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Analysis: Where retailers should focus while we wait for what’s next

As the world adjusts to the impacts of COVID-19, online shopping has become a lifeline for consumers and retailers alike.

Like never before, e-commerce represents a way forward, even for retailers that previously didn’t prioritize an online presence. Retail executives are striving to make the right decisions during this time, not only to get to the other side of this crisis, but to have the best chance to revive and thrive when the time comes.

Research into previous recessions indicates that a careful balance between cost reduction and investment in growth was the best indicator of healthy recession survival. What investments and adjustments should you be considering right now for your business?

Here are a few areas retailers should consider evaluating to weather the storm and position for success when the world returns to, or settles into a new, retail reality.

Always start with customer experience

More people shopping online brings more competition. As digital takes the lead, brands will have to work harder to give customers a rich, compelling shopping experience that holds their attention and keeps them coming back for more.

A major incident like COVID-19 will change consumer expectations and priorities even after the threat is behind us. How can you ensure their experience with your brand evolves with those changes? Evaluate every opportunity with your customers in mind. Is this something that will enhance their lives?

Think of who your audience is, what they need to know, and what they want. Evaluate the journey from their first interaction with your brand to when they pull the product out of the box and leave a review.

A streamlined search and checkout process is critical to providing a satisfactory experience, but what can you do to elevate your customer interactions beyond these minimum expectations? The more experiential elements you include on your site and in other marketing efforts, the more you’ll connect and engage with your shoppers.

People understand that things out of our control right now may impact normal operations. Communication is critical during times like this. The number one question on every shopper’s mind is “Can I even get this item, and if so, when will it arrive?” Use sitewide messaging to explicitly tell customers what to expect. If processing and shipping times are understandably delayed, let them know upfront before they spend time browsing and adding products only to find out at check out that they can’t get it when they need it.

When shoppers go to a store they often come home with more than they went for because something on an endcap caught their attention. That is due to merchandising and it can work in the digital space as well. Think about how the customer “roams” your online shop and how you can place and suggest products for them to discover while browsing around.

How else can you personalize your interactions with your customers? Email marketing still has the best ROI of any marketing tactic and it’s extremely versatile. Whether you are kicking off a promotion, celebrating an upcoming holiday, highlighting a new product or simply sharing a message of empathy, inboxes continue to be a great place to reach people and technology makes it possible to have more personal interactions.

Analyze, experiment and innovate

It may sound like a risky time to test out new strategies, but experimentation is what leads to innovation and positive growth. As shopping around the world shifted to take place almost entirely online, retailers that had previously foregone offering online shopping options were forced to experiment with e-commerce to survive. Many have found it nudged them into a smart digital decision for the future.

Are there new marketing strategies, site designs, product changes, etc. that you’ve been considering? Or are you struggling to understand what might work for your audience in this moment? Change is expected right now, and tolerated, as businesses try to navigate the confusion along with their customers.

Look into what kind of A/B testing capabilities your e-commerce platform and marketing automation vendors offer and take your new ideas for a test drive. Use the results to make the positive changes permanent.

Make the most of your platform and partners

As you consider the right balance between hedging costs and investing in the future, now is a good time to evaluate your e-commerce platform. Are you taking advantage of all the features and services available to you? All the major e-commerce platforms have communities of partners offering apps and services to support your business. Do you know what’s available to you?

Total cost of ownership (TCO) is the top priority for retailers considering a new e-commerce platform, but it should also be something you keep tabs on as your business grows and changes. There are a lot of factors that can impact what your platform is really costing the business, including potential add-ons and fees but also things like service needs, security concerns or difficulty making ongoing updates and changes to your site. Check in and make sure the technology partner you are working with is still the best platform for your needs.

The retail industry has seen a massive shift in just a short few months. From consumer behavior and spending patterns to navigating a new normal, retailers must look ahead — and online — to find success. Continuously evolving the customer experience, focusing on innovation and leveraging your partner ecosystem will light the way for retailers as they prepare for a world after the pandemic.

Jimmy Duvall is the chief product officer at BigCommerce.

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