What COVID-19 Means for Digital Commerce in the Long Term
The effects of COVID-19 on the global economy will likely be long-lasting and fundamentally change how companies around the world do business. While digital commerce is subject to the same factors that influence the rest of the world, it also provides businesses with a unique set of tools.
There have been a number of short-term impacts, but it is also imperative to explore long-term structural changes that the digital commerce market might see, as well as the adaptations companies can make in the coming months and years.
The Public Health Concerns
The ways in which the decline of brick-and-mortar retail is intertwined with the growth of digital commerce is well-documented, but it is fair to say that the current pandemic will only accelerate this trend. Even after “stay-at-home” orders are lifted and life returns to normal, consumers will likely, reflexively avoid close quarters and physical shopping experiences.
This may especially be true if customers come to gravitate toward online shopping for products that in the past, they did at retail stores. Therefore, it’s worth noting (even outside of the context of a pandemic) that it is important to improve the online customer experience by simplifying the product discovery and purchasing process.
As more people adopt digital commerce as their primary shopping method, this will bring in new customers who were not comfortable shopping online in the past. To ease the concerns of this audience, e-commerce sites should consider the following:
- Present customers with the products they actually want to buy by using predictive analytics to simultaneously decrease friction in a customer's shopping experience, and increase conversion rate
- Simplify the checkout process wherever possible
- Prioritize security and privacy to increase customer trust
There will be, however, notable exceptions to this trend for businesses where the brick-and-mortar experience is essential to the buying experience. One way to assuage customer's concerns about the physical shopping experience from a public health perspective is to rely on BOPIS.
BOPIS provides the benefits of cost, immediacy, convenience, extended selection and privacy. There are additional varieties of BOPIS, such as curbside pickup and “ship from store” options that could also be used if it fits the business model.
The Economic Concerns
Economic downturns and recessions are obviously unwelcome for everyone and every industry, but companies with strong digital commerce presences are uniquely positioned to withstand these effects. The overhead of e-commerce is significantly lower than the overhead of brick-and-mortar retail.
During the economic recession of 2008-2009, there were several outcomes that can be used now to inform our strategies for future periods of economic challenges:
- While online commerce was down across all months, the months most impacted were around the holidays, as consumers scaled back their holiday shopping as a result of the recession. Although overall commerce was down, as a percentage of the total, online commerce outperformed brick-and-mortar retail at the time.
- Consumers became significantly more price conscious and would spend more time searching for the best price.
- Consumers were less likely to impulse buy or make large purchases.
Knowing these trends, we can plan to mitigate some of their effects in the future post-COVID-19. One area of digital commerce that has grown significantly since the Great Recession is advanced merchandising and product findability tools. Many of these tools allow for different product characteristics to be prioritized, avoiding manual merchandising efforts. This helps show customers the products that they actually want to buy, addressing a number of the impacts that digital commerce saw in 2008-2009.
The Key Is To Be Adaptable
It's clear that COVID-19 will fundamentally change customer behavior and shape how businesses sell online. In these periods of change and uncertainty, it is important for digital commerce sites to refocus their business priorities on innovation that enhances the customer's overall experience.
For all businesses — big or small, B2B or B2C — adaptation will be necessary, and those who manage to innovate in the face of these changes will be the best suited to handle an unpredictable environment.
Anando Naqui is an e-commerce delivery lead and functional architect at Avatria, a digital commerce firm that specializes in developing complex solutions and building long-term client partnerships. With nearly a decade of experience with clients of all industries and sectors, Anando has helped improve the online shopping experience for millions of customers.