6 ways to make your e-commerce business a success during COVID-19

Online will account for one third of all retail sales within a few years. Neil Tunbridge shares his tips to optimise your digital shopfront

Consumer purchasing may never be the same again. Not only has COVID-19 accelerated the already fast-growing shift to online shopping, but it also looks set to drive lasting changes in buying behaviour which will make e-commerce an essential long-term business priority.

While the initial transition may have been born out of necessity for shoppers — with 65 per cent increasing online buying during high street lockdown — it’s now becoming clear that many will be keeping up new habits. Recent studies show two in five (42 per cent) consumers will make more web-based purchases post-pandemic, with almost three quarters intending to go digital for the most important shopping period of the year: Christmas.

In addition to a potentially bumper final quarter for online sales, this means the companies which have worked relentlessly to establish and enhance e-commerce must maintain momentum. But, as they do so, it will also be important to remember that making products available to buy digitally isn’t always enough to get customers.

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Successful online migration is no overnight feat; it requires meticulous planning and a robust retail model to help remain relevant amid disruption. When optimising e-commerce platforms, businesses should therefore take care not to overlook the basics: implementing simple yet effective measures to ensure they can continuously provide high quality — and reliable — experiences which keep consumers coming back for more.

#1 – Make online shopping personal

Despite previous growth in digital shopping, the sudden switchover has sent many firms on a sharp plunge into unknown territory. Those accustomed to meeting shoppers face to face and ensuring loyalty by building human relationships must now rapidly determine how to recapture audience attention digitally. Given the varied challenges, it’s hardly surprising that some — especially charity shops — are struggling to adjust.

But the good news is that what consumers want from online experiences isn’t so different. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to prove the personal touch still matters; including findings that 61 per cent of digital shoppers want brands to prioritise personalisation and a quarter have been inspired to visit sites and purchase through tailored advertising. What companies need is deeper knowledge; including an understanding of who core customers are, how they behave, and which key ingredients are needed to build meaningful messages that spark their interest.

#2 – Use customer data correctly

In other words, they need to hone their data collection and activation. Fortunately, getting started with harnessing customer data isn’t as complicated as it might seem.

To set out on the right path, there are two key steps to follow:

>Use existing assets

By enabling online shopping, businesses have already begun to amass a wealth of data — they just need to unlock its power. From each transaction, they gain valuable information about what customers buy, how frequently, the way they prefer to pay and where they are located, as well as uncompleted purchases. This data forms a foundation for creating new and repeat shopper profiles, which can be incrementally enriched with data from other sources; such as redemption of unique promotional codes, customer surveys, and longer-term analysis of buying patterns.

>Maintain consistent tailoring

 Once they have leveraged customer data to deliver messages via the right channels and enticed shoppers to visit their platform, it’s then critical for businesses to make the experience worthwhile. For instance, instantly presenting returning customers with curated product suggestions based on past activity will make them feel remembered and valued. Similarly, tracking which items are often added to carts but not bought and sending out tailored offers will show you understand what customers need and that you are committed to meeting them, helping your company forge close relationships and trust.

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#3 – Outperform rivals on efficiency

As consumers and companies move online, e-commerce itself is expanding. According to the latest estimates, the sector is now due to account for one third of all retail buys globally within the next few years. But while this presents a huge opportunity for businesses making the jump to digital, it also means they will have to compete for shopper spend with extensive and ever-multiplying competition.

Implementing data-driven strategies for finding and reaching target audiences will go a long way towards ensuring they stand out against rivals.

But even the most bespoke marketing and product suggestions can’t compensate for fundamental flaws, such as confusing site navigation and inaccurate product information, and – worst of all — sluggish and complex transaction processes. Not only will 83 per cent of consumers shop elsewhere if site experience is poor, but slow loading pages are also the biggest cause of abandoned purchases.

Avoiding losing customers to rivals calls for maximum and ongoing efficiency; and to achieve that, businesses must cover the crucial pillars of good online service.

Speed — functionality that makes purchasing as fast as possible, including clearly visible “buy it now” buttons on product pages and smooth payment procedures, be that through simplified account creation or integrations with popular payment tools such as PayPal.

Accessibility — comprehensive and user-friendly online dashboards that offer shoppers access to vital controls and tools; from order history records and real-time order tracking to returns and online customer support; a factor that’s especially important in the current climate.

Accuracy — continuously reviewing and refreshing product information and stock levels will minimise the risk of confusion, as well as disappointment, giving consumers the ability to find out more about products of interest and an up-to-date view of what is currently available, and what isn’t.

#4 – Keep deliveries rolling, no matter what

The final core elements of an effective e-commerce set up are, of course, choice and reliability. Alongside streamlined and customised experiences, platforms need to offer access to the products consumers want and timely delivery if they want to be seen as dependable. Meeting this objective, however, can be easier said than done.

Fluctuations in order volumes have huge potential to delay distribution and drive shortages, particularly when combined with unexpected supply line issues. During the early COVID-19 outbreak, for instance, even marketplace giants such as Amazon were sent off course as online orders soared and supply holdups mounted; with an international survey finding 65 per cent of consumers were either unable to get everything or anything they needed from the platform.

This means businesses must place equal emphasis on optimising the back-end mechanics of e-commerce as they do on their online store front. More specifically, they need to forge stronger ties with suppliers and develop proactive crisis plans.

#5 – Embrace brand validation

Although most companies are already discerning about which brands they stock, raising the bar even further and adopting formalised vetting procedures can bring many advantages.

Embedding stringent know your customer (KYC) measures and validation for every new addition to their platform will give businesses granular insight into every brand — including its manufacturing systems and supply chains — and build closer partnerships.

As a result, they will have extensive insight into exactly what steps should be taken to safeguard delivery in the face of demand surges and supply turmoil, and an open line of communication with brands to work on addressing issues. Plus, businesses can also be confident that the products they sell are of the highest quality and pass on that assurance to consumers.

#6 – Brace for any challenge

Preparation is what makes the difference between positive response and reactive chaos. Firms must put plans in place for how they will adapt current practices to minimise delays and ensure uninterrupted distribution. Again, good brand relationships will be highly beneficial; allowing for collaborative forward planning, such as identifying where supply networks can be redirected if usual routes are derailed. But it’s also important to maximise internal agility. By creating a designated internal crisis team that can take charge and start applying mitigation procedures, companies can steer clear of panic and move straight into problem-solving.

Future-proof your business

In a short timeframe, rapid changes to consumption patterns have dramatically reshaped the retail landscape — and the signs all indicate the changes are here to stay. For companies that have traditionally relied on physical stores to drive the bulk of revenue and retain customers, it’s apparent they can no longer afford to ignore the call of digital transformation. But to future-proof their businesses, they must fix their sights on more than a straightforward shift. Achieving e-commerce success isn’t just about following consumers online; it’s about being the one-stop-shop for all of their purchasing needs.

Only with the right blend of personalisation, convenience and reliability can firms outshine their rivals and drive lasting loyalty.

Neil Tunbridge is co-founder of Mellow, an e-commerce marketplace for global CBD brands

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