#ComeBackStronger: How Coronavirus Is Driving Rapid Innovation in Commerce Right Now
The COVID-19 pandemic is reminding us that necessity is the mother of invention. Throughout the commerce landscape, the need to adapt to social distancing is driving brands and retailers to innovate, and to do so at lightning speed.
Corporate cultures that traditionally have been slow to adopt new thinking are now experiencing a complete turnaround, racing to test ideas for driving sales or curbing expenses.
Most of the innovation is focused on digital commerce, which is rapidly expanding its reach into global retailing. Before COVID-19, eMarketer estimated that in 2020, global ecommerce would grow 19% to account for 16% of worldwide sales. The pandemic’s shuttering of traditional retail means ecommerce numbers are likely to increase exponentially and keep much of their gains into 2021. With so much at stake, retailers know they can’t afford to delay tactics that will help them capture more digital sales.
“Our clients and partners tell us that many of the barriers to innovation that existed in the past are being broken down by the need to address new realities,” says Bernardine Wu, CEO of consulting firm FitForCommerce. “Many companies are adding daily innovation meetings, and our consultants are running rapid ideation sessions with operations, technology, and marketing teams who are broadening their willingness to experiment.”
The top 3 categories for innovation so far include Fulfillment and Delivery, Ecommerce Operations and Inventory Management, and Marketing.
Fulfillment and Delivery
While many merchants grapple with supply chain issues, innovation is addressing how to get existing goods into consumers’ hands quickly and safely:
- Expanding Buy-Online-Pickup-In-Store (BOPIS) programs to include curbside and “contactless” pick-up
- Increasing the types of delivery options beyond traditional mail and overnight delivery to include new same-day, third-party delivery from vendors such as Shipt, a member-based grocery marketplace owned by Target (an innovative purchase back in 2017) and Grubhub and DoorDash
- New uses of robots (pizza delivery) and drones (Amazon)
“We’re seeing pockets of new innovation in pick-up and delivery, but it’s still reactionary,” says FitForCommerce Chief Retail Officer Kathy Kimple. “Retailers should be prioritizing store-of-the-future implementations now. Curbside pick-up is already table stakes. Retailers need to be aggressively addressing more efficient delivery and the social distancing practices that will remain when stay-at-home orders are lifted.”
Ecommerce Operations and Inventory Management
The onset of COVID-19 has created both exceptional opportunities and exceptional risks for digital retailing. While demand is skyrocketing, so is the chance to disappoint consumers who may be shopping an online merchant for the first time, or loyal customers who now have more competition for limited goods in high-demand categories. The biggest risks are managing out-of-stock products and delayed shipping times.
Innovators are racing to add commerce modules that:
- Display real-time inventory so customers don’t have the frustrating experience of going all the way to checkout before they learn whether a product is in stock. This is even more important for customers seeking same-day, curbside pick-up.
- Enable customers to sign up for automated notification when out-of-stock products are replenished, a move that can endear shoppers to merchants and drive increased frequency
- Provide self-service delivery tracking to head off customer frustration and cut down on call center activity
- Offer free return shipping to encourage purchase, especially by consumers used to returning goods to a physical store
“Retailers that can automate transparency on inventory and shipping times will sell more goods, but more importantly find higher customer loyalty and higher customer lifetime value,” says FitForCommerce Chief Technology Officer Arthur McManus. “Ecommerce optimization in this state of the market means being extremely diligent and detailed on matching operations with inventory.”
As most marketing departments grapple with issues around advertising spend and messaging, innovation is coming rapidly to content strategy, especially in social media. Brands that have temporarily shuttered stores and furloughed workers are also using content in innovative ways to keep providing customer value.
Innovation in marketing includes:
- Installing chatbots and more frequent updates to Q&As and community messaging
- Personalized, real-time digital commerce that tries to replicate the in-store experience shoppers have with store associates. In one example, store associates at women’s clothing brand J.Jill recently emailed local customers offering personalized shopping tours of the website.
- Sales messaging that includes “we’re in this together” sentiment. In an email with a subject line that read, “A Personal Note: BUY ONE, GET ONE SALE” shoe brand Intentionally Blank shared its tribulations dealing with cancelled orders from retailers and explained that the BOGO sale would help the small company survive. The tone was genuine and appealing.
“Everyone’s been talking about personalization, but now is the time to go big with it even if you don’t yet have the best tools,” says Wu. “The closer and more relevant you can be to your customers during this crisis, the easier it will be to continue to convert engagement to transactions to loyalty.”
The innovations we describe above are only some examples of new ways retailers are approaching business today and how they are taking steps to secure future success. At FitForCommerce we have a full playbook of actions that brands, retailers, grocers, B2B sellers and others should be taking right now to shore up their business. Waiting until “after COVID” to pick up digital priorities won’t be good enough. Please let us know how we can help.