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The Future of eCommerce in the Age of COVID-19

For many years, before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, a lot of businesses took their time launching eCommerce operations. Since their customers were accustomed to shopping in-store, retailers’ incentives to move online weren’t all that compelling.

In 2020, the coronavirus has turned that thinking on its head, accelerating the significance and need for eCommerce. Now that an omnichannel sales strategy is a must-have, rather than a nice-to-have, businesses have an opportunity to move online with the right infrastructure in place.

Here are several keys to successful eCommerce in today’s landscape.

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Embrace end-to-end digitization

Eighty-five percent of retailers surveyed by Bazaarvoice believe online sales will increase this holiday season. Rising to that kind of demand, and meeting customers’ expectations while doing it, requires digitizing a business as a whole.

Inventory management, for example, can be a major pitfall for businesses that take a siloed approach to moving online. Without an accurate, omnichannel view of their inventory, sellers may offer items for sale online that become unavailable when in-store customers buy them first.
Those kinds of errors may be unforgivable for stressed holiday customers.

Creating an end-to-end digital product catalog and maintaining it with real-time integrity around price and availability is key to meeting a holiday increase in online sales, without risking poor customer experiences over inventory inaccuracies.

Minimize complexity

Ensuring your catalog is as well-presented and shoppable as possible is also essential to operating a successful online store. Consumers expect high-quality images and accurate cost and timing estimates for products available for pick-up or delivery, but businesses sometimes struggle to effectively merchandise their products in eCommerce environments when they first move online. Many are unaccustomed to (or lacking resources for) photographing items, or managing the complexities of online order fulfillment, shipping, and taxes.

Many sellers set themselves up for trouble from the beginning by opting for flat-rate shipping (such as $7 to anywhere U.S.) in an attempt to keep things simple for customers and cover any cost differences themselves.

That approach is fraught with potential for overcharging customers, undercharging businesses, and vice versa. Systems like Square Online, which offers real-time shipping calculations, label printing, and sets sellers up to charge and remit appropriate taxes by jurisdiction(s), alleviate back-end complexity to help sellers focus on moving more merchandise.

Build new bridges with brick-and-mortar

Some consumer behavior shifts stemming from the pandemic are likely to stick around for years to come. These changes are already compelling retailers to develop creative ways of engaging customers in-store, and create new connections between online and brick-and-mortar environments.

Businesses need to both meet customers where they are comfortable shopping — including online and social media channels — and accept the payment types they want to use, which increasingly include contactless, smartphone-based options like QR codes, Apple Pay, and Google Pay.

McKinsey research shows mobile payments are 80% more important to consumers than they were before the pandemic. As businesses embrace omnichannel and contactless approaches, they can use email and other communication tools to keep customers informed of what changes are being made for safety, and what new products and services are available.

Evolving those products and services for a pandemic-affected landscape might mean finding new ways to sell both the business’ inventory and its expertise. Things like tutorials, lessons, events, and limited-run sales can all be offered online, via social, or in-store (if safety permits). This helps create new revenue streams for businesses while also deepening customer relationships.

Launch strategic social selling

Meeting customers where they are, and building out existing or new customer relationships, increasingly means embracing social selling. Now that retailers can’t have as much physical proximity to their shoppers, social media is essential to both connecting with them, and moving merchandise.

But just as with a traditional online store, an Instagram- or Facebook-selling strategy can’t be run on its own, in a silo. The most effective businesses take a focused approach to social selling — often selling specific sets of items in a targeted, limited-time manner — that’s integrated with the rest of their online and eCommerce operations.

Instagram, for example, offers multiple avenues for focused social selling. These include product-tagging (for shoppable Instagram feeds, Stories, or link-in-bio “mini sites”), checkout via direct message (where retailers can accept payment via a checkout link), and “countdown” features for generating excitement around product drops or high-value promos.

Multiply eCommerce’s advantages

Marketing and selling on Instagram and other social channels can get expensive quickly, which is why businesses should think holistically about eCommerce as a whole. The kind of high-quality visual content that moves merchandise on Instagram, for example, requires significant time and effort to create. If businesses aren’t thoughtful about making their content as useful as possible, they’ll drain a lot of resources into social selling without seeing the returns in their revenue.

A thoughtful approach combines short-term, time-based content with more evergreen thinking to re-use resources where possible by leveraging them across online and social media channels to create consistency in their digital branding and customer engagement strategies.

That kind of consistency helps customers get accustomed to shopping through new channels, just as it helps businesses multiply the advantages of operating online. Those advantages are significant today, and in the future: With a digitized back-end infrastructure and product catalog, businesses realize new efficiencies by making online selling a core part of their business model.