Retail doors may be opening, but the experience inside is hardly business as usual. Product-test areas and touchscreens have become hand-sanitizer stations. Packed check-out lines, once reliable for impulse buys, feature X-marks six feet apart. Of course, that’s saying you even get inside promptly; to guarantee social distancing, stores like Home Depot limit customer entries to around 100 at a time.
These sanitation measures may seem drastic, but with fears surrounding the highly contagious COVID-19, they’re essential adaptations. Even more essential? Ecommerce. New research by Mastercard shows U.S. ecommerce sales were up 92.7% in May 2020, with more than $53 billion spent via ecommerce channels between April and May—the height of the pandemic. For scale, that’s more spent online than that last 12 Cyber Mondays combined.
While rapid, ecommerce growth is not unexpected. The retail landscape has been moving in this direction for over a decade. In 2007, ecommerce accounted for 5.1% of total retail purchases. By 2019, it reached 16%. And for brands that invested in digital storefronts and ecommerce-driven content before 2020, the work is paying off.
It may be tempting, but for brands behind the curve (or who missed that curve), ecommerce is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Retailers aren’t competing solely against neighboring businesses. Online, they’re competing with thousands of digital storefronts. And brands—once pit against a handful of products on store shelves—aren’t spared in the digital world, either.
When it comes to ecommerce, content is king
With an almost unfathomable increase in competition, how do brands and retailers stand out in ecommerce? This million-dollar question has a surprisingly simple answer: content. But it’s not just content for content’s sake.
Good content is going to help you define your brand and show your core values. It’s going to position you as an expert in your industry to develop those key points of differentiation. Content provides value to your customers and gives them a reason to come back. But everyone’s creating content now, so you need to make sure your brand’s content is focused.
What ecommerce strategies are working?
Some retailers have adapted to the content-driven ecommerce landscape better than others. Take popular beauty retailer Sephora, which operates over 2,300 stores in more than 30 countries. It shut its doors for months during the pandemic but kept the Sephora audience engaged with spot-on, immersive content that leads customers through the buying process. Quizzes, including the “Concealer Quiz” and personalized “Skincare Quiz,” are an entire category on the Sephora website. Sure, this quiz content is entertaining, but it’s rooted in ecommerce, both now and for the future. As Sephora slowly opens its retail doors, it’s doing so without the common and sales-driven in-store experience of makeup trials. In addition to flexible offers like extended return periods, the brand’s portfolio of online quizzes will likely help customers find—then buy—the right products, in-store testing or not.
Another legacy brand poised for ecommerce success is Saks Fifth Avenue. In 2016, Saks Fifth Avenue introduced a personal online shopping service to test the digital waters. Brand associates create boutique pages for customers with hand-selected merchandise; they can discuss one-on-one via live chat or email. That program—implemented four years before Covid-19—is now more relevant than ever, particularly as 24% of consumers say they won’t feel comfortable shopping in a mall for at least six months, according to a Morning Consult study.
These innovative ecommerce strategies make sense for Sephora and Saks. The programs meet a specific customer need—makeup decisions and style selections—and guide customers through the sales funnel. But ecommerce adaptations don’t have to be flashy or ultra-creative. Success comes down to giving customers what they want, how they want it—and doing so as soon as possible.
Other brands that have adapted new ecommerce strategies
For retail powerhouse Target Corp., that was simply a new way to shop. Target’s digital comparable sales grew from 33% in February 2020 to 282% in April. Plus, their same-day services like order pickup and drive-up spiked by 278% in the first quarter of 2020. Even as shelter-in-place restrictions ease up, this adaptation could become a retail staple, and some evolutions we haven’t yet predicted are still to come. Retailers will need not just to adopt these experiences. They also must continuously improve upon them to stand out from competitors.
Retail brands across industries are rapidly acclimatizing to this new normal as well. Home goods store Crate & Barrel and outdoor-gear retailer REI, also offer sanitary, zero-contact curbside pickup to help customers feel safe and secure while shopping. Think of curbside pickup as the actual end of the sales funnel; content is the beginning—and the beginning is arguably the essential part. With REI, early-stage content includes assets like the REI Co-op Journal’s adventure ideas that subtly mention products. Customers then move on to the next content iteration: products for these adventures. And these products happen to feature detailed and high-quality photos and videos with each product. They have a strategy to help customers visualize themselves with the gear, even when they’re not in store.
REI, Saks, Sephora, and Crate & Barrel will inevitably continue adapting to meet ecommerce customers where they are and how they want retailers to reach them. And if COVID-19 has proved anything with retail, it’s that change isn’t just inevitable: It’s rapid—and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Adorama Business Solutions is the B2B division of Adorama Camera Inc. (No. 185 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000). It provides consultative sales and product solutions to organizations making investments in technology and electronics.