It’s a confusing time. Everything changed so fast that it can be difficult to figure out how to help your clients right now. COVID-19 is massively impacting online shopping but how do you optimize an ecommerce store in a time like this? Is that even ethical?
A recent study by the Edelman Trust Barometer found that nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of consumers say that how well brands respond to the crisis will have a huge impact on their likelihood to buy their products in the future.
People around the world have a different perspective on what’s important to them during this challenging time, and they expect companies to act and communicate differently.
Getting the balance right is challenging, but as we pointed out in our article on crisis communication (and how to talk to clients during COVID-19), we all must keep going, as much as we can. Keep selling but use empathy in your approach. Also, this time can present a good opportunity to help your clients sell (or donate) useful products to their customers who might really need them right now.
For this article, we talked to 11 ecommerce experts to first understand what’s actually happening and second, how you can help your clients adapt their ecommerce stores accordingly.
Let’s look at the main takeaways.
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How COVID-19 changed customer behavior
While some ecommerce stores hum along just fine, like nothing has happened, others are seeing a slow decline as consumers gradually pull back. Then there are businesses that have understandably seen a massive drop, while others have seen a huge increase, in certain instances even reaching Black Friday and peak holiday levels.
Over the past few weeks, various agencies have analyzed what’s driving consumer behavior. For some interesting insights, check out the episode of Kurt Elster’s Unofficial Shopify Podcast on how COVID-19 changes the way we shop), the mini-book on Finding Clarity in Uncertainty: How to Win in Ecommerce During Tough Times published by interaction design consultancy Draft, and the COVID-19 Ecommerce Index by Shopify Plus agency Statement.
Here’s a quick overview of what they have discovered.
People are still buying—in some cases more than before
Kurt Elster, founder of Shopify consultancy Ethercycle, learned that people who have been fortunate enough to keep their jobs and stay home are finding their expenses have gone down while their income has remained the same.
“This surprising liquidity coupled with a desire for retail therapy has resulted in spending going up in unexpected places,” Kurt explains. “As people spend more money and time online than ever, pay-per-click ad costs are down 15 to 22 percent, all while return on ad spend is hitting record highs for some brands. We’re seeing some very successful product launches as a result.”
As people spend more money and time online than ever, pay-per-click ad costs are down 15 to 22 percent, all while return on ad spend is hitting record highs for some brands.
Nick Disabato, who runs Draft, works with Shopify Plus stores making at least $1 million in annual revenue. His research reveals he hasn’t been able to find a single prior customer who is unemployed, in all of his interviews and screeners.
“My strong suspicion is that employed people are continuing to buy, just online and for their specific needs,” he concludes. “If you got fired recently, you aren’t buying anything but the bare essentials.”
You might also like: How Shopify Partners are Responding to COVID-19.
The winners and losers
All the research is in agreement that food and drink as well as home and household essentials are currently the clear winners.
Nick suggests that most winners are along the arc of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He has seen that health, wellness, and anything cozy (e.g. sweatpants and athleisure) are doing well. Games, puzzles, and art supplies are also faring well as people try to find ways to stay creative and sane. Luxury goods, anything travel-related, and large segments of apparel, especially everyday fashion, are significantly down.
Kurt has also found that, in response to COVID-19, people are buying directly from brands more than ever in order to get their items faster, support independent businesses, and simply try new things.
However, the wins may be short term. “Once people start to get out of quarantine, sellers will want to look carefully at how people are adapting to being able to go outside and see loved ones again,” Nick advises. “The weather will also be a consideration: as it gets warmer across the US, more people will want to go outside and do outdoor activities. I expect a surge in outdoor sports equipment within the coming weeks, for example.”
Talk directly to your clients’ customers
The single biggest thing you can do right now is talk to customers about why they bought from your clients’ ecommerce store post-COVID, Nick believes.
“Surveying isn’t enough,” he warns. “Get people on the phone or jump on Zoom, ask hard questions, and compensate them for their time. What does their financial situation look like? Were they, their partner, or their friends impacted? How do they feel about the economy and their job security right now? These are uncomfortable questions, so you’re unlikely to get the truth over surveys or any other research method. The insights will drive your strategy—and should confirm whether you have a market for your business going forward.”
Research customer behavior and carry out tests for your clients
Sean Clanchy, director of Shopify Plus agency Swanky Australia, points out that the reality for retail during the COVID-19 crisis is that customers have totally different needs. It’s therefore important to address how their behavior has shifted and encourage clients to really get to the bottom of what their customers want, so they can adapt their ecommerce store accordingly.
“If you identify a drop-off or any sort of change in the funnel, it’s important to understand the change in customer behavior that’s caused it,” Sean advises. “If your client has a new issue with cart abandonment, for instance, suggest implementing a pop-up or a survey that asks customers why they’re leaving the site. When you understand their rationale, you can come up with a solution and start testing. The best way to understand customers and their new purchase patterns is to experiment!”
If you identify a drop-off or any sort of change in the funnel, it’s important to understand the change in customer behavior that’s caused it.
Sean’s colleague Matt Abbott, Swanky’s head of UK growth, adds that testing can also help refine your clients’ value proposition.
“Customers have more time to browse now, so a brand has to work hard to stand out from the crowd,” he explains. “If a client is unclear about how best to communicate that value proposition, then split testing is the best way to find out. If they’ve got two or three ‘headlines,’ USPs, or sales pitches, but aren’t sure which one’s the most effective, then test them. Let customers provide the answer.”
You might also like: User Research Methods: 13 Expert Tips to Master the Process.
Nick, meanwhile, spent a lot of time in Google Analytics, and used heat and scroll maps in addition to interviewing customers over Zoom to understand what his clients’ customers need, want, and actually do right now.
“If you aren’t monitoring how customer behavior has changed since March 15, go into Google Analytics and find it out,” Nick recommends. “Run heat and scroll maps to understand where people are looking and not looking. Run usability tests to understand what fears people might have as they attempt to make a purchase. The more you can convey an impression of comfort and safety, the more likely you are to close the sale.”
Make sure you craft messaging for your clients that helps reassure their customers
New situations, especially unprecedented ones like COVID-19, cause us to feel out of control and make us very cautious. If you want people to continue buying from your clients, you need to renew that sense of control by urging them to communicate more than they usually would with their customers, according to user experience consultant and conversion rate optimization specialist Paul Boag.
“The more information somebody has, the more in control they feel,” he points out. “So take a moment to write a list—or even ask users—of every question or concern they have relating to acting on your client’s website and address as many of them as possible.”
Paul also suggests updating the customer regularly once they do order, especially if delivery will take longer than usual.
“For example, I recently ordered some plants for my garden,” Paul explains. “When I ordered them, they informed me the delivery time could be over three weeks. Although they had prepared me for a long wait, they still emailed me to let me know they hadn't forgotten my order after a week or so.”
Make it clear on your client's ecommerce store that they're still shipping
The closure of physical stores due to COVID-19 has put immense pressure on the logistics element of ecommerce. One of the most basic concerns customers currently have is whether they will actually receive their purchase when they place an order.
“If you’re still actively processing and shipping orders, this should be made very clear, preferably at the top of your website in an announcement bar,” advises Kelly Vaughn, founder of The Taproom Agency. “And if you don't have an announcement bar on your Shopify theme, just install a free app to add one in.”
If you’re still actively processing and shipping orders, this should be made very clear, preferably at the top of your website in an announcement bar.
If you don’t address the current climate and implement a simple but effective short message in the site header, it’s not obvious whether your client’s ecommerce store is fully operational and if there are delays to lead times.
“A concise message, with a link to a page with more information, clearly communicates the status of the business,” agrees Dan Conboy, managing director of Shopify Plus agency Statement. “It’s a quick step to put in place to advise and reassure. It’s also worth checking how this displays on mobile to make sure it doesn’t take up too much real estate.”
If your client is unable to make sales, they can either continue to accept orders or have their customers sign up for restock notifications when they’re able to ship again.
“Using tools such as the Back in Stock app or Klaviyo's Back in Stock feature will add this functionality to your client’s ecommerce store,” Kelly recommends. “As an added bonus, they can get new subscribers to their mailing list when they sign up for restock notifications!”
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Communicate changes to your clients' delivery and return options
Whether your client is shipping or not is clearly the most important information customers need to know, but there are other logistical areas you should consider, too.
“Logistics—an often hidden, but vitally important part of online retail—are key to customer satisfaction,” Dan believes. “As expert ecommerce agencies, we spend a great deal of time working with our clients to ensure their websites work seamlessly across devices, but overall customer satisfaction is also greatly influenced by the experience that the customer has with their delivery.”
Dan points out that, as warehouses and delivery networks face rapid increases in demand (in some cases even greater than those in Q4 peak trading), it inevitably changes how the delivery experience will work for customers.
“Some delivery options, such as click and collect, may no longer be available or feasible,” he explains. “Some courier networks have extended their delivery times which means goods will take longer to arrive with customers. And customers have fewer ways to return, so collections may take longer than usual.”
All of these factors can impact the overall delivery experience. While customers are currently more patient in their expectations, they might get frustrated with your clients' businesses if they can’t find out how long a product will take to get to them.
"Be clear and transparent and effectively communicate what impact COVID-19 is having on your client’s delivery and logistics process."
To manage customer expectations, Dan advises to be clear and transparent and effectively communicate what impact COVID-19 is having on your client’s delivery and logistics process. In particular he recommends the following.
Update the delivery messaging on product pages
If all or only certain stock-keeping units (SKUs) are impacted, it’s worth adding this information to the product page for your clients so it’s clear and transparent before the customer adds the item to their basket.
Most product pages have a delivery information section or tab—ensure this is up to date. Is the business extending its returns window? That’d be useful to highlight here too.
Update FAQs, delivery, and returns information
Your clients' customers undoubtedly will have questions and look to these pages for more detailed guidance, so make sure these pages are updated as well.
“Consider the types of questions that customers send in via email and social media and add these to FAQs too,” Dan suggests. “It’ll help to reduce support enquiries and potentially increase conversion rates as customers feel reassured and informed about what’s going to happen. Ensure these pages are regularly updated as the situation evolves.”
Get creative with your clients' inventories
Sometimes inventory doesn’t quite sell out for one reason or another. When supply chains break, or the production has been impacted, you can encourage your client to get inventive and explore other options to keep sales flowing into their ecommerce store.
“Some might consider running a fire sale on products that they easily have on hand like past collection items,” suggests Deb Hopkins, Shopify expert and chief baker at ecommerce agency Causeway 305. “These products can be sold in a variety of ways such as a heavily discounted fire sale, a bundle, or more creatively a mix-and-match surprise box, which is a great idea for brands that have multiple items across their inventory SKUs. You can make it more exciting by including things like stickers, note cards, wrapping paper, and smaller items that have large margins but don’t cost much for you to provide. It's time to get creative!”
You might also like: Tips on How to Transition Your Brick and Mortar Clients Online.
Emily Moss, co-founder of Shopify experts Alt & Dot, agrees and suggests exploring if there are products in your client’s catalog that are more attractive to their customers during the current crisis.
“Consider shifting your merchandizing to highlight products that may be better suited for purchase at this time,” she advises. “For example, Province of Canada has assembled a curated ‘Canadian Homebody’ collection of their lounge and remote-work approved garments and home accessories.”
Another option is to create a backorder program, as Alt & Dot did for their client Kate McLeod. In lieu of sold-out product listings, customers are choosing to support the merchant's continued operations and participate in their donation program by buying now in exchange for a future ship date.
Offer flexible financing terms for your clients' customers
As some consumers are currently both cost- and cash-flow conscious, clients might want to go further than thinking about the general pricing strategy for their products, and also consider offering financing terms on customer purchases to allow the expense to better fit their budgets.
Ross Beyeler, chief operating officer of full-service ecommerce agency Trellis, recommends tools such as Bread, Klarna, Affirm, and Sezzle, which all offer easy ways for customers to finance their orders.
“The specific offerings vary a bit between each platform, but across these options, you can offer customers interest-free installment payments, an extra 30 days on the payment due date, or traditional financing ranging from 0 percent to 15 percent annual percentage rate (APR),” he explains. “Even for customers with the funds available to make payments, adding financing options to your product page, shopping cart, or checkout can often drive a nice lift in overall conversion.”
Nick agrees and points out that monthly installment plans help reduce the perception of risk.
“We talked to one customer who bought a lower-priced alternative because he had funded so many of his friends’ GoFundMes in the past months that he didn’t have any disposable income anymore,” Nick reveals. “So we decided we should play up the idea of monthly payment plans to make cashflow a little easier for customers who are in the same position.”
Implement customer retention strategies for your clients
COVID-19 has also triggered a surge of re-evaluation. For example, there are various customer retention strategies your clients could explore. Let’s look at a few of them in detail.
Now could be a prime time to think about the power of subscriptions, Sean Clanchy suggests—but only if the product is right.
“Offering a subscription has a heap of potential benefits,” Sean points out. “For customers, at a time when all sorts of lockdown and social distancing measures are in place, the convenience of having something they need get delivered directly to their door on a regular basis is ideal. And for retailers, subscriptions represent a recurring source of revenue, higher retention rates, and richer relationships with customers.”
Sean adds that one of the most important things that all retailers can do right now is to be honest and earnest with their customers.
“If your client is struggling, if they’ve had to let staff go, don’t be afraid to share this,” he advises. “Tell customers you need their support at times like these. If your client runs a small business, make it personal. If they’re a big business, tell a story—whether it’s a personal story or sharing how you’re trying to give back during this time. Ultimately, be human. You’ll get a human response from customers in return, which helps a lot with building relationships and improving retention.”
Ultimately, be human. You’ll get a human response from customers in return, which helps a lot with building relationships and improving retention.
Kurt agrees and recommends focusing on community building, especially if your client is unable to ship at the moment.
“Right now you have one of the easiest times ever to connect with their audience,” he explains. “You know what’s top of mind for 99 percent of people. Now, more than ever, it's a great time to be a human, connect with the audience, and find out what valuable offering you could produce for them. Maybe that comes in the form of a candid survey on your client’s site, an email welcome series asking for replies, or launching your first Facebook group.”
Simon Cooke, managing director of full-service digital agency BozBoz, suggests making a positive difference through marketing automation, the process of personalizing brand experience across multiple channels via an automated process.
You might also like: Email Personalization: Using Analytics to Send Relevant, High Converting Emails.
“By returning to personas and mindsets, you can think strategically about how to nurture new prospects into your pipeline at a time when they are anxious about buying,” Simon advises. “Remember that marketing automation is a medium- to long-term game, and think of this as an opportunity to build more meaningful relationships that will last longer. The point is, what you do now will set your [client's] business up for stability and success in the future.”
The point is, what you do now will set your [client's] business up for stability and success in the future.
In terms of messaging, Simon recommends staying true to the brand. For example, if your client sells fast-moving consumer goods, and their strategy is competitive pricing with free returns, you might want to highlight how their products are making life easier during lockdown. But don’t go all-out empathic if it’s not your style, customers will smell a rat!
Encourage your clients to give back to the community
Despite the difficulties that all businesses are currently facing, many of them are finding all sorts of creative ways to give back to their local community, customers, or industry peers.
Here are a few examples that Ross shared with us:
- Privy has launched a marketplace called Shop Small, specifically geared towards promoting small or niche ecommerce brands.
- Tom Bihn and Ministry of Supply have begun selling face masks and offering both a ‘buy one, donate one’ and pure donation program to help provide additional masks to frontline healthcare professionals.
- Allbirds has applied the ‘buy one, donate one’ model as well, but with their footwear products for those in the healthcare community.
- Vessi has launched a community fund to sponsor up to $1,000 towards 10 different community projects aimed at fighting COVID.
Emily, meanwhile points out that Dripkit have launched a program to send coffee to those on the frontlines, and have opened it up for their customers to support the initiative to keep everyone engaged and committed.
“Companies are trying to take action in inspiring ways and help those around them,” Ross explains. “Many of these efforts have become a leading conversation point for these brands as well, which helps keep them top-of-mind for consumers looking to support brands that have joined the fight against COVID.”
Test, test, and test again
In order to navigate your clients' ecommerce stores through COVID-19, you first need to gather as much data on their customers’ behavior as you can. Carry out research and testing to really understand what’s going on and to be reactive to demand. Then reassure their customers, establish trust, and reduce risk, starting with your communication around shipping.
Test again to analyze what impact your enhanced messaging is having, both on a site-wide basis as well as for particular pages. Encourage your clients to be creative with their inventory, explore other ways to keep their revenue flowing and customers engaged, and be flexible with financing terms for customers. Other ways you can optimize your client’s ecommerce store include offering discounts to frontline workers, adding the ability to donate to a COVID-19 charity appeal when checking out, and featuring user-generated content on product pages as a way for people to feel connected with each other.
You can also use this time to help your clients re-evaluate and implement customer retention strategies with their ecommerce store. It might feel odd to think about optimization and conversions right now, and you need to be subtle, but there are loads of things you can do to help your clients and their customers through this challenging time. So more than anything, be human—your clients’ customers will thank you for it. For even more UX improvements related to COVID-19, check out the test findings by the Baymard Institute.