2020 was a year like no other, and the shockwaves caused by the pandemic have inherently altered consumer-facing operations at their very core. Retail has been one of the most severely impacted sectors over the course of the last 12 months, and in that time we have seen adoption of new technologies and changes in existing ones at an unprecedented rate.

Of course, the tail-end average of internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales has been steadily increasing since the advent of the internet, but this year the pandemic has essentially compressed a 10-year roadmap into 12 months, as successive lockdowns and social distancing restrictions forced both consumers and businesses into a 100% digital environment.

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In fact, recent figures showed that footfall in physical stores dropped by a whopping 50% in comparison to the same figures for 2019. Additionally, online sales rose 56% compared to Christmas 2020, towering over the rather conservative predictions from Deloitte in November 2020 of a 25% to 30% increase, although the last minute Christmas lockdown likely influenced these figures to a large extent. As a consequence, primarily brick-and-mortar retailers suffered an average fall in sales of 12.7% over the six weeks of Christmas 2020, the worst-ever outcome.

A permanent shift or a temporary trend?

However, the most significant question we must ask ourselves should be: is this significant shift to e-commerce now a permanent mainstay in the world of retail, or is it an anomalistic trend which will fade away shortly after the exodus of the pandemic?

The answer, in reality, is likely a combination of the two. Christmas 2020 was an anomaly and it’s unlikely that online sales activity will reach those heights again in the next five years, unless of course we are faced with a second Christmas lockdown.

Although, as previously alluded to, e-commerce didn’t just provide a temporary solution to physical activity, it accelerated an ongoing and exponential shift in online shopping activity that has been developing for two decades. What’s more, surviving ‘brick-and-mortar’ stores have likely done most of the hard work now in shifting to an online environment, and many retailers now have the provisions in place to deal with the digital demands of the post-pandemic consumer.

It’s also worth mentioning that we are far from out of the woods, and it could be years before shoppers feel comfortable returning to crowded high streets, or tourists return to British cities in the same capacity that they did before 2020. 

Rather morbidly, it’s entirely possible that many high-street branches and physical stores will close before the appetite for physical shopping returns. This idea has already been foreshadowed by major turning points in the retail sector, such as the recent purchase of Top Shop and Miss Selfridge by online fashion retail giants ASOS, and Debenhams by Boohoo.com – both of which made even more significant by the fact that only brand and image rights were purchased, not physical stores. 

Furthermore, it’s not just retail that has been impacted by the urgent shift to e-commerce sales, several new industries, in both B2C and B2B sectors, alike have undergone a similar shift. Those industries who were mostly fence sitters between physical and online experiences, like fashion, events and fitness, are unfortunately among the worst hit. It has only been a year since the first UK lockdown, and a majority of vendors are still struggling to get the e-commerce experience right.

Which brings us to the question, how are brands and their platforms coping with supporting a long term shift to e-commerce retail activity? Or how can they maximise this ongoing opportunity?

Suvish Viswanathan Head of European Marketing, Zoho

The critical components of the e-commerce platform

  1. Data Privacy: Various studies suggest that consumers are accepting of emails and messages that provide them offer and discounts, provided they have consented to it. Trust is an important factor in customer experience. E-tailers have to ensure the customer consent is captured (needs to be opt-in vs opt-out) and is passed on to various systems at the backend, such as the marketing automation, CRM and customer support. A centralised back-end system can mitigate some of the known risks related to data privacy violation. E-tailers should evaluate third party contracts they have in place, for example web tracking software for traffic analysis. If services involve remote assistance, e-tailers should evaluate the software they are putting into use. The key here is to ensure these third party applications have robust privacy policies and are not monetising customer data to grow their business. Being transparent to customers about the usage of such software will also help in building trust. 
  2. Payment Modes: Today, consumers use multiple payment modes for online shopping. It’s important for the e-commerce platform to integrate with a technology vendor that integrates with multiple payment modes like credit cards, direct debit, wallets etc. Payment methods vary from country to country, so it is important to consider a payment vendor who  supports popular payment modes in a target customer’s location. If providing subscription services, then it is important to for e-tailers to consider the features that assist a smooth subscription experience for their customers. It is not just about recurring payments, but also integrating it at the backend to support them well.
  3. Support for mobility: Mobile commerce is on a steady rise. A study by PRPO estimates a whopping 55% of online sales in the UK is done on mobile3. While bigger e-tailers can build platforms and maintain apps that support multiple platforms, smaller e-tailers can rely on e-commerce site builders like Shopify, Zoho Commerce or Big Commerce to build mobile optimised sites that support various form factors to assist shoppers on mobile, tablet or desktop.
  4. Personalising the experience:  Personalisation plays a crucial role in the shopping experience. The platform should be able to provide options to shoppers based on their past purchases, locations and other relevant parameters. Clean segmentation of data at the backend can also help e-tailers to send personalised holiday offers to customers. However, personalisation at the cost of privacy can cause more harm than good. To avoid this, brands can build a personalisation framework for their e-commerce platform keeping privacy at the core.
  5. Connecting the backend and frontend operations: Multiple business applications play critical roles in providing a good experience to shoppers. The tools at the backend need to have native or tight integration between them. For instance, customer support should have a tight integration with the CRM tool which in-turn should be able to collect data from various sources on the website like forms, live chat and IVR assisted phone calls. The inventory management application should send real time updates to CRM which in turn manages all supplier and customer details. All these entries also need to flow seamlessly into finance tools for billing, subscription and accounting. An integrated platform that connects multiple data sources will lead to better analysis that’s needed for the overall visibility of the business, predicting the right trends and managing any supply chain disruptions.
  6. Connecting multiple marketplaces: If you are selling your goods on multiple market places like Amazon and eBay, it’s important to centralise order details. While marketplaces are great ways to reach out to the larger base, each of them have different processes and merchants have to follow them. Using a centralised system will not only reduce the complexities in the fulfilment process but also simplify book keeping and customer management. 
  7. Data security: Online sales are at a record high, but so are security breaches. The cyber attacks of the recent past have become more sophisticated than ever before. E-commerce platforms collect multiple sensitive data like personal details, payment details and shopping logs. E-commerce sites today have to prepare for cyber attacks from multiple fronts and provide provisions for customers to safeguard their data against different types of phishing like e-skimming, cross-site-scripting, malware and ransomware or SQL injection. While at the backend the site has to support various shielding mechanisms against possible cyber attacks, building awareness around various kinds of phishing attempts among the shoppers can help in mitigating risks and building trust. 

In my opinion, Christmas 2020 was the watershed moment for e-commerce – it was the first retail mega-event which has faced significant disruption in peacetime history, yet the advent of online shopping allowed us to purchase goods, presents and food items almost without a hitch. Online shopping had been surging in popularity over the last few years and the pandemic has been the final push to demonstrate to apprehensive or traditionalist shoppers that e-commerce is a sustainable option for 100% digital shopping, and one which can be far more convenient and cost-effective, both for the brands and the consumers. Those which continue to ignore this online trend risk missing out on a huge market share opportunity. Optimising online stores using the technology available to help ecommerce run smoothly and provide the best possible CX must be prioritised in this new age of retail.

Suvish Viswanathan, Head of European Marketing, Zoho