What Will Shopping Look Like in a Post-Pandemic World?
In a typical year, this would be roughly the time we start preparing our annual analysis of what e-commerce retailers can expect in the upcoming Black Friday season. This isn't a typical year. The pandemic has upended whatever plans businesses might have been thinking about a few months ago. Perhaps more than any other part of pre-pandemic life, the retail sector that emerges from this crisis will look radically different than it did before.
What are retailers doing to adapt to life without brick-and-mortar store commerce? Which changes should be viewed as temporary stopgaps, and which are likely to stick? In talking with retailers around the world, these are the biggest trends we’re seeing.
Digital Transformation Plans Just Kicked Into High Gear
An entire class of retailers has known they needed to get serious about e-commerce for years but have dragged their heels. On some level, you can understand why: shifting people, culture and technology to a digital-first model is a huge change. The companies that are great at e-commerce — Amazon.com, Shopify, Walmart — seem to have a near-insurmountable head start.
As long as foot traffic remained steady at brick-and-mortar stores, you could take your time figuring out the best strategy to compete online. Now, that calculus has flipped entirely, almost overnight. If you’re not reimagining your business to be digital-first, brick-and-mortar second, you’re going to struggle.
In the companies we’ve been speaking with, digital initiatives that have long been in the planning stages are getting fast-tracked. Timelines for projects considered “long term” a few months ago — e.g., adding robots to warehouses, automating fulfillment — are now slated for deployment as soon as installers can safely work on-site. And basics like beefing up digital ordering, online and offline customer tracking, and integrating loyalty programs across channels are moving full-speed ahead.
Literally every retailer we work with is hurtling forward with digital initiatives, and not as temporary band-aids either. Retailers large and small expect the new normal to be digital-first or hybrid.
Smart Retailers See Big Opportunities
If your instincts are to bunker down and try to hold on until things get back to normal, you’re likely in for a bumpy ride. Shrewd retailers recognize that the market landscape will likely look very different 12 months from now, especially in regions that have been slower to embrace e-commerce, such as parts of the Middle East.
This disruption brings much pain, but also significant opportunity to break into new markets and displace brick-and-mortar competitors that seemed untouchable before. That’s exactly what smart retailers are doing: adding support for new language and markets as well as expanding fulfillment to places they previously ignored.
Every Day is Now Black Friday
With no other way for consumers to shop, e-commerce retailers are seeing a tsunami of visitors to their websites — in many cases, from first-time customers who’ve never transacted with them before. If you’re going to close those sales and keep those customers coming back, digital performance and availability are more critical than ever. It’s not like there’s a Plan B right now if your site won’t load or credit card processing gets hung up during checkout.
Many of the retailers we work with are investing huge amounts of time, money and energy to ensure that their digital storefronts are never down or slow. Recognizing that the internet itself is a bit stressed right now from the huge spike in global traffic, retailers are also beefing up their performance monitoring infrastructure. The world’s digital engine is now running at full speed 24/7, and you have to treat every day like it’s the busiest online shopping day of the year.
Fulfillment is Now the Most Important Stage in the Customer Journey
Retailers use all sorts of sophisticated tools to provide a great online customer experience: CRM platforms, multichannel loyalty programs, inventory tracking, and many others. But right now, the top priority is just getting the basics right. Is the product the customer wants actually in stock? Can you provide visibility into order status at every stage in the process? When you give customers a delivery date, are you hitting those targets?
Many retailers are scrutinizing every aspect of supply chains, logistics, shipping, tracking, and order management. Part of that effort revolves around people and policies — e.g., taking steps to keep the people in warehouses and fulfillment centers healthy, because they’re literally keeping the business running. However, recognizing that this pandemic could extend across multiple waves, retailers are also evaluating longer-term changes: How quickly can they automate fulfillment? How can they diversify suppliers? Should price continue to be the biggest factor in sourcing decisions, or will they be better off with marginally higher prices but a more reliable supply chain?
It’s Time to Get Serious About Closing the Digital Divide
One of the biggest effects of this pandemic is fast-tracking demographic changes among online customers. Customer segments that previously did all or most of their shopping in person (e.g., older, less tech-savvy, and less affluent consumers) are now shopping online because they have no other choice. Shrewd retailers see this for the permanent shift it represents.
Now that baby boomers, for example, have had to jump into e-commerce with both feet, it’s likely to remain a big part of their shopping behavior even when brick-and-mortar stores re-open. If you’re not thinking seriously about catering to these shoppers, rather focusing all your digital efforts on millennials and Gen Z, you should assume your competitors are. No retailer can afford to leave customers behind.
Bottom Line: Some Things Will Never Go Back to as They Were Before, and That’s OK
If you’re one of the many retailers that has been slow to digitize, it’s not necessarily the end of the world. There’s a long list of companies (Best Buy, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Sephora, to name a few) that used to be completely reliant on brick-and-mortar, but have successfully transitioned to digital-first operations in the last few years. It's absolutely possible to get there. When you do, you may find that your business is not only better equipped to weather the current crisis, but positioned to thrive in the years ahead.
Mehdi Daoudi is the CEO of Catchpoint, a provider of digital experience intelligence.