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How will coming out of lockdown affect eCommerce businesses?

After a long and arduous lockdown period, all shops in the UK could potentially reopen for 12th April at the earliest. There’s no denying this is cause for celebration, but it poses a lot of questions for eCommerce businesses who have thrived during lockdown as a result of their easy-to-use nature and, quite frankly, pure necessity.

Now that brick-and-mortar shops are due to reopen, how will this affect the eCommerce landscape? Will focus shift back to in-person customer experiences, or will customers continue to embrace online businesses?

It’s an uncertain time for many, but we can say with confidence that there’s hope for eCommerce brands, and a lot of it. In this blog, we’ll take a look at what this easing of lockdown restrictions could mean, including the upsides, challenges and, crucially, how to cope.

What are the concerns?

It’s great that brick-and-mortar shops are slated to reopen soon, but what will that mean for eCommerce businesses?

The short answer is, not a great deal.

Yes, there will be a slight shift in traffic as people head back to the—undeniably altered—High Street, but research shows now that consumers have grown so accustomed to online shopping, they aren’t likely to stop. Online shopping is far too convenient, and with fears over COVID-19 still lingering—though lessened—there’s still an apprehension over returning to crowded places at the risk of contracting the virus.

As we reported in our last blog, Retail Economics has predicted that 26.1% of retail sales this year will be done online, and this is only expected to increase.

But there’s another concern – what does this mean for the digital eCommerce space? Now that so many brick-and-mortar shops have made the shift to online retail, won’t the space be increasingly crowded?

Here’s another short answer – yes. Now more than ever, digital retailers will be competing for consumers’ attention, making the already tough job of standing out online even more difficult.

It’s clear that online retailers are stepping up their game to meet the challenges associated with a more crowded digital space. Just look at the Boohoo Group and its recent acquisition of former retail-powerhouse Debenhams’ online assets for £154 million.

According to one Debenhams supplier in a report from Draper Online, “Boohoo will have done this for the data and the 300 million or so visits a year to the Debenhams website. To get that many people to visit your site via PPC and marketing would cost you the earth.”

Another supplier commented, “I think it’s the best thing to have happened to Debenhams. I’m not surprised that someone has bought the online business – it has always been the jewel in the crown for Debenhams.

“It’s not just the intellectual property, it’s the database. This acquisition will provide access to its customers and the ability to directly market to those people, which is presumably what Boohoo wants and needs to do to continue in its shift towards becoming a marketplace.”

This also means a huge number of retailers are shifting their focus to digital marketing, so eCommerce brands will need to keep an even sharper eye on campaigns such as paid advertising.

On the other hand, look at Primark. It famously refuses to sell products online, and so perhaps unsurprisingly, data suggests that Primark is one of the stop stores consumers are looking forward to revisiting post-lockdown. This is likely because of the unique super-store experience customers receive in Primark, and we’ll touch on the importance of recreating this online in a little bit.

So, it’s not all as cut and dry as it might seem. Navigating the challenges here will require nuance and a lot of strategy, but with the right approach, it’s very doable.

What are the upsides?

Let’s not forget there are a lot of upsides to coming out of lockdown, namely the fact that we’ll all be largely free to more or less do as we please again.

In terms of the eCommerce world, there’s one post-lockdown positive that stands out above the rest – the ease of pressure on fulfilment.

As we mentioned in a previous blog, delivery networks had an unbelievably hard time coping with the unprecedented demand that came with the last two lockdowns. And with restrictions around the number of staff members allowed to work in warehouses at any given time also meant actually packing orders for customers faced delays as well.

With the rise of the vaccine, staff, in theory, should be able to return to warehouses at largely the same numbers as before the pandemic and bring fulfilment numbers back to where they were.

The same goes for courier services – and then some. To meet the increased—and ever increasing—demand for parcel deliveries, companies like Hermes have invested £100 million in new staff, while DPD spent £200 million toward expanding their next-day delivery service.

This is great news for eCommerce businesses experiencing a rise in demand, as consumers’ expectations of speedy deliveries aren’t going anywhere. If you can promise quick and efficient fulfilment, that’s huge for enticing customers.

How can eCommerce businesses cope?

Like we said, it’s not all doom and gloom post-lockdown. Yes, there will be more competition in the digital space and yes, customers will be returning to brick-and-mortar shops, though the latter is unlikely to have that drastic of an impact on the eCommerce sphere.

How you approach your digital presence will affect how your business copes with the changing climate. Here are our top recommendations:

Prioritise memorable customer experiences

The loss of brick-and-mortar shops doesn’t just signal the alteration of the High Street as we know it – it also marks the loss of in-store experiences. The ability to handle a product, trial it or speak with staff is something many customers value.

That’s why the pressure is on for eCommerce brands to recreate these experiences online.

The options here are virtually limitless. Luxury companies like MAC Cosmetics and Burberry are offering online consultations with their staff to personally navigate customers through their research journey, which is especially common for high-ticket purchases.

“Try before you buy” options are useful here too, as are recreating other consultation experiences customers would get in store, like the skin quiz option skincare brand Goodie Co. offer on their site.

Here, customers can replace the face-to-face interaction with staff where they ask questions about what specific product would best fit their skin-type with a virtual option.

The quiz asks all the necessary questions to pinpointing a customer’s skin-type, and then offers recommendations based on that diagnosis. Goodie Co. also uses this opportunity to pepper the quiz with product facts and positive reinforcement.

That said, it won’t be enough to just recreate a single customer experience online and let it be. This strategy is going to take constant revisiting and redevelopment to make sure you’re addressing customers’ ever-changing needs.

Make your user experience as good as it can be

The battle to improve user experience is a constant in the world of eCommerce. But as we said, with the surge in online customers, there’s going to be a surge in new eCommerce brands or higher prioritisation of traditional retailers to meet the demand. An average experience is no longer good enough.

In many new or fast-growing sectors, buyers are yet to have built up loyalty to an online retailer. Those that capture customers for the long term will be those that provide the best possible experience from start to finish.

Equip your fulfilment processes for success

Further to our point above, it’s essential that brands continue improving their fulfilment processes if they want to stay successful.

Future-proofing is key here. Even though the concept of “post-lockdown” is on the horizon, grocery giants like Ocado and Tesco are still building multiple new warehouses to ensure they can cope with online demand.

Take a look at the fulfilment processes you have in place and areas that can be improved should lockdown either persist or demand continues to increase, as it likely will. Do you have enough staff? Are you keeping the promises you make to customers?

Regular reassessment of processes and in-depth looks at customer feedback will be necessary, so be prepared to make changes as and when.

Prioritise customer loyalty

This has likely always been a priority for eCommerce brands, but it’s even more essential now, as customers are more and more inundated with choice online.

In addition to continued product expansion, options like loyalty programmes or subscription services encourage customers to repeatedly come back to you for more.

Book retailer Waterstones does this particularly well with their loyalty programme.

For every £10 customers spend, they receive a stamp. Get ten stamps, and you’re rewarded with £10 off your next purchase. This encourages customers to continue spending with Waterstones, so they can continually work toward receiving the discount. It’s simple, straightforward and effective.

Comparing with retail monolith Amazon—especially in the book world—is virtually impossible, at least where price is concerned. So the fact that the book market in general has fared shockingly well—in 2020, it saw its biggest volume rise since 2007—could be down to brand loyalty.

The moral of the story here is that eCommerce brands will need to be continually adaptive. We’re seeing constant shifts in trends as the lockdown climate changes, and even though we’re on the verge of potentially coming out for good, buyer behaviour will be altered forever.

The more reactive you are to the ever-changing needs of your customers, the better off you’ll be. Keep pinpointing their pain points, keep responding and keep evolving, and your business’s growth will follow.

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