Meeting the changing needs of the online shopper

The accelerated and continuous shift to eCommerce since the Covid-19 crisis began appears to be reshaping the retail landscape faster than could possibly have been imagined just six months ago. For instance, a stream of major retailers, including WHSmithThe John Lewis Partnership, and Boots, have recently announced their intention to reduce their store estate in favour of a greater focus on digital services.

Those retailers who were online-focused prior to the crisis have been best placed to navigate this new environment since lockdown restrictions forced physical stores to close around the world. “After a couple of weeks we saw an increase of 100% in sales,” reveals Pouya Boland, CEO & co-Founder of online fashion brand CHIQUELLE, speaking during the recent webinar ‘Customer Centricity – The Secret to Success Post-Covid-19’. Boland notes a number of logistical and supply chain difficulties in meeting this unprecedented surge in demand – an issue experienced across the retail industry.

But whilst retailers have generally moved with impressive speed and agility to try and cope with this demand, for example by expanding their online delivery capacity, there are fresh challenges emerging for this channel that must be addressed, particularly with the shift to eCommerce set to become more widespread.

New challenges for online retail

A major one relates to the changing expectations of online shoppers. Ken Kralick, global director od eCommerce at Puma, explains during the session: “We’re seeing a real advance of the expectations of consumers who often didn’t shop online before; they have brought their expectations from stores where they would actually be able to talk to a salesperson.”

Another issue is the increasingly saturated nature of the eCommerce marketplace, with a plethora of retailers either entering this domain for the first time or at least increasing their focus on it in recent months. Boland discusses research showing that customers are now being exposed to around four-times the number of products online compared to pre-Covid. “So how do you stand out and offer the right product to the right customer?” he asks.

Focus on reliability

There has been a number of traditionally in-store experiences brought into the online domain by retailers during the last few months, such as virtual consultations with both staff and experts as part of efforts to improve offerings to customers. Although we can expect to see these kinds of innovations to continue going forward, first and foremost, retailers’ main priority should be providing a consistent and reliable service to gain repeat business. “If you look at customer behaviour it’s all about simplicity and speed – it’s really not complicated. The customer should get the product they want, on time, with delivery options,” comments Boland.

Earlier in the crisis, it was very difficult to provide a reliable and speedy eCommerce service, with most retailers initially not in a position to meet the surge in online shopping. Whilst customers were generally understanding of this in the early phase of lockdown, a slow and unreliable service is unlikely to be tolerated going forward, especially with so much competition entering the online shopping space.

This includes avoiding any temptation to make bold promises that cannot be kept. As well as in the speed of delivery and click & collect, this includes providing more surety in regard to the availability of items for sale. “You don’t want to have that fear of clicking and it not being there,” notes David Walmsley, chief digital officer at jewellery brand Pandora.

Kralick adds: “The big thing is to understand what promises you can actually deliver on in this environment and what a realistic sales and profitability plan is. If you try to work outside of those constraints life gets ugly because customers leave reviews and they don’t shop with you anymore.”

Having that sense of reliability is far more important to customers than offering discounts, despite the economic hardships many are facing, according to Boland. He says: “We did some tests on our eCommerce store, putting some products for sale with 50% off, and we found they were not selling. A week after, the same products were highlighted in the same way without the sale prices and they were selling four to five-times more, which means that consumers are tired of eCommerce companies offering discounts and sales all the time.”

Reacting to new eComm demands

Retailers have by and large reacted well to the growing reliance on online shopping that has sustained since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and consumers have generally been understanding of delays and disruptions. But customers are becoming increasingly demanding of digital shopping services and as we move beyond the initial rush of the lockdown period, retailers must develop their eCommerce capabilities further. Ensuring that items for sale are always well stocked and having a speedy and reliable delivery service are the main priorities for customers right now, and online and multichannel retailers should be focusing on getting these aspects right