E-commerce, an afterthought for many U.S. small businesses before the pandemic, is now a top priority as consumer buying habits have vastly changed in the last year or so.
Many companies were quick to respond after the initial lockdown was lifted, updating IT infrastructure and payment processing applications to capture new customers and retain existing ones. For others, necessity drove the push to digital, as government restrictions prohibited many brick-and-mortar businesses from opening their doors to the public.
A Mastercard study released in August underscored this shift.
The survey, which queried 1,000 small businesses in the U.S. and Canada in July, reported that 76% of respondents said the pandemic prompted them to become more digital, while 82% changed how their business sent and received payments.
Leveling the Field
Though e-commerce was introduced nearly 30 years ago, it's evolving today at hyper speed, according to Allan Peretz, president of BOLD Strategies Inc., an e-commerce consultancy in Rogers, Ark.
“E-commerce has leveled the retail playing field," says Peretz, the former leader of Procter & Gamble's Global Direct-to-Consumer team. “Now, pretty much anyone can establish themselves as a national or even global marketer."
Los Angeles entrepreneur Chelsea Rivera and her business, Honest Paws, are among them.
The online retailer, which sells cannabidiol, or CBD oils for dogs, cats and horses, and chewy treats for canines, capitalized on some big industry shifts last year, as e-commerce pet food sales eclipsed $9.4 billion, up 47% from 2019, while overtaking brick-and-mortar revenue, according to market tracker NielsenIQ.
Rivera said the lockdown spurred pet adoption, and younger consumers who became new pet owners were more comfortable with online shopping, which accounted for 27% of industry sales last year, up from 20% in 2019.
“To take advantage of this shift, traditional pet product retailers need to take their offerings online and adopt quick and inexpensive shipping solutions to grab their part of the profits," she advises.
An Evolving Marketplace
According to IBM's U.S. Retail Index, the pandemic accelerated the shift from physical stores to digital shopping by roughly five years.
“It's a wild, changing landscape, but one thing we know for sure is that video will play a key role in the most successful companies' marketing efforts in 2021 and beyond," says Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré, chief marketing officer for Reeview Inc. , which developed an automated platform that finds, collects and delivers authentic user-generated video reviews for e-commerce businesses.
Tanya Zhang, an advertising and tech consultant turned entrepreneur, believes brands will place more advertising within Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok stories to push online transactions this year and beyond.
“Gen-Z will make purchasing decisions based on what they see on social media, and videos enable them to shop right away," says Zhang, the cofounder of Nimble Made, a men's slim shirt brand from San Marino, Calif. “Video is the ideal medium for reaching out to the interested, young target audience."
As businesses started to reopen, Coalition Technologies started attracting new e-commerce clients in home fashion, furnishings, entertainment, hobbies, and even B2B.
“We saw many businesses unaccustomed to e-commerce or those that hadn't prioritized e-commerce jump into the fray," says Jordan Brannon, president of the Los Angeles e-commerce web design and development company. “Many of our most successful client pivots were those that found a way to marry the experience of in-person, local shopping with the efficiency of online ordering. Small businesses offering buy online and pickup in store (BOPIS), inventory reservations, limited time offers, and more, really have grown."
Other Emerging Trends
Beyond BOPIS, websites should optimize for voice search and brands should develop an omnichannel to improve e-commerce conversations, industry expert Paige Arnof-Fenn recommends.
An omnichannel creates a seamless experience for viewers regardless of device or platform.
“Consumers now engage with a company in a brick-and-mortar store, online or mobile app, by catalog, or via social media," says Arnof-Fenn, founder of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic marketing and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. “Every piece of the consumer's experience should be consistent and complementary."
Voice features also help reach and build a larger audience, she adds.
“It is not just about complying with the ADA, responsible web design and corporate social responsibility goals, but it is also good for the bottom line," Arnof-Fenn says. “Inclusion is the right thing to do and it is good for business."
E-commerce personalization, a newer trend analyzing online sales leads and purchasing behavior, is here to stay, according to John Bertino, founder and chief executive of The Agency Guy in Philadelphia.
“Knowing what things they add to their shopping carts but don't buy, as well as what goods and categories they spend the most time looking at, will provide you with more valuable knowledge," he says. “When you combine the data with what you know about your customers' previous transactions and how they've engaged with your email and marketing strategies, you can figure out a lot about how to meet them — and with what deals on what kinds of products."