Will All Commerce Soon Be Ecommerce? And, If So, Will We Be Ready?

Assessing the role of ecommerce during a rapidly changing global pandemic.

By Rick Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Miva, and author of Dragonproof Ecommerce

As we all try day-by-day to adjust to a strange new reality, our priorities naturally turn to protecting the people we care about. While the ecommerce industry has long been a powerful business and social innovation, recently online selling has evolved into an essential lifeline which will help us do just that–provide basic safety and sustenance for family, consumer, and business alike. And the amazing thing is, our collective development of ecommerce over the past many years has prepared us for just such a moment.

A shocking historical event is resulting in massive adoption of digitization and ecommerce.

It will be years before we can quantify the total impact of COVID-19, but one emerging theme can’t be overlooked. The virus is creating the perfect storm for the (even more) rapid digitalization of society.

A story that’s been in motion for decades has suddenly accelerated this week, out of necessity. We have shifted our businesses, and much of our personal communication, to remote online interactions. Looking at this development through the prism of ecommerce for this discussion, the implications are enormous.

In 2016, Microsoft and the World Bank created the “Digital Adoption Index.” The index attempted to mathematically quantify our society’s increasing use of technologies for business growth, personal well-being, and the functioning of government.

Well, this is no longer a quixotic metric for marketing initiatives and science fiction authors.

Everyone on Earth must adapt—fast—to new ways of living which rely more on digital systems for communication, commerce, and survival.

If facility with digital platforms made it easier in the past for a consumer to get good deals, today a well-designed shopping experience can keep that shopper home, stocked, and safe.

If ecommerce itself was previously an elegant solution for delivering commodity and custom items at scale, today it is a do-or-die revenue source for sellers whose physical shops have shuttered.

Overnight, the stakes for why and how we choose digital solutions have raised. The imperative to the public is clear: embrace digital or be left behind.

Ecommerce will become a key lifeline for an isolated public.

Here’s a loaded and complicated question: If ecommerce sales in 2019 amounted to about 12% of all retail, can anyone say what share ecommerce will claim in in 2020?

As we speak, analysts are predicting major spikes in online sales which will coincide with the peak of the pandemic. This is across all product types—it’s not just staple goods. How an online retailer can prepare for that spike is an open question, with so many variables impossible to control or predict. For many sellers, simply managing a remote workforce for the first time presents a learning curve. But for a public that will still want to buy products from whiskey to SUVs, using ecommerce to solve for availability and convenience are habits that were formed a long time ago.

It is key to remember that ecommerce’s mission has always been to act as a tool for improving quality of life. Today’s situation is no different.

The past 10 years have indeed prepared the public to leverage the benefits of ecommerce for a crisis like the one we currently face. Personal devices have trained us to stay connected and communicate around the clock. We have developed trust in digital systems/fulfillment and have institutionalized the ability to transact and acquire basic resources without physical interaction.

This is a foundation built from countless Cyber Monday sales, from effective email marketing campaigns to that online return which worked so seamlessly and the subscription to essential commodities which showed up every month. That trust is in the bank. The public is better equipped to deal with the crisis as a result—and they will.

Online businesses are uniquely positioned to provide the best solutions for our current challenges.

I’ve been banging the drum of streamlining business operations via digital efficiency for years. It’s the core of our whole business. Today, the urgency of this point has never been more front and center.

If you’ve been an ecommerce professional in recent years, you have been training to meet today’s challenges all along.

The foundational elements of online selling have fully prepared businesses to survive this crossroads, and we see them in action around the world right now.

China’s sophisticated use of delivery technology has become the central pillar for supporting successful long quarantines. This is precisely the kind of “better solution through technology” which is nothing new to any modern business. We have long implemented data integration and analysis to allow for better visibility and control of resources. Partnerships with other service providers/digital systems have taught us to increase efficiency through automation and delegation. The development of digital brand communication has cultivated a common tongue which allows businesses and consumers to converse in real time.

All businesses must now use these same innovations to make confident, early, prudent decisions which will protect themselves and customers in the days to come. For retailers such as Wayfair, this will mean suspending all sales except for ecommerce, and then instituting all-new best practices for protecting workers and sanitizing work stations. For brands like JOANN Fabric, decades of community-building around its products can now be leveraged to put its audience to work in the best possible way.

The tech giants are also wielding their massive resources. While Amazon will be hiring 100,000 new employees, obviously no SMB or even enterprise businesses work on such an enormous canvas. So we must return to our roots and primary missions.

Ecommerce sellers must continue to do what they have always done: solve the problems of the consumer and the marketplace better than anyone else can. In order to do that you must listen to what the problems are right now and then make the connection for how your goods and services directly address that specific pain point. Then, shout that message loud and clear for everyone who will benefit from hearing it.

Ease the pain points of consumers more efficiently, effectively, and affordably. This has always been the prime directive of a business, and the rules still hold—even if the context has changed.

We don’t yet know what the new economic and cultural realities will be on the other side of the virus. What is important is that we use these tools now to stay afloat and keep selling, knowing that our businesses are providing so much more than simply the products we offer. They are providing sustenance, continuity, and hope.

This is a story about real people using technology to overcome hardship and uncertainty.

Like many of you, I was touched to learn that Jack Ma of Alibaba was donating 1 million masks and 500,000 test kits to the US. Apple, Cisco, and more have also begun making astounding contributions to global relief efforts. These are inspiring examples of the power of tech culture to support compassionate and creative solutions.

We are also seeing ecommerce businesses on a much smaller scale using their platforms not just to provide for their customers, but for the well-being of the public. Distilleries using their equipment to make hand sanitizer. Fashion houses repurposing to sew PPE gear. Valiant UPS and FEDEX workers ensuring that goods ordered online get to the people who need them. I would add to that list of heroes all the “back of house” workers, from I.T. to customer service reps to brand managers—all making sure that systems for getting goods out continue to function. Everyone plays a critical role.

“This amazing spirit of human solidarity must become even more infectious than the coronavirus itself. Although we may have to be physically apart from each other for a while, we can come together in ways we never have before”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization

The problems of the world right now are far greater than the challenges of ecommerce selling, but our industry is absolutely positioned to sustain the wellbeing of its own workforce while providing innovative, vitally important services to people all over the world.

In a way, ecommerce has always been built for exactly this purpose.

About the Author: Rick Wilson

With over 20 years of executive-level experience, Rick Wilson has a unique vantage point on the global economic shift to ecommerce, and the digitization of American businesses. Rick is currently the Chief Executive Officer of Miva, Inc., creator of the Miva Merchant ecommerce platform. Rick’s broad grasp of the complex inner workings of ecommerce, and his keen analysis of the interplay of online marketing, emerging web based technology platforms, and high-level back-end business operations, have qualified him as one of only a handful of such ecommerce experts worldwide. 

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