What E-Commerce Retailers Need to Know About COVID-19's Impact on Business

By Himanshu Rauthan,
business.com writer
|
May 07, 2020
Image Credit: Zephyr18 / Getty Images

What are the affects and influences of the coronavirus outbreak on eCommerce businesses?

Unless you have been living under a rock recently, you must be aware of the impactful coronavirus outbreak which has proved to be world-shaking. The COVID-19 virus has had its fair share in affecting people and businesses around the globe and is still spreading across the whole world.   

Preventive measures for this disease have resulted in more and more people avoiding mass social gatherings, working from home, and taking social distancing measures. Schools have been shut down and cities have been locked down to control the outspread.

The shutdown of shopping malls and stores indicates the potential in high online sales as compared to brick and mortar stores. E-commerce is taking center stage in these tough times when people are afraid to go out and shop.

If we talk about the short term effect, there has been an upsurge in the sale of health products including protective masks and toilet paper.

Amazon's blog confirmed that they are looking for 100,000 new employees in the U.S. E-commerce sales shot up to 52% more compared to the same time last year.

Brick-and-mortar online revenue growth index

  Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 Week 9 Week 10
2019 135 175 135 150 165
2020 190 205 225 220 190

 

Along with sales, the conversion rates also increased by 8.8% which is a substantial number. Still, e-commerce is expected to slow down. 

More and more people choosing to avoid public places means there lies a very big opportunity for online retailers to pick up the slack for physical stores. The big guns including Amazon and Walmart are expected to cover up lost ground and come out as clear winners.

U.S. internet users who are likely to avoid stores if the coronavirus outbreak worsens in the U.S., by age, February 2020

  Ages 18-29 Ages 30-44 Agest 45-60 Ages 61 and older Total
Group 1- Shopping Centers/Malls 67.9% 67.8% 79.3% 85.6% 74.6%
Group 2 - All Shops  44.7% 55.5% 53.8% 61.1% 52.7%

 

Despite the conditions favoring the online market clearly, there is a lot of hindrance in the road ahead. Factors like shortage of supply, immobile supply chains, and an expected decline in user demand act as the biggest woes for the online retail business.    

It is quite evident that all products manufactured and shipped from China are being affected like nothing else. Reduction in the labor workforce and business closures is fueling the considerable fall in all business processes. You won’t be surprised to know that delivery people in China have to take a health test every morning and spend another 20 minutes disinfecting their delivery vehicle and clothes to avoid spreading germs.

Advertising ad spend is being controlled and limited by companies like Amazon because the high number of ad clicks and customers on their stores isn't being matched with the number of completed orders properly.   

Here's the result of a survey of 360 retailers carried out by DigitalCommerce360:

What are your corporate financial expectations relative to the coronavirus and your retail business? Please select all that apply.

Expect some downside revenue implications Too early to say Expect no negative revenue implications Expect significant downside revenue implications Have adjusted earnings forecast and/or guidance to account for coronavirus Too difficult to say
47% 33% 14% 9% 5% 4%

Confusion among online sellers 

The impact of the virus outbreak is quite groundbreaking and has influenced businesses and executives all over the world. The DigitalCommerce360 survey gave results which were kind of a mixed bag. 

On one hand, approximately 38% of the retailers expect their e-commerce business to go up and boost because of the virus. On the other hand, a similar 36% of retailers expect it to go down. The remaining 26% of people think that their business would run as projected with little or no impact because of the virus outbreak.   

Investigating a little deeper, they were asked to specify the level of action they were taking relative to the coronavirus. In response, 20% of them said that they were taking aggressive action, 44% said that some action is being taken while there’s more to follow, and the remaining 36% were happy to sit back and wait for more information. 

When asked about what exact action they were taking to combat the situation, these were the results:

Supply chain communication Contingency planning Hope to minimize disruptions
48% 34% 32%

 

All this sums up for the fact that there is a lot of confusion amongst online sellers and businesses as to what the future has in store for them. No clear strategy or measure could be adopted to combat the effect of this illness outspread.  

Negative outlook for 2020 

Owing to everything we have read so far, there has been an inevitable shift in the belief and outlook of online retailers considering how the year 2020 may pan out for them and their business.

The current increase in product demand can surely take a downturn and hit the e-commerce sector badly. Online businesses are wary of this fact, and it's good that they are prepared for it.  

What is the solution?   

The majority of readers might be curious to know the distinct answer on how to combat the severe impacts of the COVID-19 on e-commerce. Here is how online businesses can fight the situation strategically.

Source in new areas.

We all understand how the majority of the production for numerous companies and brands is sourced from China. Until now, that wasn't even a problem. With the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been an upsurge in supply chain issues, which has made it difficult for business owners to balance the supply and demand.

To counter this, businesses must look for new opportunities where they could shift their production to. Domestic manufacturers can play a key role in solving the production problem and can come in handy in the long run. Apart from China, countries like India could also be considered as an option for production where the coronavirus is still in a dormant phase. 

Keep your cash intact. 

Ask any smart business owners and marketers around you who have survived crunch financial situations (2008 recession) earlier and are surviving the COVID-19 outbreak as well:

How are you able to do it?  

You will surely hear one common answer: They all had some amount of cash.

There is no doubting the fact that you make smarter business decisions when you have the cash to back it up. Another reason for having some cash intact is that while moving production or placing orders with factories, you are ought to compete with big companies who give big orders.

Production companies and factories face this daunting task to fulfill the increasing number of orders. With no cash by your side, they might not even consider and accept your average order as the bigger companies present them with a bigger and better opportunity. 

Adjust your marketing strategies.

Along with adjusting our production cycle, we also need to pay heed to our marketing plan. The virus outbreak has had an impact on how people think, how willing they are to spend money and how likely they are to become our customers.

Let's consider a prospect for your online business which sells sportswear. Normally, outreach marketing strategies like email marketing, paid ads, SMS marketing, etc., would give a great output in the forms of leads or maybe even customers. In times like this, they are bound to fail. The reason is that people are hesitant to spend money.

So, if people aren’t spending much, you should follow suit. Or at least, cut your costs.

Spending money on paid media like Facebook and Google Ads should be minimal, preferably negligible. People spending most of their time at home has led to an increase in social media usage and messaging applications. Now could be the best time to leverage social media by posting entertaining content. This will help your audience develop a relationship with your brand, even when they aren’t buying anything.

Another strategy you might want to consider is limiting discounts and implementing coupon marketing. Coupons became extremely popular during the Great Depression as Americans were looking to cut costs. 

Unfortunately, the current economic crisis has a close resemblance to the depression. This means coupons may play a pivotal role in shopping moving forward. 

Marketing teams and leaders need to rethink marketing budgets and pivot their strategies which suit the current social distancing situation.   

Work on team communication, and cross-train employees.

This might easily be the most important part of maintaining profitability and surviving in these crunch times. Team members need to communicate effectively and bring out probable issues to the front.

Similarly, managers and owners must ensure that they are reaching out to their teams when needed and opting for possible solutions for the rising problems.

Enhancing the versatility of your team and cross-training them is another best practice. Make sure that your team has a basic knowledge of all kinds of tools including email, social media, CRM, and shipping tools. Even if some of your full staff is not present at times, your team can cover for each other and keep the business up and running. 

Have a continuity plan, and share it with others. 

All people involved in your business including your bank, vendors, management, etc. must be contacted and you should share your current business situation with them. Tell them how you plan things going forward and how everyone’s role would be critical.

Small business communities and local organizations in your network can provide you vital resources and advice. Connecting with other small business owners and sharing advice at the ground level is highly recommended.

Think of worst-case scenarios that could arise in the near future and plan effectively so that they don't arise in the first place. Most importantly, treat your employees well and tackle any difficulties together as a group.

Apply for SBA loans and tax deferrals.

This goes unsaid but if you think you might have big problems, you have the administration to help you. Small Business Administration(SBA) loans are being offered for small businesses facing a crisis during coronavirus by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

The limit is up to $2 million and can be used to handle payrolls and clear debts. Calling the authorities and gaining accurate, up-to-date information should be the way forward.

According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, taxpayers are getting a three-month reprieve to pay the income taxes they owe for 2019. You can use this time period to free up some money and pay urgent bills first. Consult your tax professional regarding any other tax credits you can leverage. 

President Donald Trump has already suggested suspending payroll taxes for the rest of the year. If this is implemented, small business owners could breathe a huge sigh of relief. Above all, contacting the IRS(Internal Revenue Service) regarding the payments of tax bills would be helpful.

There has also been an upsurge in private business loan offerings and for some business owners, this might come in handy. 

Plan to rebuild once the crisis passes. 

Business owners need to understand that these are tough and testing times, but like everything else, this too shall pass. Every business would need to be reinstated in some way or the other and it’s better to ponder over that process now.

Taking out a few minutes from your daily schedule and thinking about new opportunities will be beneficial.   

Complete digitalization 

Adopting complete digitalization on all fronts answers the call for now. Increased investments in omnichannel marketing and analyzing the current scenario for the optimization of business processes is highly recommended.  

This is not the perfect time for the "wait and see" approach of businesses, and its high time that you as an online business owner, take charge of the situation. Brick-and-mortar stores continue to experience a drop in foot traffic and e-commerce technology needs to evolve to prepare better for the future.  

Is your team working remotely? 

Avoiding social gatherings is an important preventive measure to adhere to during the coronavirus outbreak. If your team or business resources, including you, are working from home, that's not a problem. On the contrary, it's highly appreciative of you to stay cautious in the wake of this outspread.

To manage your whole team and work remotely is a tough nut to crack but is doable. Maintaining the same work concentration at your remote location just like you do at your office is the key. We should also consider the fact that not every remote work location would be the same.

It’s natural to have people around you when you are working from home and the main question is:

Is it possible to extract some value from your team while they are working from home?  Yes, this is surely possible.

Here’s how: 

  • Covering up your incomplete tasks and projects is the best way to keep everyone aligned and utilize this "less-pressure" time period. 

  • Ponder and work out some product idea, strategy, or modification in your business plan which could be a great success keeping the current coronavirus situation in mind. 

  • Stay connected with your team via any of the multiple options in front of you including conference video calls, messages, voice calls, etc. 

  • Business goals are an important part of any business. You can reconsider your present and future business goals, check what's working and what's not, analyze all data, and optimize your efforts so that you could achieve maximum business goals. 

E-commerce is quite a vast business field with a lot of revenue and products at stake. That being said, the coronavirus is a serious pandemic that needs to be controlled. Business teams need to be proactive and cautious at the same time to come out as potential winners. 

Himanshu Rauthan is an entrepreneur, Co-Founder at MakeWebBetter(https://makewebbetter.com/), BotMyWork and the Director of CEDCOSS Technologies. He has worn many hats in his career - programmer, researcher, writer, and strategist. As a result, he has a unique ability to manage multi-disciplinary projects and to navigate complex challenges. He is passionate about building and scaling ecommerce development.
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