Marketing Pulse Blog

How eCommerce Won the Pandemic and What It Means for the Future of Retail

Written by
Zlata Faerman

Changes in retail and technology over the last two years are nothing short of transformational. In 2020, eCommerce specifically outperformed predictions by leaps and bounds, completely surpassing projected sales numbers. 

In 2019, McKinsey forecasted eCommerce would comprise 24% of the market by 2024. Other organizations echoed similar projections throughout the industry. eMarketer, for example, predicted that eCommerce sales would make up 22% of total retail sales by the year 2023. Clearly, a trend was on the horizon. But projections were off by several years. 

By July 2020, eCommerce had skyrocketed to 33% of total retail sales — besting the predictions that were still four years out. 

Looking at it through this lens, what should brands consider for the journey ahead? How can the lessons of 2020 apply as we collectively aim to scale our strategies? Let’s take a look. 

An Acceleration No One Expected

Holidays, shifting consumer sentiments, even extreme weather can all disrupt the global marketplace, sending economic projections occasionally off base. But what happened in the wake of the pandemic was no typical disruption. Growth across eCommerce in the first few months of 2020 was equal to the previous 10 years.

Large retailers recognized the value in eCommerce, technology, and a cohesive user experience years ago. So, when the pandemic hit and shutdowns began to affect businesses, these retailers could activate strategic plans that had long been in the works. 

Target, for example, already offered a strong omnichannel experience by 2020, which included buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS), its branded Drive Up order-ahead feature, and a partnership with Shipt for deliveries. By Q2 2020, Target’s eCommerce sales jumped 195%, and same-day fulfillment services ballooned some 275%. From January 2020 to June 2020, 10 million new customers shopped on the Target website. 

While curbside pickup and contactless delivery became an innovative survival strategy for many businesses, those like Target, which already invested in such infrastructures, reaped the rewards.

Lessons Learned Through the Epic Rise of D2C

Selling direct to consumer (D2C) is much more than simply listing products on a website. D2C requires distinct skill sets within the organization, as well as a clear understanding of pricing models and trend predictions. By 2020, consumers were forced to move almost exclusively online — meaning retailers had to reach them there, strategy or not. Many tried and succeeded. Others, small and big businesses alike, did not have the agility. 

Nimble, technology-driven companies pivoted and scaled. Others leaned into innovation to grow their D2C businesses. But many other companies never gained their footing. Pier 1 Imports, for example, filed for bankruptcy and announced it was closing all stores and liquidating assets in early 2020. Neiman Marcus also filed for Chapter 11 last May in an attempt to restructure its finances. 

It wasn’t just about demand, either. Supply chain issues also complicated things. In many cases, strained sales and ops teams simply could not support the influx of new business. 

Many of the companies that grew during the pandemic were digital natives, like popular pet retailer Chewy. While sales at other pet retailers like Petco and PetSmart were down by Q2 2020, Chewy jumped 28.7% that quarter, according to Retail Dive.  As a well-oiled online-exclusive retailer, Chewy was primed to become a leader in the space and did just that. 

Key Takeaways: What Should Retailers Think About Next?

As global economies cautiously reopen, new norms have emerged. Online consumer shopping demand is here to stay. Behaviors will shift and sentiments may change from time to time, but eCommerce is a mainstay and the pandemic accelerated consumer expectations by several years. Retailers should keep several things in mind as they plan ahead.

  1. Strategy first. As retailers look to build a sustainable eCommerce plan, it all comes back to strategy. Take a long-horizon look at growth, and carefully consider how to get there. There must be safeguards in place for scalability, ensuring the supply chain can fulfill orders and that operations can run smoothly.
  2. Loyalty is hard to come by. eCommerce shoppers are notoriously fickle, with as much as 30% to 40% continuing to switch brands on a regular basis. This makes the user experience all the more critical. Do not simply serve up products, but rather, build an experience that delights users. 
  3. It’s not always about technology. Technology is, of course, a key driver for every modern business. But focusing exclusively on the technical aspects of eCommerce creates gaps in the experience — which as mentioned, reigns supreme
  4. Be prepared to invest. In business, two things tend to reap the most significant returns: people and technology. Unfortunately, neither of them is cheap. However, the returns are well worth it. Be prepared to invest in your team. Upskill where needed and hire new staff to bridge gaps in the workflow. Be prepared to also invest in your tech stack, supporting your internal teams with technology that improves how work gets done. 

Ultimately, most of our projections were way off back in 2019, since we just didn’t know what was yet to come. But the world of eCommerce prevailed anyway, with innovation shining a bright light during an otherwise tumultuous time for retailers. 

If you need help refining your eCommerce strategy, let’s connect.

Featured image by Tim Douglas on Pexels.

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Written by
Zlata Faerman

Zlata is a full-time publicist, part-time writer, and round-the-clock ambassador to wit and humor. As a publicist for over 15 years, she helps launch products with creative ideas and garner press coverage that drives reputation and sales. She also contributes to a variety of lifestyle publications in the areas of food, parenting, health, beauty, marketing, travel, and home. When she’s not crafting kitchen concoctions for her food blog @lifeandthymez, Zlata can be found spending time with her family, having #zlatathoughts, and fantasizing about being a Real Housewife of New Jersey.

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