What does Covid-19 mean for the future of ecommerce?

By Courtney Shaffer Lovold, regional vice-president of client success, North America, Emarsys

Courtney Shaffer Lovold, regional vice-president of client success, North America, Emarsys
Courtney Shaffer Lovold, Regional Vice-President of client success, North America, Emarsys

In business terms, COVID-19 is perhaps best described as a catalyst for change. If you happened to be heavily invested in ecommerce and with a near-invincible supply chain, you’ve likely experienced a fairly powerful upturn. If you weren’t on this course — and millions weren’t — your path was challenging, with little to no precedent.

Bricks-and-mortar retail, a significant part of our economy, has been inaccessible for months at a time. Re-opening remains impossible to predict, with rules and regulations seeming to change daily. Supply chains have been exposed as fragile, and the need to furlough staff has threatened the existence of entire departments.

Most importantly for the bottom line, consumers who would previously budget for amenities are re-evaluating their attitude towards spending in a way that companies have never experienced before. Businesses are, for now and the foreseeable future, forced to balance their bottom line with the health and welfare of the people that have put their trust within the organization.

Companies built on face-to-face collaboration and interaction have consequentially been forced to pivot on a dime and figure out the cultural impact later. Social distancing and the closure of physical stores have changed how our customers experience brands.

However, this shift has not eliminated consumer spending. Instead, it’s brought about a powerful diversification in terms of where and how money is spent. Walmart’s ecommerce sales have increased by 97% for Q2, Target’s ecommerce sales rose by 195%, with 10,000,000 new customers making purchases. One of our clients at Emarsys, a bike retailer, has set a 10-year sales record this year, despite the restrictions on their physical stores.

Some organizations have never had such an opportunity to introduce their products and services to so many new faces in such a short space of time. To make the most of this influx, enterprises need to evaluate their ability to analyze and organize this new customer data, using the resulting insights to change the way that they operate and to create new data-driven ecommerce processes that exceed evolving customer expectations.

The need for speed

IT stacks will vary wildly between businesses, but no matter the setup, one principle remains fundamental: speed. As the volume of traffic across ecommerce sites increases, those with poor optimization or badly designed infrastructures will inevitably slow down, which can have serious ramifications for the customer experience. Enterprises need to be able to respond to changes in customer preference and behavior as early as possible — ideally before they even happen.

Where speed is key, centralization must also be a consideration. Whether it’s the deployment of multiple ecommerce platforms or the siloing of data into different containers, not being able to access and execute from a single point is going to slow down processes and introduce more human error.

Consolidating multiple platforms into one can vastly increase the speed at which data analysis and strategic decision making take place. Wherever possible, enterprises should aim for one solution that can operate as an end-to-end data analysis and customer engagement platform. This will help to ensure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet, and that no data is missed.

With data under one roof, businesses can also begin to truly unlock the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation — both of which help significantly with speed. Artificial intelligence analyzes large amounts of customer data in near seconds so that marketers are able to have segmented audiences based on future behavior and couple that with real time interactions personalized in a 1:1 way. The power of knowing who is going to churn and who is going to buy based on algorithmic analysis enables marketers to pivot direction in the treatment of their customers and the forecast they provide to the business.

Being clear and personal

With so much uncertainty, consumers appreciate clear communication. No customer wants to spend an hour shopping only to be blindsided by stock problems, shipping costs or policy changes. Making potential inconveniences as clear as possible early on in the purchase journey can be the deciding factor for retaining a customer in the long term.

As well as being clear, communication with customers should also be personalized. In times of uncertainty, it’s important that customers feel valued and are not bombarded with irrelevant content, products or marketing materials. A strong data set and the right technology in place can ensure that data is being converted into insights. enabling the deployment of artificial intelligence and automation to personalize campaigns towards specific customers and their needs.

Engaging with customers on an individual level, catering to their preferences and needs, is one of the most important drivers of customer loyalty. The aforementioned influx of millions of customers into the ecommerce sphere is a huge opportunity to secure customers in the longer term — especially in light of a Black Friday where, according to Emarsys research, only 4% of customers are looking to shop in brick and mortar stores.

The end goal

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed pressures on business that have forced them to either rapidly evolve into more streamlined, efficient entities, or cease to exist entirely. By thinking carefully about the technologies and data strategies they adopt, these brands have been able to turn what should have been a business disaster into an opportunity.

Now, as we look towards the future, the data strategies adopted during COVID-19 will continue to serve these brands and enable them to deliver more business value and better ecommerce experiences.