marketing costs. This may even include exclusive, co-branded products.

Conclusion

Will these changes be temporary or permanent?

Such weighty decisions will vary by company, but it’s clear there is no going back to where we were. New behaviours will become habitual, and the smart brands will be the ones that embrace change rather than fight it.

 “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a time-worn cliché, but it certainly summarises our customers’ experiences throughout this crisis. They have had the courage to implement ideas they would have never considered in normal times—and they are learning so much about their businesses, their colleagues, and themselves in the process. They understand they can’t go back. And really, why would they want to? When the future beckons, we all have to move forward. 

About Astound Commerce UK: Our consultancy fuses Astound’s unique insights with the power of UK ecommerce, and shares the benefits with you. 

Our customers are all leaders in their respective categories and are considered exemplars of best practices by the retail industry.

But we don’t simply share. We help you develop flexible and effective strategies for growth and create customised plans for every part of your business, from digital vision, proposition and international focus, to technology assessment, process design, and business performance.

Special thanks to one of our very talented digital consultants, Sophie Wilson, whose research and industry intelligence were instrumental in the creation of this guide.

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Terry Hunter

Terry Hunter is managing director of Astound Commerce UK.

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