The Road to Recovery: What Merchants Must Do to Get Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis

Brittany Currieby Brittany Currie

Home | Blog | The Road to Recovery: What Merchants Must Do to Get Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis

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Businesses are beginning to reopen. States are slowly rolling out plans that allow for day-to-day activities to go back to (relative) normal.

However, despite the gradually-returning sense of normalcy, certain aspects of the world have been altered in potentially permanent ways.

One of the most obvious transformations that has occurred is in the area of retail.

Retail has been impacted in both positive and negative ways by the COVID-19 crisis. On the plus side of things, eCommerce outlets have enabled consumers to procure essential items like food, toiletries and medications. Moreover, these same destinations have helped many maintain their sanity during lengthy lockdowns as online quarantine shopping habits  revealed:

“… A whopping 777% increase in book purchases, followed by 182% growth in the toys and games category and 131% growth among sports and outdoors items, which includes gym equipment. Home improvement (71%) and health and beauty (38%) products follow close behind.”

However, on the other side of the coin, closures of physical retail shops and other brick-and-mortar businesses have crippled if not killed many. As it stands, over 100,000 small businesses have closed forever, while many former retail titans have declared bankruptcy, including Neiman Marcus, JCPenney and others.

There is no getting around the fact that these are challenging times. Yet, despite the grim outlook, analyses of past crises have shown that economic downturns can be a golden opportunity for retail brands.

Now is the time for merchants to begin preparing to capitalize on that opportunity.

As it stands, many sellers are past the damage control stage of the pandemic and are now looking ahead, seeking to develop recovery strategies that will allow them to move forward into a new area of retail.

 

Understanding the Post-COVID Consumer

While many stores across the country have begun to reopen, there are some that remain close. And a number of those that have reopened are introducing restrictions – including the number of customers in the store and their hours of operations – to help keep customers safe.  

On the consumer end of things, many people are still reluctant to frequent public places, tending to only go out for essential items. As a result of the fear of becoming infected, inconvenient shopping experiences and the limited number of retail stores that are accessible to buyers, consumer behaviors are shifting dramatically.

As Digital Commerce 360 notes on the coronavirus’ impact on online retail:

“40% of consumers say they shopped a new website during the pandemic, and 45% of these shoppers will continue to shop that site following a positive experience. Buy online pick up in-store orders have increased 248% for the week May 25-31 compared with its pre-pandemic benchmark week, Feb. 24-March 1, according to Signifyd data.”

Given the convenience of online shopping and the continued threat of COVID-19, many of these online shoppers are likely to turn their new purchasing habits into a more permanent part of their life.

This assertion is supported by a U.S. consumer sentiment survey conducted by McKinsey which found that:

“Consumers are starting to adopt new behaviors, including shopping on new websites, shopping at new grocery stores, trying curbside pickup, getting groceries delivered, using telemedicine, and trying videoconferencing for professional or personal reasons… Consumers who have switched to new brands or retailers largely intend to stick with them, with nearly two-thirds of consumers who have switched to a store brand indicating an intent to continue.”

What this ultimately means is that many eCommerce companies are likely to see a more permanent uptick in business as many shopping trips move into the digital arena. Further supporting this notion, U.S. eCommerce sales increased by a whopping 49% in April 2020, with eMarketer forecasting that online retail sales will grow by 18% this year, reaching nearly $710 billion.

While some may tout this as a temporary blip for eCommerce, the reality of the matter is that this acceleration of structural changes towards a more digital shopping experience has been taking place over the better part of the last decade.

Since the introduction of the smartphone, nearly all societal interactions have been strongly lurching toward the digital space and away from physical, brick-and-mortar interactions.

This means COVID-19 has only expedited the arrival of the future of eCommerce.

However, the brands which consumers choose to frequent will not only be driven by their fears of infection, but by the behavior of merchants themselves. This includes how retailers act to protect their employees and customers, where they have focused their eCommerce marketing efforts during COVID-19 (slashing prices or projecting support and solidarity) and the accessibility of the brand online.

On that note, let’s explore the commerce transformation that retailers must undergo to rebuild business effectively and thrive online in the post-coronavirus era.

 

A Retail Roadmap to Recovery

For many retail businesses, a significant portion of their customers have already jumped ship to online shopping. As mentioned earlier, COVID-19 has served to speed up a transformation that was already well underway. In fact, global data from McKinsey shows that the retail industry has been launched roughly five years forward (in terms of digital adoption) in just about two months.

This is partially exemplified in the number of companies that have pushed forward into the work-from-home space, potentially forever. Leading eCommerce platforms are also adjusting to the paradigm shift, with Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke tweeting out in May that:

“As of today, Shopify is a digital by default company. We will keep our offices closed until 2021 so that we can rework them for this new reality. And after that, most will permanently work remotely. Office centricity is over.”

While Shopify is a technology company, the platform provider clearly articulates what the future holds for the retail industry as a whole. 

However, this is only part of the transformation that is rapidly becoming a necessity for retail brands.

The fact of the matter is that digital-centric experiences have become the norm for American society, both for a company’s customers and employees. COVID-19 has only exemplified this fact and served as an accelerator for a full digital transformation. 

The brands that act now to implement the framework, strategies and structures needed to serve the growing demand and penetration of online retail will position themselves to scale their eCommerce business to greater heights going forward.

Therefore, the steps that merchants must take in their road to recovery from the COVID crisis include:

 

Reevaluate Brick-and-Mortar Strategies and Presences

Partially attributable to the shift to online shopping, 2019 was a record-breaking year for retail store closures, seeing over 9,300 locations close up shop.

In 2020, permanent store closures are expected to hit 25,000, shattering the previous year’s record. Naturally, this seismic shift is driven by the impact of coronavirus and the move to eCommerce shopping that the virus has quickened.

For those that are fortunate enough to reopen, a complete reevaluation of their store’s strategies and overall presence is necessary for the survival of the brand.

As consumers have grown increasingly comfortable shopping online (even among older generations), foot traffic to brick-and-mortar locations will see a substantial decline. Ultimately, the reduction in foot traffic will result in more store closures.

Therefore, merchants must consider the role of their physical stores in the company’s overall efforts. In most cases, this will mean a deeper integration with digital, utilizing omnichannel eCommerce marketing to drive initiatives like buy online, pick up in-store.

However, for many merchants, this may not be enough. Given that COVID-19 is still a prevalent issue, sellers may have to consider converting their retail stores into temporary fulfillment centers for their online operations.

The concept of turning a retail location into a “dark store” starts speaking to the crux of the matter, as scores of sellers are looking at a complete commerce transformation if they are to survive and thrive.

 

Customer Acquisition

As eCommerce continues (and will continue) to fill the void left behind by shuttered brick-and-mortar stores across the nation, retailers that have traditionally been hesitant to move their businesses online will have no choice but to adapt. 

It is hard to adequately stress the profundity of the paradigm shift that retail is currently undergoing as business owners and consumers alike are learning to let go of the traditional retail framework of going out and shopping in physical stores.

However, consumers are rapidly adapting to the next iteration of retail. Therefore, it is critical that merchants also learn to evolve at a similar speed.

 

Commerce Transformation

Commerce Transformation refers to the complete overhaul of a retail business from the ground up, reconstructing procedures and setting up the brand for success in the digital space through a variety of channels, including eCommerce design and development, email marketing, content marketing, social media marketing, SEO, paid search, optimization third-party marketplaces. These pillars of eCommerce work in tandem to bring brands into the budding eCommerce paradigm. 

While this complete dive in might seem nerve-racking to some, the fact is that by employing a Commerce Transformation framework, retailers can achieve higher business results as each discipline – design, email, social, SEO, etc – serves to inform and enhance other parts of the process. 

For instance, using SEO and PPC together to achieve a higher ROI is a common tactic given that the most fruitful keywords in a paid advertising campaign can then be leveraged to create content and optimize on-site pages to rank higher in the SERPs. Similarly, a seller’s email marketing blueprint can help to refine the brand’s content marketing efforts by highlighting which topics and formats consumers are most interested in viewing.

Additionally, the effectiveness of enacting a full-scale Commerce Transformation that utilizes a strongly interwoven strategy is evident in our clients’ campaign results. The clear proof of concept in Commerce Transformation is shown in the fact that:

  • Visiture clients who use one service get an average of 8.42 to 1 ROI
  • Those who employ two of our services generate an average 12.9 to 1 ROI
  • Clients who enlist three or more services see an average of 17.35 to 1 ROI
  • Visiture clients who employ two or more services and develop a new website see an average 23.64 to 1 ROI

 

This implementation is especially critical for brands that manufacture their own products as the consumer switch to digital has been sped up immensely and will continue to grow at an exponential rate. With more buyers demanding ways to purchase products online, manufacturers are going to have to invest in eCommerce solutions. But not only will this investment help to increase current customer satisfaction and create an omnichannel experience, it also opens up the door for other benefits – new customers and markets, increased sales, increased efficiencies and more

 

Phased Transformation

While Commerce Transformation is necessary for some brands, it might not be the right choice for every business. Some brands have already been in the process of digitizing their business and may not require such a comprehensive plan of attack. Meanwhile, other organizations simply don’t have the financial resources to overhaul operations in such a manner.

For these two categories of companies, a Phased Transformation is in order.

Through this model, retailers can begin chalking up quick wins through the design and implementation of PPC campaigns, eCommerce content marketing strategies, SEO initiatives, social engagement efforts and the like.

Using a Phased Transformation approach, retailers can score incremental wins that work to build on one another, allowing them to gradually re-center their business operations from the physical to the digital world.

For instance, through the implementation of an all-encompassing search engine optimization and content marketing strategy, retailers can generate a sizable amount of traffic to their sites. These visits can be leveraged to convert users and capture email information for loyalty-building and sales campaigns. 

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Meanwhile, those that do not convert can be retargeted across social media, Google and other popular online destinations with various forms of content and product retargeting campaigns to pull them back on-site and complete a purchase.

While this is just one example of how a Phased Transformation to eCommerce can work, the way in which these marketing modalities stack on one another for more profitable outcomes is clear. Given that global eCommerce sales increased by 209 percent in April 2020, very likely changing the face of retail in a permanent way, focusing on improving your eCommerce marketing strategies is a no-brainer. 

 

Research Pain Points of the “New Normal”

The fact is that at some point, the global pandemic will come to an end.

When that time comes, it is likely that consumer behaviors will have been permanently altered, partially due to the forced move to digital shopping and partly because of the massive amount of brick-and-mortar store closures.

Even stores that do remain in the physical world – such as grocery stores – are expected to see a vastly different dynamic in the post-pandemic world. When discussing the permanent shift to online grocery shopping, Talking Retail reports:

“Research from IT service provider Ensono shows that the percentage of shoppers doing at least half their grocery shop online is due to increase from just under 20% before the coronavirus pandemic to just over 30% after the crisis, with the most significant changes to grocery shopping habits seen in the 35-44 age bracket. Almost 40% of this age group plan to do at least half of their grocery shopping online once coronavirus ends – an increase from just under a quarter before the outbreak.”

As Europe managing director at Ensono, Barney Taylor added:

“Long-term, grocery shopping behaviors won’t return to their pre-coronavirus ‘normal.’ New online grocery buying habits have become cemented, and business as usual has changed for good. For grocers, the need to innovate and transform to achieve a great online customer experience is now even more of a priority.”

What this means is that, not only must merchants rapidly enact a Commerce Transformation strategy for their business, but they must also reimagine customer journeys and create better-designed user experiences that facilitate an omnichannel approach to retail.

To effectively achieve such aims, sellers must engage in an ongoing effort to understand changing customer behaviors, novel problem areas and potential opportunities for innovation. Therefore, conducting eCommerce market research is a critical task for retail recovery.

Given how rapidly the world has changed in the last several months, merchants can no longer make many assumptions or guesses. It is necessary to start from scratch in uncovering what will help develop a more amicable, effective and frictionless path to purchase.

Retailers who properly engage their audiences and dig into what is working in their industry will be able to create the most value for customers, thereby helping to produce healthy earnings once more.

 

Humanize the Customer Experience

According to a pre-coronavirus study conducted by PwC, 59% of consumers worldwide felt that companies had “lost touch” with the human aspect of the customer experience. Similarly, 82%  of U.S. consumers wanted more interactions with real people as opposed to bots.

This is vital information to consider given how many new online shoppers have just entered the digital arena, meaning that a human touch is more important now than possibly ever before.

The fact is that purchasing items online can sometimes be challenging even for digital natives, let alone those who have never had to buy a pair of pants or an essential item online.

As a result of the massive uptick in eCommerce business overall, and newbie interactions in particular, retailers should focus a considerable amount of their recovery plan on humanizing the online experience and empathizing with those who are in uncharted waters.

The fact is that brands with the best prices or the coolest marketing campaigns might not have the advantage in today’s situation. Instead, it is the businesses that display the highest level of emotional intelligence and communicative skill that will win the business of new buyers.

In times of crisis and uncertainty, people want to be seen, heard and understood. Sensitivity, care and empathy are foundational tools for a retailer’s road to recovery as these things are in incredibly high demand.

Thankfully, there are a variety of ways that businesses can effectively humanize the online experience of their brand.

For instance, brands might experiment with allowing their customers to video call with customer representatives who are working from home, thereby creating an intimate, human environment for the customer-to-company bond to form.

Additionally, businesses should allow customer service agents to take all the time they need to solve a shopper’s question, concern or issue, much like Zappos.com empowers its employees to do. By prioritizing the customer experience over call volume efficiency, brands can show their shoppers that they genuinely care and empathize with their situation.

Such experimental initiatives will do a couple of things for a business:

  • Show off its imperfections, and therefore, its authenticity
  • Forge a human-to-human bond under the banner of a brand

 

By demonstrating that the business is doing everything in its power to protect and serve its customers and employees, many shoppers will be more forgiving about potential delays in shipping, operational hiccups and other challenges that have manifested as a result of COVID-19.

 

Adopt Agile Innovation for Fast-Paced Changes

Maintaining and refining a robust customer experience requires retailers to continually engage in researching their audience and potential solutions.

However, in a period in which things change by the hour, the insights gathered over a week’s time can become antiquated and irrelevant incredibly quickly. Therefore, sellers must develop methodologies for monitoring consumer sentiments in real-time (or near real-time) to aid their recovery efforts. The sooner that merchants can figure out what consumers need and respond that that demand, the better off both parties will be.

In fact, this is precisely how one Chinese company responded to the coronavirus pandemic. As Harvard Business Review reports:

“In China, some of the fastest-recovering companies proactively looked ahead and anticipated such shifts. For example, in the early stages of the outbreak, Master Kong, a leading instant noodle and beverage producer, reviewed dynamics on a daily basis and reprioritized efforts regularly. It anticipated hoarding and stock-outs, and it tilted its focus away from offline, large retail channels to O2O (online-to-offline), e-commerce, and smaller stores. By continuously tracking retail outlets’ reopening plans it was also able to adapt its supply chain in a highly flexible manner. As a result, its supply chain had recovered by more than 50 percent just a few weeks after the outbreak, and it was able to supply 60 percent of the stores that were reopened during this period — three times as many as some competitors.”

Thankfully, businesses don’t need incredibly in-depth analytics and monitoring capabilities to understand what customers need and to respond accordingly (though those things would help).

As it stands, the COVID-19 lockdowns have resulted in a surge in online media consumption and engagement. In countries across the world, social media usage has spiked by 21 to 71%, depending on the nation. This means that the use of various social media listening tools can reveal an incredible amount of information to retailers that are seeking ways to adjust their strategies.

However, it is worth noting that all the data in the world is useless if companies are unable to act in a similarly agile fashion. This means that businesses will often need to shorten the timeline for bringing products, services and experiences to market, deploying them in their “minimum viable” state.

As challenging as this can be, it is critical for recovery as building agility into a brand’s service and functionality as this is what will enable retailers to flex and bend with a situation that is continually in-flux.

Finally, in addition to rapid research models and a means of quickly deploying and adjusting new solutions, merchants must continually examine the items coming down the pipeline to ensure that they match up with the latest developments and are in line with digital and omnichannel eCommerce trends for 2020 as these will continue to shift and evolve alongside the COVID situation.

 

Shore Up the Supply Chain

The COVID-19 crisis has, and will continue to, test the flexibility, resilience and redundancy of retailers’ supply chains.

As a Digital Commerce 360 survey from March 2020 revealed:

  • 44 percent of surveyed expect product delays
  • 42 percent anticipate consumer confidence struggles
  • 40 percent expect inventory shortages

 

The fact of the matter is that supply chain issues have been one of the biggest challenges that retailers have faced during this crisis. Given that the likes of Amazon even saw problems, this is an issue that retailers must solve moving forward.

Therefore, the implementation of a smart supply chain and logistics will be vital to the smooth functioning of a brand. Through the use of next-generation demand and supply planning models, retailers will become more capable of forecasting potential spikes and lulls that come as a result of COVID-related behavioral patterns such as preventative health management, quarantine living, stockpiling supplies and the like.

For instance, technological implementations that enable a higher degree of transparency in a seller’s distribution network will provide merchants with substantial benefits in an optimal manner when supply limitations might become an issue.

Moreover, as the eCommerce industry continually orients itself toward omnichannel experiences, the need for a flexible, transparent supply chain only grows greater.

However, given that adapting supply chains to the current situation is a topic that requires much more depth than we are able to go into here, retailers are encouraged to check out McKinsey’s insights on actions retail supply chains can take to navigate the coronavirus pandemic for further guidance.

 

Seek Opportunity Amid Adversity

When the coronavirus pandemic struck, many verticals were impacted in staggering ways, particularly essential items such as toiletries, hygiene products, sanitary items and the like.

At the same time, sales in specific product categories came to a screeching halt, many of which remain that way to this day.

For those that saw a slump in sales or merely an opportunity that they could capitalize upon, there was big money to be made.

For example, many restaurants that were shuttered due to health concerns opted to bring their protein and produce out onto the street for an impromptu “farmer’s market.”

Similarly, Old Glory Distilling Co., who typically serves lovers of artisan Tennessee Whiskey and Bourbon, switched gears entirely and started producing hand sanitizer.

Since the company made the temporary switch and sought to help people in its community and beyond, Old Glory has sold over 4,500 gallons of hand sanitizer and donated another 12,000+ bottles to medical personnel, police, firefighters and other essential service providers.

 

Final Thoughts

The retailers who survive the COVID-19 pandemic will be the ones that see opportunity before them.

This is an opportunity for brands to engage in Commerce Transformation and reinvest in their business, pushing it forward into the digital paradigm that was inevitably coming.

While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly presented sellers with many challenges, it has given many brands the impetus to finally move wholeheartedly into the eCommerce arena, thereby giving many brands new life.

However, no one said that moving into a new age would be easy. If your business is ready to take the eCommerce world by storm, reach out to Visiture for a free comprehensive marketing audit and see how our Commerce Transformation methodology can put your brand on the road to recovery.

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