Now is not the time to hit the pause button. Retailers that make bold moves to adjust to the realities of COVID-19 will likely weather this storm far better than those who don't.

Wilson Kerr, vice president, business development & sales, Unbound Commerce

Wilson Kerr, vice president, business development & sales, Unbound Commerce

These are strange times. Uncharted territory. The new normal is changing daily and it can be scary and bewildering.

For online retailers, there seem to be two divergent strategies emerging. The first is to push “pause” on ecommerce related projects and see what happens. The second is to move forward with projects geared specifically toward helping mobile consumers get what they need and want safely and effectively, online, to drive sales and position now for when we come out of this period of uncertainty.

Holiday 2020 is not going away and, if social distancing protocols and other measures stay in place though autumn, there will be a significant opportunity to serve consumers not allowed to crowd into physical stores. Even if officials lift the protocols, most industry experts predict a change that will be lasting. Smart retailers are positioning now to benefit.

Timing is everything

According to Nate Smith of Adobe:, “Right now, as consumers increasingly use digital methods to prepare for a possible emergency, retailers need to ensure smooth, frictionless, and fast experiences on their ecommerce websites and mobile applications. Meeting your customers’ needs and expectations at a time like this is imperative: it could either make or break your brand.”

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Making these bold moves might seem risky in uncertain times. But they can pay off big time if they honor the trajectory of the numbers being seen and take note of the fact that consumers who were not previously well-acquainted with mobile/online shopping are now taking a crash course. Remember that, while most of us think that ecommerce is a dominant force in people’s lives, it only represented about 11% of US retail sales in 2019, according to eMarketer.

While forecasts were calling for only a small increase in this percentage in 2020, the coronavirus might dramatically increase this number and change the game.

Shelter in place impact to online sales

According to retail expert Shelley Kohan writing in Forbes, “In 2020, e-commerce is expected to represent 12% of total retail sales; however, a change in consumer behavior in the first quarter of this year due to the coronavirus can impact the future quarters for 2020 and have a profound impact on holiday sales. As the consumer’s comfort with online shopping becomes higher and technology is more intuitive and ubiquitous, the digital side of the retail business may be stepped up at a faster rate than previous projections.”

Put another way, for most online retailers, now is probably not the time to push the pause button. For some, the next quarter represents an opportunity to take advantage of a massive number of people quite literally shopping only online, as social distancing rules may soon make everything except grocery runs and trips to the pharmacy impossible.

Adapt or get rolled

Smart businesses are adapting fast to a new, changing economy that necessitates the need for less face to face interaction. Rather than delay projects, they are accelerating them, as shelter in place orders sweep the nation.

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An obvious example of a feature that is suddenly very relevant to retailers that offer it is BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store). In most cases, the pickup is a outside the store, but the same principle applies. Having this option now takes on a whole new meaning, as customers can avoid crowded checkout lines and dirty pin pads, a possible vector for the virus. For restaurants, this option can mean the difference between solvency and going out of business.

According to Warren Shouldberg in Forbes, “these developments were in the works before the pandemic, and the .. ramp up online would have happened eventually. But the coronavirus has sped up the process and put those slow to the gate in deep danger. Millions of shoppers who would have never considered shopping online have been forced to do so, and it’s quite likely most will like the experience and come back for more.”

The slow and steady shift to a more virtual retail world has suddenly changed from a future we might someday see to the new must-do for businesses that want to make it through this.

Obvious winners 

Some companies are shining in the new “shelter in place” normal. Online conferencing services like Zoom see explosive growth for obvious reasons, as work-from-home employees seek collaboration. Premade meal delivery companies like Blue Apron (a 500% increase reported) and grocery delivery services like Instacart (hiring 300,000 workers) are booming. But these are the obvious winners.

For “bricks and clicks” retailers with ecommerce and traditional physical stores, the path to success in our hunkered down, newly more-virtual economy is not so clear. These retailers will have to shift to all-online as fast as possible. Those without an online option will likely not make it through this.

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A real example of a bricks and clicks retailer doing things right is Binny’s Beverage Depot. Binny’s is a liquor store chain with 42 locations in Illinois and they have a native application built and hosted by the company I work for. They have an iOS and Android app integrated with their ecommerce platform.

On March 21, Illinois issued a shelter in place order and the usage stats for their apps skyrocketed. For example, their month over month daily new users stat jumped an incredible 242% on Saturday March 28, a week after the shelter in place order was issued. On the Saturday the order was issued, their total user sessions for their iOS app jumped 72% from a “normal” Saturday, 2 weeks prior.

For online-only “pure-play” retailers, this is a real opportunity to shine. The real choice is not whether to continue with previous plans for incremental site improvements or to hit the pause button, but, instead, how to identify and accelerate specific projects that will be crucial in a new, rapidly evolving online retail landscape.

To app or not to app?

While the knee jerk temptation might be to “freeze” projects that involve vendors, some retailers are approaching this from a different perspective and moving forward now, toward a new virtual future that includes a native app in their retail offering.

For many mid-sized pure-play online retailers, a native app has been on the table for some time—an ongoing discussion. Done right, an app is a personal and more deeply engaging extension of an ecommerce operation and, done right, can convert sales two to six times better than a website accessed by browsing via mobile. Amazon has this dialed. App-only features like push notifications can mean direct engagement with customers, at a time when this sort of direct connection is welcomed and needed more than ever. Super-fast page-load times and the other inherent app-specific benefits add to the case for an app.

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The coronavirus effect

As senior retail contributor Warren Shouldberg aptly points out in Forbes, “No one knows what will happen next with the coronavirus crisis, but when it comes to how Americans are shopping, there is one thing of total and utmost certainty: Online retailing will gain market share and become much more popular. That irrefutable outcome of the pandemic will make retailers that have never truly developed e-commerce capabilities—or, worse, walked away from the channel—do a 180-degree turn and put a massive push behind getting their online operations into competitive shape.”

This pandemic will end at some point and, when it does, there will be clear winners and losers. Retailers that made bold moves to adjust and shape their offering toward a customer base seeking deeper engagement and smoother, easier checkout will likely weather this storm far better than those who chose to hit the brakes on ecommerce initiatives and online innovation. More importantly, they will be ahead of the curve, as the new normal that emerges will almost certainly have mobile commerce as a cornerstone.

Shouldberg goes on to say, “All of these developments were in the works before the pandemic, and the transitions needed by both entire sectors and individual companies to ramp up online would have happened eventually. But the coronavirus has sped up the process and put those slow to the gate in deep danger. Millions of shoppers who would have never considered shopping online have been forced to do so, and it’s quite likely most will like the experience and come back for more.”

We agree.

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Mobile shines

As parents juggle kids that need homeschooling and try to work from a new office, they are “on the run” and smartphones are always on in a very real sense, even in the home. Given this, having an effective mobile commerce offering means you can deliver the sort of quick ordering experience that has a real impact regarding safety and convenience.

Convenience no longer means “saving a little time.” For most, it now literally means avoiding nerve-wracking trips to a store, assuming stores are even open. If retail stores are closed, then mobile commerce may be the only option and retailers well-positioned to deliver the best possible experience will shine and those that are not will suffer.

In conclusion

Be safe. Be well. Be careful. But also remember that online purchasing behaviors are changing very quickly as consumers use ecommerce as never before.

While a good, well-designed mobile app might take 4 to 6 weeks to build, it is becoming increasingly clear that this new normal is not going to be a short one. And, even after the pandemic settles down, we are going to see long-lasting and far-reaching effects. Apps convert sales at a far higher rate than mobile sites and offer deeper engagement at a time when this is most needed.

The time for boldness is now, as every minute online retailers wait is potentially another minute, they are not giving customers the right tool for the job. The temptation may be to lay low, to hunker down and to “hit pause” on new initiatives that cost money. But there is real opportunity to shine and to be bold, as the country moves online, fast.

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Unbound Commerce is a provider of mobile commerce technology for mid-market retailers.

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