Have you noticed a surge in online purchases lately? Or perhaps a decline in in-person customers? These are two sides of the same coin – and a direct result of the pandemic raging across the globe.
Approaching the end of 2020, there’s no doubt that online experiences are more important than ever. In customer service particularly, online shopping went from a convenient option to the only way for businesses to engage safely with customers.
This trend toward digital purchasing has translated into increased revenue for ecommerce initiatives. Take Walmart, for example, a company most people think of as a chain of huge, physical stores.
Yet, in Q2 2020, Walmart reported a 97 percent increase in ecommerce sales compared to a mere 9.3 percent in same-store sales. This online growth represents the biggest earnings increase for the company in 31 years.
It’s clear that demand for online shopping has been a blessing for retail companies like Walmart and Amazon, since it allowed them to see their revenue increase, even during quarantine.
The pandemic has surely had a unique impact on retail operations. For example, in the first half of 2020, there was a large increase in buying groceries online, which led companies like Instacart to both embark on a hiring spree to meet delivery demands, while simultaneously cutting the number of in-store workers.
While Instacart may have a particular business model, the increased support for online shopping is a logical reaction to physical distancing restrictions.
But, purchasing habits have been shifting toward the digital world for some time now. In the U.S., online sales surpassed general merchandise stores (including department stores, warehouse clubs, and supercenters) for the first time in February 2019 – a full year before the pandemic struck.
This means one thing: even when we’re done with the coronavirus restrictions, and free to roam physical stores, there will still be an increase in people buying online. In fact, based on a McKinsey executive survey:
“Stores will see traffic return to previous levels several months after reopening, and [...] executives predict a 6 to 13 percentage-point increase in online penetration compared with pre-pandemic levels.”
Online shopping growth may decelerate, at least for COVID-impacted purchases such as non-perishable food, sanitizers, and toilet paper, not to mention due to stimulus checks being spent. But, ecommerce will probably keep growing for the foreseeable future.
So, as preparations for the holiday season start to ramp up amidst the pandemic, you can give changes to your digital e-shop a test drive. The improvements you make to your online store now will pay off in the short and the long run.
Usually, once retail stores hit a certain revenue or headcount, creating an online presence via a website is a given. Not only does that broaden your customer base, but it also facilitates future in-store sales by helping consumers research products.
But, what happens if the pandemic hit before you had an online presence? Well, that’s a tough one – you probably need to get a website of your own sorted or create a partnership with another service. For example, some supermarkets or other retailers forge partnerships with delivery apps (e.g. Wish, Wolt) or take advantage of ecommerce services of sites like Shopify, Amazon, and Facebook.
Consider what’s best (and quicker) for you and set up a plan to start selling online. Comparison resources may help you in this process.
Even if a retailer has an online store, there’s still a very real challenge: how to recreate the in-store experience in the – largely faceless – digital world. Your online customers will miss the benefit of seeing products in-person, a smile from the sales associate, and the personalized service that it brings.
So, how do you make sure you engage customers remotely as well as you do on location?
Some companies have found a workaround by integrating in-store experiences with online communication platforms. An example we love for its effectiveness is what Canadian company Dufresne did.
As a home furnishing retailer, it was difficult to imagine Dufresne selling predominantly online – after all, who doesn’t want to try furniture before they buy or ask salespeople questions to help them make the right choice? During coronavirus, this presented a huge challenge, but also a great opportunity.
First, Dufresne decided to implement live chat and chatbots on their website, so customers could get immediate assistance from the team. And, with Acquire’s cobrowsing capabilities, Dufresne employees were also able to help customers having any difficulty while shopping online.
Of course, video chat was the star of Dufresne’s efforts since it’s the closest to an actual in-person meeting you can get. Showcasing furniture via video allowed Dufresne’s customers to shop from the comfort of their home without worrying about how the furniture will look like in real life.
This use case can be reproduced in other types of retail stores (for example, car dealership Dilawri uses video to do remote vehicle walkarounds).
You can provide your customers with the choice to browse products over video and ask questions to your sales associates via chat. For 24/7 sales assistance, a chatbot is perfect for the job. With a chatbot, you can also let customers instantly book in-store appointments where available, staggering their arrival times to preserve physical distancing rules.
A complete platform like Acquire gives you all these tools (and more) in one. If you want to see more, request a demo.
So, your customers have filled their shopping cart with items. But will they buy?
Only if you don’t make it hard for them. Most of us have gone through a bad online checkout experience – you know, having to give everything short of (and sometimes including) your mother’s favorite pet’s name to sign up for an account, then go through multiple steps to pay and so on.
So, take a bit of time to look over the checkout process and make any necessary optimizations. Some solutions might be technical, others operational.
Here are some things to consider:
A peek back to the Walmart story: CNBC reported that the business had trouble keeping many of the products customers purchased online in stock, and that they’ll be working to fix that.
Walmart’s sales volume may be a lot higher than most other retailers’, causing inventory to deplete quickly, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure your own supply chains are working properly, too. Talk to your suppliers about availability and look for alternative sources if possible.
Most importantly, your website needs to be integrated with inventory control (most usually via an ERP system), so it can remove or flag items that aren’t available. It’s frustrating for customers to order something they may be excited about, only to discover it’s actually not in stock and that they have to wait weeks to get it. And while people may be more willing to look the other way during the pandemic, these occurrences may hurt your business later on.
You probably always had to deal with customers calling in or dropping by the store to complain, ask questions, request refunds or demand changes. But, how could you handle this volume completely online?
Luckily, digital customer support has made great strides and many companies already take advantage of effective tech to support their customers online. We mentioned some good options earlier – for example, you can use:
Online sales are going nowhere – and a good thing, too. Even in times when people stay home (pandemics, natural disasters, or just those lazy Sunday evenings), you can still boost your revenue.
So, aim to recreate in-store experiences online, engage your customers, and make sure it’s easy, and pleasant, for them to buy from you and keep coming back. Don’t forget to go omnichannel: all your customer touchpoints, including social media, live chat, email, need to be connected (and this is easy with the right software).
And, if you find you need a website redesign, go ahead and do it – your customers will thank you for the improved aesthetic and operational quality.
Nikoletta Bika is an experienced content marketer, writer, and editor, with an educational background in business and people management. She writes about customer experience, the future of AI, data, and tech trends.