Has ecommerce adoption amongst consumers taken a sustainable leap?

In short, I believe it has, although the level of adoption will differ by industry: whilst some will see a full shift, others will see customers who are more amenable to moving some elements of the interaction online.

To explain this, I need to consider what drove the sudden jump in ecommerce over the past few months. Firstly, restricted movement and shop closures meant customers were unable to buy all but essential items in physical shops. Secondly, there was a very real risk of illness and potential loss of life through face-to-face interaction, and so even for those essential items, (some) customers had a preference to minimise risk and avoid shops regardless. Thirdly, the impact of shops being forced to close resulted in many businesses setting up or improving their ecommerce offering, in an effort to recover revenue. This led to a more compelling online space for customers shopping online (experience, choice, cost, channels – social commerce).

If we fast forward 12 months, what will have changed? Shops will reopen, and movement restrictions lifted; as more effective treatments, and even a vaccine for Covid-19 are found and distributed, the risk of death is strongly reduced and so customer fears allayed; the changes that businesses made to their ecommerce proposition will largely remain. In theory, there is little stopping customers who previously shopped in shops from moving back to that behaviour.

However, a change that isn’t accounted for above is a fundamental shift in mindset as a result of the change in behaviour: customers have seen the benefits of ecommerce – whether that’s convenience, ease, price, security – and as a result are unlikely to go back fully to what was before. For businesses who have seen a colossal leap in commerce activity over the past few months, it’s important to understand what drove that need, the impact that has had on customer behaviour and mindset, and the likelihood that mindset – and hence behaviour – will remain.

Here are two examples: take a customer who previously planned their meals day-to-day, stopping off at their local Sainsbury’s to pick up the ingredients for that evening’s meal on the way back from work. During lockdown, they were forced to move to a weekly Sainsbury’s online order. This meant that they had to plan their meals for the week ahead, and over the past few weeks they have seen a real benefit in doing this (healthier meals, exploring new recipes, spending less money). Even when they are able to go back to their previous behaviour, they may well decide not to, hence a sustainable change in ecommerce.

On the other hand, I actually purchased a car online during lockdown! My old car had been written off pre-lockdown, my courtesy car was being collected and I needed a car to drop off supplies to my parents who were shielding. I paid the dealer via a BACS transfer and the car was delivered to my driveway. It was easy, albeit a little risky! Would I do it again next time? Probably not as I would like at least a test drive first. Therefore I would expect the ecommerce shift to be temporary. Having said that, what I’d actually love is some sort of hybrid multichannel solution that meant I didn’t have to travel to the dealer more than was absolutely necessary, and this does opens up an opportunity (and dare I say, need) for the dealer to adapt their buying experience to incorporate some of those online benefits we’ve become accustomed to.

What should multichannel retailers prioritise right now?

Obviously retailers that are able to operate online should have already turned on this channel over the past few months. Having a functioning ecommerce store is a fundamental basic response right now, but actually there’s more to it than that: they need to quickly understanding the new Covid-19 consumer – assess how their needs have changed, attitudes altered and behaviours evolved – and then hold a mirror up against their existing operations and identify what needs to change to deliver to them. They need to be thinking not only about their existing customer segments, but of whether the current climate has opened up new opportunities with new audiences.

There are retailers who are so heavily dependent on physical stores, and will be spending time working through how to open them safely (e.g. furniture, cars). Whilst this is critical for the here and now, if the predictions that customers will increasingly look to purchase online post Covid-19 are assumed true, then these retailers should also ensure they have included time in their plan to look at their digital experience and work out how their online/offline experience needs to evolve in this future world.

This shift to ecommerce isn’t new, and has been talked about for years. What Covid-19 has done is significantly accelerate the migration, and so whereas before retailers may have felt they had time to build out expansive 5 or 10 year multichannel strategies, they need to take a more pragmatic approach so that they can start to make the necessary changes today.

How are ecommerce experiences changing?

Aside from the more trade-led activations driving conversion through discounting, enhanced delivery and return services, I’ve seen brands looking at digital solutions to enable them to make a connection with customers online, to capture that one-to-one interaction lost through store closures. The main change I’ve seen across retail is the introduction of digital personal shoppers – offering customers one-to-one time with shop assistants through existing video channels. Assuming the ecommerce shift is here to stay, I think now is the time to be thinking more broadly about how to bring a brand even more to life online – especially for retailers who have previously depended on a physical space to do the ‘brand talking’ for them. This includes the use of video, website interactive tools, and even (dare I say) AR in some cases!

The other extreme is the complete migration of an offline experience to an online platform. I’m currently advising a not-for-profit organisation that is bringing its physical luxury consumer fair fully online later this year. This will introduce a completely new way for their customer base to interact and shop with the various exhibitors, and in this case one of the biggest challenges will be how they get across that inspired luxurious feel and human interaction in what is often a sterile online space.

Which companies have impressed you since the Covid-19 outbreak?

The past few months has really seen a colossal shift in the way brands respond to what’s happening on the world stage. Prior to Covid-19 it was often left to the more ‘radical’ or ‘cheeky’ brands like Ben & Jerry’s or Paddy Power to bring world issues into their marketing, with other brands preferring to keep to less controversial comms. But with first Covid-19 and more recently the Black Lives Matter movement taking over the news pages day after day, the tables have really turned, and rightly so – at this time it would be completely tone deaf and hugely damaging for a brand to ignore these issues that are touching every single employee and customer.

Most brands were quick to send out Covid-19 statements and reassure their communities that they were there for them. But I think the brands who went above and beyond – for altruistic reasons or otherwise – really showed up: Headspace are offering free access to healthcare workers and educators; Aldi were super quick to put up screens, introduce social distancing queuing systems and offer hand sanitizer in their stores. But they went even further to give all their store and distribution staff a 10% bonus on hours worked, and reduced their payment terms for all small suppliers to immediate payment; then there were a number of businesses who turned to making hand santizer in their factories when there was the initial shortage – LMVH, BrewDog, Unilever, to name a few. The list goes on, but these are brands who will win well beyond the current crisis through the increase in brand sentiment that hopefully drives loyalty, advocacy and future acquisition.

On the other hand there were brands who simply listened to the mood music and were agile enough to adjust their proposition accordingly. Whether that meant revising their range to be more ‘at home’ appropriate, adjusting their marketing communications to relate to how their customers were feeling, or offering well timed promotions and perks at a time when finances are strained for many people. Relevance continues to be key in marketing, and these brands no doubt saw this play forward in the numbers.

What advice would you give a marketer right now?

Stay in the present. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t plan ahead, but check that plan in real time before it is deployed to ensure it still makes sense. This means keeping up with what is going on in the world, and being ready to change direction – even at the 11th hour – if needed.

It’s also never been more important to keep it real – and not marketing-real, but real-real! As a marketer you should already be in your customer’s head, but now is the time to really get in there, and adjust (or completely overhaul) your communication plan so that it is relevant. If it doesn’t sit well, don’t put it out there. This is not the time to test the ‘all press is good press’ mantra (it really isn’t true).

On the other hand, there are a lot of people out there, many with more downtime than before, and certainly most online more than before. So be clever with your marketing: go back over your previous plans, channel usage, target lists and budget allocations, and refresh to make the most of this current normal.

What are your favourite tools and techniques to help you get your work done at the moment?

Whilst I’m not currently working a 9-5, I’ve tried to maintain some structure to my days to ensure I am being productive in the projects I am working on. Previously I would have been fairly relaxed in what I did when, but since lockdown I’ve needed more rigidity in how I carve out my day as otherwise time can just pass by. Currently I split my day into four blocks of time, and pencil a particular task or action for each block.

Exercise is really important to me, and a benefit of working from home is that I’ve been able to dedicate more time to it. I get up early and workout every morning before getting stuck into my tasks for the day: this energises me and immediately puts me in a positive headspace for the rest of the day.

I’m spending so much more of my day in front of a screen (even socialising!), and it can really tamper with my ability to think creatively (or think at all!). So I always have some paper and a pen nearby and I make sure I switch it around throughout the day: when I’m trying to build out a thought or come up with an idea I find that doodling always gets my creative juices flowing (plus it gives my eyes a break).

Finally I’ve taken to doing something that isn’t work-related during lunch to break up the day. Ironically when I was working in an office I would eat lunch at my desk whilst checking emails, but since being at home, having 30 minutes to completely switch off and connect with the outside world is really important to me.

For more on this topic, visit Econsultancy’s ecommerce topic page and coronavirus topic page.