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The impact of COVID-19 on Ecommerce: How necessity spread as fast as the virus

eCommerce and COVID-19 will continue to shape how companies do business in the coming months and possibly years.

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eCommerce and COVID-19 spread all over the globe in the first quarter of 2020. And the world is still feeling the effects. Like pouring gasoline on a fire, the pandemic fueled the flames of eCommerce. Feeling the heat, even large multinational organizations changed business models almost overnight. 

Governments forced people to work from home, stay at home, and closed many non-essential businesses and businesses scrambled to find new ways to survive. One of the biggest lifesavers was B2B eCommerce. It’s no wonder that the impact of COVID-19 on eCommerce was to encourage it’s spread. 

Necessity is the Mother of Invention~Plato

As far back as the 4th century BC shrewd thinkers like Plato realized that the successful survive by adapting and creating new ways of doing old things. And eCommerce is a major way companies adapted to operating during a pandemic. 

And those that started the pandemic with a B2B eCommerce platform in place already had a leg up on the competition.  

B2B eCommerce, COVID-19, and How Business is Doing Business

Businesses that had already invested in B2B eCommerce had an advantage over those that were still selling offline. Brands that hadn’t started their digital transformation had to figure out how to get employees working remotely and still keep selling. In addition to overall elevated levels of stress, they had to contend with processing phone orders, navigating secure email communication, and remotely managing orders, often with manual systems.

While it’s difficult to prove a negative, many brands lost considerable business because they were caught off-guard without an eCommerce presence. In addition to learning the importance of technology to business survival these days, there were a few more takeaways. 

Flexibility and agility are key

Small businesses with low-profit margins and large businesses with heavy debt to private equity firms didn’t have the financial resources to make big changes fast, like engaging in eCommerce. The real winners were large and small companies with an existing online presence and digital systems to help manage and fulfill orders or those companies that quickly deployed an eCommerce-enabled website.

Even with their productive hours reduced by cleaning and sanitation needs, these were the companies that exhibited the ultimate in flexibility and agility. They quickly repaired kinks in their supply chains and when one market closed, they entered another. Skinnies therapeutic clothing halted the production of their standard products and switched to mask production.  The ability to think with agility and operate with flexibility are more valuable in a crisis than an MBA. Companies that didn’t see this necessity fell further behind. 

Create a framework now that supports flexibility and agility with cross-functional communication channels and relationship-building initiatives to foster creativity and the free flow of ideas within your organization.

Every company should use this crisis as an opportunity to evaluate how they do business. If you haven’t created a B2B eCommerce strategy, now is the time. The necessity will not go away.

Customers crave connection

Some companies used the COVID-19 threat as an opportunity to strengthen connections with their customers. In both good times and bad, effective marketing accentuates the relevance of a company’s products and services. Now more than ever, the modern seller is a problem solver. Instead of pitching they take time to understand the needs and problems facing their customer. They empathize, inform, and offer solutions.

When you connect with customers with transparency and truthfulness your message and your brand stand out from the competition. This is especially true when your level-headed message is in stark contrast to the anxiety-inducing messaging coming from all other directions.

A B2B eCommerce system with a robust CMS is a great start to maintaining that 360° view of your customers. The pandemic taught us the necessity of extending that functionality with APIs to integrate with your ERP to communicate inventory levels and order tracking so remote employees and customers get the data they need. 

Online purchasing is here to stay

Companies have discovered that they can still operate effectively even when some employees literally fail to show up at the office each workday. Necessity caused Zoom video meetings to replace the physical conference room. Email and instant messaging replaced a walk down the hallway. More and more people started relying more and more on technology to get their work done. 

Business buyers were already making a move to online ordering. Online commerce has been steadily growing and B2B eCommerce already eclipsed B2C eCommerce in dollar value. More people working from home necessitated more online ordering. And they liked it. It’s convenient and allows them to quickly perform their purchasing tasks with minimal friction. That’s exactly the customer experience buyers want. 

And in 2020 people will pay for customer experience. One unexpected impact of COVID-19 on eCommerce is this intense focus on the improved customer journey. 

Even when they return to the office, people will continue to want that frictionless experience. Companies that provide personalization and a smooth purchasing experience will prosper.  

Your B2B eCommerce platform should conform to your business structure but also be focused on delivering the best possible customer experience. That means you may need to provide your customers with the ability to set up multiple roles, responsibilities, and authorities for their account to streamline their purchasing workflows. If it’s necessary for them to make the purchasing process easier, you should meet their needs. 

Mobile is taking a bigger share of traffic

With all those desktop devices sitting in abandoned offices, mobile rules. From the laptop to the tablet, mobile search and traffic are on the rise. And mobile changes how we search. In fact, 20% of mobile searches were voice searches in 2019. People expect a different experience on mobile devices. They want convenience and easy ordering experience. The interface must be intuitive and functions such as smart search and order history should be as easy to use on a phone as they are on a desktop. 

For 21% of B2B businesses, eCommerce is their primary revenue channel and B2B marketers that integrate mobile in their strategy are being rewarded handsomely. 

Yes, COVID-19 made mobile devices necessary. So, make sure your B2B eCommerce platform and apps are fully mobile-capable and your site is optimized for mobile and voice search.

Models shift to follow markets 

eCommerce and COVID-19 changed how OEMs and wholesalers conducted business. Companies discovered traditional markets had disappeared leaving them choking on inventory. The flexible and agile of the bunch (see above) saw the necessity of new business models to tap new markets to move or repurpose their goods.

Traditional B2B companies used eCommerce to enter the DTC market. Pepsi Co stood up a consumer direct snack selling website in less than 30 days. When Elevated Mountain Distilling lost their restaurant and bar market, they turned vodka to hand sanitizer and sold direct to consumers. 

A shift in models requires an eCommerce platform that handles multiple business models and multiple storefronts. Whether it’s using headless architecture or traditional installation, you need flexibility to support any model. COVID-19 taught us that future-proofing means adapting to necessities and changing models to match markets. 

Supply chains aren’t invincible

Many businesses were shocked to find out how quickly their global supply chains fell apart. Whether it was in the process, at the factory, or in shipping and delivery links were broken. Businesses discovered the necessity for multiple and redundant parallel chains. New partnerships were forged and many of these new links will last far beyond the pandemic. 

German factories reopened only to discover their suppliers in India were still shut down. Many in corporate governance will consider moving operations and suppliers from China and high-risk, densely populated areas to areas they deem less risky. 

Whether you are exploring breaks in the supply chain of others are dealing with your own, you need accurate data to inform decisions. Sales and operations management can’t effectively operate with data silos. Integrated eCommerce, ERP, and WMS are necessary so that data can flow freely. Your B2B eCommerce platform must have a rich ecosystem of APIs and partners to make seamless integration possible. 

COVID-2019 lessons on B2B eCommerce platforms

This novel coronavirus forced businesses to operate in novel ways. The novelty of these ways may wear off and become normal. Manhattan offices are empty and that space may not be filled for years.  Businesses will continue to rely on a remote and dispersed workforce with technology as the binding thread. This technology should connect customers, sales, warehouses, and customer service. You need systems that integrate and provide a flawless experience for front and back end users on mobile and desktop devices. 

COVID-19 taught us that eCommerce is a necessity and that not all eCommerce platforms are created equally. Some are great for B2C, but that’s all they can do. 

Flexibility and agility are key to surviving a crisis. It only makes sense that your eCommerce platform should be flexible and agile too. It should support multiple business models and allow you to customize for new markets. While every business has different needs, here are a few key points to keep in mind as you evaluate different eCommerce platforms for your B2B business.

  • Customers want a flawless shopping experience on any device they use. Your platform should provide a consistent mobile, tablet, or desktop experience and should optimize SEO or mobile and voice search.
  • Stressed people have zero patience. They won’t tolerate slow-loading pages. Your platform should deliver pages that work with all operating systems, devices, and connection types.
  • People need accurate or and complete information to make a purchase decision. Make sure you can offer real-time stock numbers, pricing, and shipping information. 
  • Customer experience is important, and you need personalization to provide an exceptional customer experience. Select a solution that lets you tailor promotions, products, prices, and order options to each client or segment.
  • Data silos are dangerous to productivity and effectiveness. Look for integration with ERP, CRM, PIM and WMS systems. Everyone should have access to the data they need to inform decisions.

Conclusion

The impact of COVID-19 on eCommerce isn’t that surprising. Crisis breeds necessity and those that have flexible and agile tools and thinking are the big winners. eCommerce and COVID-19 will continue to shape how companies do business in the coming months and possibly years.

Technology is important to build value for suppliers, distributors, partners, sales reps, and customers. But having the right technology is even more important. 

The right technology empowers you to act on opportunities and respond to rising necessities as they present themselves. It allows you to communicate with customers, explore new markets, and support supply chains. And one of the key pieces of the technology puzzle will continue to be a flexible and agile B2B eCommerce platform.

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