The impact of coronavirus on a brand’s e-commerce roadmap

February 2nd, 2021 Written by Rob Nicholson

In this article, Rob Nicholson, Senior Consultant (UX/UI/UR) at Infinity Works, discusses how brands can optimise their front-end experiences to meet changing customer expectations.

The coronavirus pandemic has been the most disruptive global event since the Second World War. So much has changed since it began its rampage across the continents, from how we work, to how we socialise, to how we shop for goods. And much more in between.

With high streets desolate and the remaining open shops forced to impose strict, intrusive safety measures, more and more of us have opted to acquire our retail therapy online. Accordingly, a greater reliance on digital retail has seen customer expectations of the online shopping experience evolve. 

It’s important that brands understand that the consumer move to digital isn’t hearsay – it’s backed up by hard evidence. In the United States for instance, the increase in e-commerce penetration observed in the first half of 2020 was equivalent to that of the last decade. Meanwhile, in Europe, overall digital adoption has jumped from 81% to 95% during the coronavirus crisis. 

Such an escalation in consumer online presence will not be temporary. In its Future of Retail 2021 study, PSFK reported that only 23% of consumers will shift their spending back to in-store after the pandemic.

As 2021 unfolds and as the industry restructures to meet its unprecedented demands, there will be opportunities that retailers need to be aware of. For example:

  • Points along the customer journey where relationships can be strengthened
  • Engagement of new customer segments online
  • Streamlining processes for greater efficiency
  • New partnerships to enhance propositions and capabilities
  • Innovation between in-store and online for new consumer experiences

In this article, I look at a few key areas where brands can optimise their online front-end experience to appeal to these shifting behaviours and satisfy a new wave of customer expectations. 

Importance of taxonomy

When a customer lands on a site, they’re going to be in two buying modes, just like a physical shopper in a bricks-and-mortar store. Whether they’re browsing or know what they want, they’re going to be scanning for recognisable patterns, words, items and sections. 

The importance of how to collate, structure and organise commodities is important not only to converting a visitor into a sale, but to keep them coming back. Evolving categorisation and reviewing it regularly is vital for any scaling business. 

It’s easy to forget that a team working on a digital experience is not the user. How a trading team organises a virtual store may not be how a customer thinks. A great exercise is to run tree-testing with some users to learn how different personas see different products grouped. This could also find patterns in research that convert into big conversion wins.

The website is now the shop-front

It’s fair to assume that a company’s seasonal marketing campaigns are also mirrored on the website. Hero banners look slick, and models are wearing the latest trends. But a brand’s identity doesn’t just come from the logo and banners. 

Ideally a business will revisit and review user interface (UI) elements that are used to complement user experience. Implementing a business-wide design system is a great way to maintain consistency and give the business an efficient method of sharing and evolving a brand between designers, developers and partners. Establishing a working group to grow this way of working is a great balance between an open forum but retaining the right sign-off controls.

One of the key challenges to converting digital buying decisions is the inability to experience the product in physical form. Everyone has had those butterflies when they pick up an impulse item. So what methods can be adopted to get a customer over that line with “I’ve got to have it!”

There is real power in bringing the style of photography used on hero banners into the products too where possible. Yes, a marketing budget might have to scale slightly to get a few extra shots, but it’s worth testing the power of adding more lifestyle and dynamic shots to product pages, rather than just the products themselves. Brands which implement a blend of photography styles tend to have a better conversion rate in many sectors. 

Beyond this recommendation, there are many other ways to extend consumer confidence in this space. Improving sizing information, interactive ‘try the product’ tools, free delivery, free returns or extended return periods are all positive messages. 

Accessibility is inclusivity

Some brands have taken accessibility very seriously, but a reasonable proportion seem to get away with mentioning it a few times a month in a team meeting for an agreeable group nodding exercise rather than actually implementing any valuable improvements. But times are a-changin’. It’s fair to assume digital brands are dealing with an even higher proportion of customers with accessibility challenges since March 2020, and guess what – their expectations have ballooned.

Accessibility promotes and supports social inclusion for people with varying abilities as well as other groups, such as the elderly or those living in rural areas. But there’s also a strong business case for a focus on accessibility. Accessibility intersects with other best-practices such as responsive design, usability, and SEO. More accessible websites return a variety of benefits including enhanced search results, reduced maintenance costs, and increased audience reach.

A great place to start is an accessibility audit. This can be run internally or outsourced for a report detailing areas for improvement. The audit will also help a brand gain certain accreditations which can be proudly displayed, as well as provide the most valuable asset (the customer) with the most seamless user experience possible. 

Shift towards sustainability awareness

Data suggests that customers care about the planet they’re in. Not only are people trying to do their bit, but many consumers say that ethics play a role in their purchasing decisions and they value retailers that reflect their position.

A report from last year found that 30% of millennials were prepared to become more environmentally conscious in 2020 compared to just 15% of baby boomers, and consumers who are currently too young for a brand, will soon be the key demographic.

The reality is it’s impossible to run a large-scale business without having some sort of negative impact on the planet, and the majority of consumers understand that. But if a company can share a positive message about even a small area of focus they are giving to this important subject, it won’t go unnoticed and before long the business may be setting innovative trends other businesses can adopt.

Conclusion

Already this year we’ve seen digital retailers such as Boohoo and Asos buy out competitors which have failed to react to the accelerated shift in consumer behaviour. The deals are a stark reminder that brands which fail to shift their focus to improving front-end user experiences will continue to struggle over the long term.

Focusing on becoming an agile retailer, and one which puts the customer at the heart of everything, will be the key drivers to emerging from the pandemic as strong as possible.

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