The Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Digital commerce and the post-COVID world

Great crises spur great technological breakthroughs. That was clear in World War II, when dramatic advances in electronics, computing, aviation, and medicine were made. Famines on the Indian subcontinent during the early 1960s drove the Green Revolution, an agricultural initiative that ultimately saved a billion people from starvation. And the Arab Spring of 2010–2012 established social media as a powerful mechanism for global political change. 

COVID-19 is no different. The coronavirus pandemic has led to massive suffering and the loss of billions of dollars, but it has also spurred spectacular technological breakthroughs, with the rapid development of effective vaccines foremost among them. 

COVID also exerted a profound effect on commerce, one that necessitated a quick response by brands and retailers. Physical retail was under pressure prior to the pandemic, of course; few communities had escaped wholesale mall and downtown district closures. But the coronavirus abruptly changed ecommerce from an option to an outright necessity. 

Pre-COVID, digital retail was usually a convenient way to purchase high-end apparel, accessories, recreational equipment—all the various items people want, but don’t need immediately. But once the coronavirus gained momentum and the lockdowns began in earnest, people turned to the internet for consumer packaged goods (CPG)—food, beverages, casual clothes, diapers, household products—the basic items required for daily living that must be replenished regularly. 

The New World

So where are we now? Efficacious vaccines and a society that has largely accepted social distancing and masking have finally changed the trajectory of the coronavirus. Our society and economy are slowly opening back up. A return to “normal” feels tantalizingly close.

But this new normal for retail is markedly different and permanently altered from the pre-COVID era. As noted, the pandemic accelerated the rise of ecommerce, expanding it to CPG; and while consumers are returning to stores, brick-and-mortar’s general decline continues unabated. Millions of people are still going online for groceries, paper towels, cleaning supplies—and wine.

The wine trade, in fact, has undergone a stunning metamorphosis over the course of the pandemic. Like everyone, wine lovers were shut in by the coronavirus—but they still wanted to enjoy the romance and excitement inherent in their favorite beverage. Pre-pandemic direct-to-consumer wine platforms were utilitarian transaction engines at best, and enophiles demanded more. If they couldn’t actually visit wineries, they hoped to find a reasonable simulacrum of that experience online. The wine producers who understood these aspirations and elevated their user experience (UX) games in response prospered.

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An Upgrade for an Industry Leader

One of the major family-owned wineries in the United States serves as a case in point. This brand realized it needed to augment its ecommerce platforms and hired Astound Commerce to devise and implement a solution. In consultation with company leaders, Astound designed a flexible, mobile-first system that enhanced UX and wayfinding across the winery’s 100-plus unique brands; enabled API integrations for Salesforce Marketing Cloud, compliance, fulfillment, third-party wine apps, and trade marketing partners; and implemented Salesforce’s order management system, integrating the company’s data, simplifying data architecture, and providing a seamless, end-to-end order experience for customers.

The results: bounce rates improved dramatically for the brand’s two main websites (reduced by 52 percent and 65 percent), enhanced organic search entry (7 percent and 18 percent), and increased mobile conversion rate for one of the sites by a remarkable 209 percent.

Customized Solutions, Multiple Touchpoints

At Astound, we’re currently working with several other clients to achieve similar digital transformations. But while a stellar online presence is the general goal for any post-COVID platform upgrade, the path to that end will vary from client to client. That’s why we consider the initial stage of any redesign project the most crucial: when we dig deep to determine the precise ecommerce needs of the client, existing strengths and deficits of the existing platform, and the optimal customer journey. Only then do we proceed with development.

Central to the post-COVID retail landscape is the dominance of the omnichannel: the effective presentation of the brand across all touchpoints, from mobile to physical store, with each component supporting and amplifying the shopping experience.  An effective omnichannel strategy, of course, is contingent on the deployment of granular consumer data. And this begs the question: how do you optimize this data to personalize shopping without making the customer uncomfortable? Lines between the appropriate and overly aggressive use of customer data can be easily crossed, and UX teams must help clients accurately determine those boundaries.

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What Customers Want

Several noteworthy consumer trends developed in digital commerce over the past year, and they’re likely to remain relevant as we emerge from the pandemic. At the top of the list is environmental consciousness: consumers showed strong support for product lines that employed sustainable materials and low carbon emission production processes. Moreover, shoppers evinced a high degree of sophistication in separating companies that are serious about sustainability from those merely intent on “green washing.”

Customers also valued transparency. They appreciated candid messaging, from clear and objective product descriptions to straightforward and equitable return policies and awards programs.

Also, online consumers esteem beauty. They always have, of course—but now more than ever. During the pandemic, people worked from home. We saw a massive uptick in athleisure (indeed, research from Mckinsey shows athletic apparel and loungewear to be the most popular fashion categories in the past year), a decline in luxury goods, and an increased focus on personal wellness. Now, as we step back into the world and its manifold relationships, we want to feel and look beautiful again, and our purchases—in apparel, accessories, cosmetics—are reflecting these aspirations.

Further, the desire for beauty is being expressed in digital experience preferences as well as product purchases. Consumers want to visit websites that are aesthetically pleasing, that convey a sense of grace, style, and yes, beauty. Of course, beauty is subjective—but only to a point. Virtually every online shopper can differentiate between a site that is garish, difficult to navigate, and screams about the brand from one that is elegant, easy to explore, and features compelling brand content that entices rather than insists. 

Moving Forward

The pandemic supercharged ecommerce, spurring it to levels not expected until 2025; digital sales this year are expected to top US$834 billion. Mobil retail is incandescent, with sales spiking almost 32 percent in 2020, and similar growth is anticipated for 2021. While it would be a mistake to assume all online customers are deeply familiar with digital technology, the pandemic saw Boomers and older Gen Xers starting to catch up with the native and natural digital expertise of Millennials and Gen Zers. Indeed, the pandemic essentially accelerated “tech-ceptance” and digital innovation by several years, allowing deeply personalized digital experiences that connected every customer touchpoint across all channels. 

Ecommerce is a hypercompetitive environment, and the brand that thrives in this new and challenging digital jungle is the brand that provides superior customer journeys. Retailers need ecommerce partners who are not only highly skilled developers but are committed to long-term support. Ecommerce is constantly changing, constantly shifting in terms of technology, products, and content, and brands must be assured their partners will keep their digital assets on the evolutionary cutting edge. Online shoppers can be exceedingly fickle, and it’s not enough to simply accommodate existing customer preferences. Brands and their ecommerce partners must be able to leverage technology and data to anticipate developing trends—and be ready for them.

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Glen Martin

Glen Martin is a frequent Astound Insights contributor whose other credits include Forbes, Wired, Outside, and Men's Journal.