Mounting concern over COVID-19 is already having an impact on online shopping behavior, according to data from Adobe Analytics, which monitors the ecommerce transactions of 80 of the top 100 U.S. retailers.
Virus protection category products such as hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and antibacterial sprays surged 817% January through February. During these two months, over-the-counter drug purchases increased by 198% for cold and flu medications and 152% for pain relievers. Toilet paper online sales have spiked by 186%, while nonperishable canned foods and shelf-stable food sales have increased 69%.
A convergence of trends drives this purchasing surge. Those include emergency preparations and necessity, now that governments around the world are encouraging people to stay inside to slow the spread coronavirus. I expect this trend to continue and, in many cases, even harden into permanent behaviors as consumers establish new online purchasing patterns.
As with any crisis, businesses must adapt to these rapidly changing conditions and modify marketing, operations and business models to best serve customers. Integrity is a critical foundation for modern business and ensuring that you execute a planned response to this situation is paramount in this age of information transparency and social media sharing. During crises like COVID-19, making clear and factual statements, meeting customer commitments, and ensuring business and operational continuity is more important than ever. Below, I’ve outlined the critical commerce tactics you may consider as you modify your commerce strategy.
Immediate actions: communication and marketing
Consumers are personally, financially, and professionally affected by COVID-19—the disease cause by the novel coronavirus. It has never been more important to build trust and ensure information accuracy. Provide factual and relevant information to establish your brand as a trusted advisor.
As appropriate, ensure you modify your tone to properly align with the scenario and your customers’ mindsets. More subtle modifications to your site will also contribute to establishing an empathetic experience, such as shifting to alternate imagery where you may have previously featured large groups or public settings. If you provide direct services to address the pandemic and modify your site’s content, it’s critical to update your metadata as well.
Share your own experiences
Open up to your customers and tell your story. Explain the impact that the crisis is having on your own company, how it has impacted your operations (both negatively and positively). Post a video message from your CEO on your homepage. Have him/her build confidence that although physical stores are closed, the company is healthy and able to weather the storm.
Explain what you are doing to ensure business continuity in your warehouses, contact centers, etc. Be sure to explain the steps you are making to protect your own employees that are still in the office or warehouse. Explain how all that is happening is impacting your supply chain and apologize for any shortages while setting realistic expectations on when inventory may be back in stock. The overall goal is to create empathy with your customers.
Operational continuity during the coronavirus crisis
Ensuring operational continuity will be an increasing challenge as the widespread shift to online shopping exceeds fulfillment and delivery capacity. It is imperative to correctly set customer expectations and establish safety stock levels to ensure you can meet commitments. Optimize buy online pick up in store (BOPIS) and consider scheduled pickups, curbside pickup and delivery options to reduce exposure risks further. Consider putting purchase limitations for high demand products to ensure fair distribution and discourage reselling.
Encourage customers to think ahead
Many large merchants and marketplaces are prioritizing critical products and consumables over general categories to mitigate fulfillment pressures further. Encourage customers to forecast buying needs and order multiple items at once to reduce the number of shipments going to the same address. This will reduce pressure on the fulfillment network, i.e. discourage the Prime mentality of buying individual items as you need them.
Reassure customers that online orders are safe
Be sure to provide details to your customers on what you are doing to minimize contamination in the shipping process. Explain that in most cases the time-in-transit means that packages are a very low risk for transmission of the virus and provide customer best practices for keeping social distancing with the delivery driver and wiping down packages with disinfectant wipes before opening etc.
And, as primary carriers and delivery networks become overwhelmed, now may be the time to consider alternate third-party logistics (3PL) and delivery partners. Logistics partners specialize in last-mile delivery from stores and can help merchants quickly and effectively ship from stores and take advantage of a vast network of delivery drivers.
New segments of consumers have also come online, including the underbanked. To serve those consumers, it is essential to support cash-based transaction alternatives such as Venmo. As consumers deal with near-term cash flow concerns and upcoming car, rent and mortgage payments, consider offering payment plan options. That way, customers can keep buying higher consideration, discretionary and even luxury items and pay for them later in the year when the threat of the crisis is in the rearview mirror and the economy is in recovery mode.
Scaling customer support in response to COVID-19
Increased traffic and order volumes will also result in the need to support increased customer traffic and service request volumes. Managing these demands will be increasingly challenging as call-centers hit capacity, may need to temporarily shut down due to quarantines, or transition to work-from-home models. This is again where beefing up product information and self-help resources on merchant sites is critical. For example, chat functionality will become more important in this context.
Also, think about how you can leverage your community of brand advocates to help you in this time of need. Consider opening a community knowledgebase where existing customers can help answer questions from prospective customers to reduce the burden on your employees and contact center.
Focus (short term) on usability over design
COVID-19 has put an unprecedented strain on the internet and mobile networks, which in turn is slowing down online experiences. Make sure you are prioritizing the overall site performance of your mobile and web experiences. Now is the time to cut back on those high-resolution home page banners and just ensure that the basics of being able to browse and buy do not become frustrating slow for your customers.
Right now, as consumers increasingly use digital methods to prepare for a possible emergency, merchants need to focus on delivering smooth, frictionless, and fast experiences on their ecommerce websites and mobile applications.
Meeting your customers’ needs at a time like this is imperative. Disappoint them, and they will undoubtedly shop elsewhere. Instead, merchants should be laser-focused on meeting their needs, and building long-lasting customer loyalty.
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