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Scaling New Heights

COVID-19 should not distract ecommerce businesses from getting ready for Peak 2020.

Keith Abbott

COVID-19 should not distract ecommerce businesses from getting ready for Peak 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis has been a major distraction from business as usual as companies trading through multiple channels saw almost 100 percent of their orders go online. For many pure players, it felt like Christmas had come early, as a huge peak they were not expecting, apart from Easter and a couple of blips around Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, suddenly appeared.

The response, however, has been varied, with most rising to the challenge of getting orders out to customers, whilst at the same time building a safe and secure supply chain between the warehouse and the customer. It has not been easy and it has been expensive, but those who put their customers first and simply focused on getting orders delivered have been the winners.

Others, while they may feel that they did their best, quickly realised the limitations of their business model, web assets, and supply chain. As order volumes climbed, stories of failed deliveries, broken communications, web product images sitting in front of nonexistent inventory, slow page loads, and inconsistent service rocketed. If this is simply going to be repeated during the last quarter of the year, when typically, retailers do more than 50 percent of their annual business and generate up to 80 percent of their profits, then this group will need to take a long hard look at itself.

However, long before October as the Golden Quarter arrives, with margins under pressure, competition fiercer than ever, and unusually large inventories to be managed, all companies will need to be thinking about peak right now, particularly as it will almost certainly bear many similarities to the COVID-19 peak.

First of all, customers’ expectations on service, delivery, content, price, and communications actually went up during the crisis. Many people had more time to make more considered purchases and the more companies have done for them during the difficult times, the more customers have come to assume this is normal.

New types of customers that had never shopped online emerged, many of whom needed more help to complete a purchase, whilst savvy online shoppers were buying products that they used to buy in stores. Many wanted more delivery flexibility, which saw some retailers adapting their click and collect from closed stores to offering kerbside delivery straight into customers’ cars.

The impact of these new behaviours and new responses from retailers will resonate across the ecommerce operation and will need to be converted into business as usual, and supported by automation where relevant.

Consider the various ways that smart ecommerce businesses responded during COVID-19; this business agility now needs bedding in.

Our clients generated more content than usual during lockdown because demand rose from customers that were spending more time browsing. Peer-to-peer messaging such as Whatsapp and text has been immensely popular, as companies have enabled their staff to step in and give help to customers one on one.

And not just customer services staff, but staff in other departments. COVID-19 broke down many of the barriers between departments and saw staff in those departments work together around shared processes and data to help customers. Our customers are now thinking about how to make some of those changes permanent, which will give them the flexibility to meet peak demand and peak behaviour.

And don’t forget the basics. COVID-19 laid bare the shortcomings of many ecommerce businesses. Slow site speeds, particularly on mobile sites, are common and will need improvement to ensure you are at the front of the pack during peak. You may suffer poor Google rankings as competitors start to bid even harder against you. And that is just getting customers through the door.

You will have upped your customer acquisition investment in the build-up to peak, but don’t then suffer low add-to-bag rates because you are making it too easy for customers to browse rather than buy. Or lose them at the checkout; you made it easy for them to get here and then piled on the friction with complex delivery and payments processes.

During the crisis, your dependence on your partners almost certainly went up; now is the perfect time to embed what you both learned and collaborate to create scenarios for the next peak so you are better prepared in areas such as personalisation, returns management, inventory planning, and temporary hiring.

This is not about meeting industry benchmarks, it is about outperforming. Most ecommerce operations that responded well during the crisis and tried hard to give their customers whatever they needed saw their costs rise. But the investment has already been paying off. Those that leave their preparations for peak too late are in for a shock; a summer of complacency will almost certainly lead to a winter of discontent.


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