COVID-19: The Lasting Impact on E-Commerce

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Published on
Jul 9, 2020
Written by
Elodie Huston
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We’re assessing the consumer behaviors—introduced or accelerated by the societal events of 2020—that have already made a lasting impact on e-commerce.  

At the onset of COVID-19 impacting the US in early March, Attentive launched our COVID-19 E-Commerce Trends & Tactics microsite with the aim of helping brands and organizations navigate a completely new landscape.

Using anonymized data from over 1,000 of our customers across 15 verticals, we tracked rapidly changing consumer behaviors and drew actionable insights to help marketers pivot their mobile strategies and create successful campaigns. As consumers begin to settle into the so-called “new normal” and brands have adapted to have more agile approaches to plans, we will no longer be publishing monthly data updates. To summarize the findings of this project nearly four months after we launched the microsite, we’re sharing how the pandemic has made a lasting impact on consumer behavior—and, in turn, the trajectory of e-commerce.

High-level impact of COVID-19 on e-commerce

E-commerce has seen significant growth since March, with COVID-19 and the related “stay-at-home” orders as driving catalysts. In order to comply with social distancing guidelines determined on a state-by-state basis, consumers have fulfilled their needs and wants through online orders—notably, often placed on mobile devices.

As a result, e-commerce growth trajectories that were initially projected to take place over the course of several years took place over a matter of months. Additionally, Adobe found that online shopping levels during April and May were higher than the record-breaking 2019 holiday season. In just two months, consumers spent $153 billion online—7% higher than what they spent during the 2019 holiday season.

As shoppers begin to slowly return to brick and mortar stores, depending on the state where they’re located as re-opening phases vary, e-commerce’s importance has not diminished. WWD shared that online apparel sales climbed in May, even as shoppers started visiting physical stores again. Those transactions continue to take place on consumers’ mobile devices—m-commerce sales have increased 10% since January. And, according to Adobe, consumers who were shopping online for the first time were doing so from their smartphones. These changes won’t be disappearing—58% of consumers expect they’ll retain new behaviors from the crisis period over the long term.

Social responsibility has moved to the forefront

Alongside these fundamental shifts in consumer behaviors came a rise of the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, which directly addresses the inequalities that permeate our society. Consumers’ expectations for how brands and organizations leverage their influence—from how employees are treated, to which brands they stock, to what movements they support—have radically changed.

More than half of consumers believe brands have an important role to play in social conversations about issues like race relations and gender inequality. This expectation for brands to take a stand on social issues has an impact on customer acquisition and retention. Kantar Monitor found that 46% of Millennials seek out “brave brands” that stand behind—and promote—their beliefs.

As the pandemic and social unrest continue to touch every facet of our everyday lives, consumers have continually adapted as events unfold each day. Below, we’ve highlighted four ways the first half of 2020 has made a lasting impact on consumer behavior.

1. Shoppers care about brands–not just products

More than ever, consumers are acutely aware that the dollars they spend go towards more than just a product—that by buying from a certain brand, they’re endorsing that business’ mission and actions. When faced with a choice between two different brands, consumers are now more likely to purchase from the business that embodies their own ideals and purpose. To survive—and grow—brands today must state clearly what they stand for and how they demonstrate those values in different aspects of their operations..

2. Brands must communicate from a place of empathy

It’s not a question of whether brands need to address the emotions consumers are feeling, but of when and how. There is no playbook for how to react to the complicated and unforeseen events of 2020—the world we are navigating today is the result of completely unexpected, sweeping changes.

Empathize with your customers to understand how and where they want to communicate with you—and when. While one day may call for a broad one-to-many statement shared on social media—such as how your brand is ensuring safety among your employees—another day may call for more personalized, 1:1 conversations that make your audience feel individually heard and appreciated. Acting with empathy will allow you to recognize those shifts—to the benefit of your audience.

In May, we spoke to three e-commerce marketing experts about how they’ve adjusted their business and communications strategies in response to COVID-19. Alexander Sienkiewicz, CMO of SwimOutlet, shared why his brand launched an inspirational message campaign featuring Olympic swimmers. “Our messaging strategy needed to change,” said Sienkiewicz. “There’s a need to empathize with our customers. We’ve shifted our strategy to provide less promotional messages and more hopeful and uplifting messages.”

3. E-commerce will be defined by “survival of the fastest”

The brands that will survive—and thrive—during these rapidly changing times will be the ones that are quick to move and adapt. Simply put, it’s survival of the fastest. From pivoting to focus on e-commerce business, to meeting the needs of an increasingly mobile-first or mobile-only audience, to addressing unrest—the brands that stay agile and can pivot the fastest will survive.

The past four months have taught us that it’s not just enough to have a Plan A anymore–brands need to be open to testing new approaches. This is a time to try new technologies and explore how to use them to their fullest—rather than slowly testing and rolling out new programs.

It has also taught us that brands need to quickly pivot to meet customer’s needs. Early on, successful brands used initial data drawn from page views or products sold to understand their customers needs—and then shifted their business to focus on those categories and items.

In just four months, our world has undergone fundamental changes in every sense—COVID-19 became the catalyst for growth in many ways that nobody expected. We’ve embraced new modes of navigating the world—from shopping for all of our needs online, to relying almost solely on our mobile phones to connect with the world around us. We’ve learned that consumers are very value-driven–both in terms of being economical, and in evaluating the values a brand stands for.

COVID-19 and its effects are not over, and we believe that these trends will last even after the pandemic has subsided. To continue successfully navigating the unknown, brands must constantly listen to what their audience is saying, and be ready to immediately act with empathy to meet their needs.

As our final note on this project, we want to thank you—our readers, customers, partners, and more. For every subscriber who signed up for our COVID-19 Trends & Tactics updates text program or who watched our COVID-19 webinar, we donated $10 to Feeding America. Thanks to you, we donated 157,500 meals. We pledge to continue supporting the organizations that we believe have a great impact on the world around us.

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