It may seem hard to imagine now, but there will be a day when COVID-19 is behind us – be it by a vaccine, herd immunity, successful quarantining, or some combination. But no matter how it fades in the present, it will stay front and center on the consumer’s minds in the future, and will likely dramatically change their shopping habits. Potentially forever.
While your focus should mainly be on the current crisis and how you’ll make it through, it can’t hurt to look to the future. By understanding how consumer expectations might change, it can better help us prepare for that new world. So let’s get into what shoppers will expect from ecommerce sellers after the COVID-19 crisis.
Sounds good? Let’s dive in!
This is a trend that we have already seen growing in the past year or two, and it will continue to grow exponentially. We’ve seen, under no uncertain terms, that Amazon is the benchmark for online shipping, and we’re all playing catch-up as best as we can. In a survey done by Convey last November – just months before the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis hit the shores of the U.S. – made it clear that free two-day shipping is seen as an expectation across the board. Of those surveyed, nearly 80% said that free two-day shipping was important to them.
Kirsten Newbold-Knipp, chief growth officer at Convey, said it best: “For brands that like to think they aren’t competing with Amazon, the data clearly suggests that shoppers think they are.”
Unfortunately, for anyone already struggling to keep up, Amazon shows no signs of slowing down. Despite their hiccups during the beginning of the crisis, including increasing shipping times of non-essential goods to one week, they are still on an upward trajectory. As consumers get more used to ordering things online than they ever have been, their expectations for faster shipping and processing will grow as well.
However, it’s also important to understand that while processing time and shipping time are two different lengths of time, the consumer doesn’t see it that way. Even Amazon is susceptible to this misunderstanding. While Amazon offers Prime membership that guarantees two-day shipping, that clock starts the moment the item is shipped, not the moment the order is placed – and a lot of customers don’t understand that. This misconception extends to every retailer that the customer shops with, and it’s important to keep in mind as you advertise your shipping times.
While we’ve seen many retailers simply throw in the towel and close during the quarantine, some have really stepped up to the plate and adapted quickly. One such company is Michaels, who began offering same-day store pickup for any purchase made by 1 pm. In a matter of weeks, they were able to pivot to focusing on curbside pickups, which allowed them to quickly reopen their stores, keep them staffed (although at a lower rate), and be a convenient source for craft supplies that could be picked up immediately and safely.
A competitor to Michaels, Hobby Lobby, severely stumbled in this area at the same time. At first, they kept their stores open weeks past when they were advised to close, and faced public backlash. Finally, in April, Hobby Lobby announced the closure of all of their stores and furloughed all of their employees with no plans to offer any sort of reopening – except the brief reopening they did of some stores one week later, defying local orders to stay closed. Needless to say, they aren’t top of mind of craft supply consumers when it comes to taking measures to keep their employees and customers safe.
However, curbside pickup is a practice that many consumers can get behind, especially same-day pickup. Eventually, there is going to be a top speed that retailers can ship an item to a consumer, and it will still not be as fast as many of them could drive to the store to pick it up themselves. Post-COVID, many online retailers with brick and mortar locations should seriously consider implementing a robust curbside pickup plan, ideally with same-day pickup. Consumers aren’t going to want to wait a few days for their order to be ready to pick up – after all, getting the item faster than they could have it shipped to them is kind of the whole point.
As for ecommerce stores that don’t have physical storefronts, they may want to consider partnering with a retailer that does.
Even when COVID is no longer a physical threat, the effects on the way we live will stay top of mind for all consumers. They will expect retailers to feel it too, and make it clear that they are doing their part and adapting their company to the new world. Consumers will expect retailers to take an active role in creating and stating new policies, and consciously reflecting on how they can contribute to making their company and processes safer. This can take shape in many ways:
We can already see this shift happening now. In a McKinsey study on how consumer behavior is changing, they noted a major shift towards a “health and caring economy”. Particularly, consumers reported that “they are buying more from companies and brands that have healthy and hygienic packaging, and demonstrate care and concern for their employees.” This trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
In the end, the consumer will just want to know: how have you learned from the lessons this pandemic has taught us? How are you reflecting those lessons in the way your company is run?
Each crisis we face puts a sharper focus on sustainability, especially for younger generations. Be it a natural disaster or global pandemic, Millennials and Gen Z are constantly thinking about how it will impact their future. As time goes on, consumers will expect companies to acknowledge their part in creating a more sustainable future, and they’ll be putting their money where their mouth is. But where to start?
First, start with your packaging. This is one of the easiest, most visible, and potentially most impactful areas in which you can implement new sustainable practices. Update your packaging to include the following:
Next, look at carbon offset options. There are always going to be unavoidable environmental downsides to shipping packages, but you can offset those by investing in projects that pursue reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, Etsy became the first global ecommerce company to announce that it will offset all carbon emissions from their sellers’ shipments. You may not be able to start at carbon-neutral, but you can work your way towards it.
Also, look at decreasing shipping distances by bringing the products closer to the consumers. One way you can achieve this is by working with a third party logistics (3PL) company, who will have warehouses to store your inventory that are placed strategically so that they can reach the customer faster. This will not only solve your faster processing and shipping problem from the first point of this article, but it will also cut down your shipping footprint by shipping larger quantities in bulk to warehouses.
Finally, look at other smaller, but still impactful ways that your company can make a difference. Can you reduce energy usage in factories or offices? Can you take returned items and resell them as refurbished items instead of throwing them away – or even recycle the item to make more in the future? Can you pivot your products to support sustainable practices themselves? Every change matters.
Finally, when you’ve outlined your plans for change, make the information public and transparent. It should be a commitment you make publicly, and that you incorporate into the heart of your company. You will attract consumers who care a lot about the way you’re minimizing your impact – and that demographic grows every day.
It’s due to technology, in many ways, that our daily quarantine lives aren’t a miserable bore. We have so much access, as consumers, to so much entertainment. We can purchase products online, we can stream endless hours of shows, we can have video chats with our friends and family. And technology can help the ecommerce industry implement a lot of the changes that consumers will be looking for.
It depends on what industry your company is in, but there are so many ways that cutting edge technology is pushing the buying experience forward into the future:
While we aren’t at the “new normal” yet, it’s still important to look to the future. Consumers won’t see this as a small blip on the timeline; they’re a lot more likely to see it as a major defining event of the decade. They don’t want businesses to pretend it never happened or try to gloss over it, they’ll want commitment and action towards a better response to the next crisis, and building a better future together.
As you’re muddling through this downturn, think about how you’ll implement the lessons you’re learning when the upturn finally comes.
Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of ecommerce. He has years of experience in ecommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.
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