As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads and more national governments order shutdowns, people are moving online for their daily purchases. According to research by Microsoft Advertising,[i] search volume for Buy Online Pick Up in Store queries increased by more than 1,200% between January 1st and March 18th, 2020. From logistics and IT infrastructure to advertising and customer support, the pandemic represents a real test for commerce.
In 2019, iProspect introduced the Commerce Success Framework (CSF) to help marketers drive their commerce strategy across four key areas: Availability, Findability, Buyability and Repeatability. In these challenging times, wherein it is important for brands to help consumers easily find and order what they need, the CSF can provide marketers with a useful lens to prioritise the key actions necessary to build or maintain a robust commerce presence.
This article covers some actions that brands can look into for each dimension of the model, and is intended to encourage marketers to think about what initiatives they can activate for their business.
Availability is all about getting the right products to the right people in the right places, and this is particularly critical in this time of crisis.
At the moment, supply chains are severely stretched. Manufacturers and factories are shutting down, many shipping companies are over strained, and retail inventory is stretched thin, if not completely sold out. As a consequence, people are desperate to find certain products, and, conversely, they don’t want to hear about other products.
It is important for brands to communicate with empathy and honesty by giving as much information about their product availability as they can, as soon as possible. This is even more true for those companies that have items that are in high demand right now. If your supplier is closed, let people know. If you expect shipping delays, let people know. Don’t hide your business disruption in fine print on your website and instead, update all the places where people can find information about your business (e.g., update your Google My Business listings to mark your locations “Temporarily closed”).
For the brands selling through third parties like Amazon or Lazada, it is also important to work with these platforms to stop unacceptable behaviours. For instance, set purchase limits on necessary products to avoid people hoarding and trying to resell with a huge mark-up to profit off this situation. This is the last kind of association marketers want for their products.
Technology can be of great help to deliver fast and accurate information to consumers. For instance, as people are looking for the most up-to-date information, a direct feed into your product information and your inventory catalogue enables you to deliver information in real time. When people know that what they're seeing online is accurate, they're able to purchase what they need without additional frustration in an already stressful context. However, technology can be a double-edged sword for your operations, if not optimized properly. Marketers need to work hand-in-hand with their IT departments to ensure they have the infrastructure in place to absorb increased server loads and make sure their load times are not surging, as this could frustrate consumers and discourage them from buying what they need. Research from Google has demonstrated that increasing load times can strongly augment the probability of users bouncing away from the website.
The pandemic and its consequences are a critical test for online commerce operations. For some brands, it will simply challenge their capacity to communicate fast enough. For others, it may start a full reconsideration of their supplier relationships, maybe through more diversification, or accelerate their transformation to online commerce in order to compensate the falling foot traffic. In the US, foot traffic dropped 75% for shopping malls between week of March 9th and week of March 16th, according to research by NinthDecimal.
Once brands have taken the necessary measures to be in the right places and have their inventory ready and available, they need to be discovered, which can be challenging when many other brands are also shifting their focus and budgets to increase their online presence.
Again, the golden rule is first and foremost to avoid appearing to be insensitive. Make sure to use negative keywords in your campaigns to avoid any sensitive searches that could be misconstrued to be tone deaf. You also want to make sure that your consumers are protected from harmful options from third party sellers, which is why close monitoring is critical to combat fake products and people trying to take advantage of shoppers when they are vulnerable. Digital shelf analytics tools such as Stackline, Profitero, or Edge allow marketers to monitor third-party sellers on platforms like Amazon, to then be able to take the appropriate actions to discourage or take down profiteers and fraudsters. These actions not only help consumers favour official sales channels, but they also ensure that negative associations with your products will not have a long-lasting impact on your brand.
It is important for brands to continue their paid media and to keep promoting their products to be found by consumers. People go on commerce platforms to shop, so relevant product ads in these environments have very little chance to be seen as inappropriate, especially if you put in place the safeguards described previously. By making sure you are easy to find, you will provide helpful support to consumers, so make sure you are keeping up with your organic search and paid search activities. Feeds can also be used for Findability, enabling advertisements to synchronize with your offering evolution in real time.
Keep in mind that not everyone necessarily knows all of the benefits of your products. There could be a certain product that is sold out everywhere, and you may have an alternative product that is not as well known. By keeping people informed of your product benefits, you may help them to find a new solution to meet their needs.
Once brands are easily available to consumers and easily discoverable, they need to focus on Buyability, which means providing the right information for people to proceed with purchase.
As for the two previous steps, the most important aspect is ensuring that your actions are aligned with the current context. One of the measures you can take is updating product information. For instance, we have seen false rumours going around that drinking isopropyl alcohol could destroy the virus. A company selling this product could revise their product information to debunk the rumours. This requires being aware of the noise surrounding the pandemic, your brand and your industry. Rigorous social listening (e.g., emerging and trending news, mentions, keywords evolution) is a recommended practice in order to be able to quickly counter or encourage what's being said about you.
In these times when people cannot look at products in stores or shop in familiar ways, content has a critical role to provide reassurance, offer solutions and be uplifting. Video content is an excellent way to achieve these objectives. Live streaming commerce, which combines a live stream and some checkout options for products featured in the video, is a well-developed practice in Asia-Pacific that has been getting traction across regions and is now proposed by platforms such as Amazon. Social commerce should also be a key consideration to help people purchase what they want and what they need. As people are turning to social platforms, brands can make the most of the platforms’ shopping capabilities to simplify purchases. Native solutions such as Instagram Checkout or third-party solutions such as Jumper.AI can help people easily order the product they need without leaving the platform they’re on, saving stress and time.
Another consideration of Buyability is pricing. Pricing has become such a critical facet of e-commerce that many brands have set up dynamic pricing algorithms. These algorithms look at various data signals (e.g., margin, competitors’ prices, demand level) and automatically adjust prices. In times like these when people are purchasing a lot to stock up, you need to tread carefully because your dynamic pricing algorithm could get out of control and you could be seen as profiteering or trying to price gouge. So, make sure that is in check, and maybe even turn it off and revert to static pricing for now. Also, look at possibilities to offer promotional bundles where they could bring value to consumers, such as the initiative of Woolworths, which introduced a $80 Basics Box to support vulnerable families in Australia.
Repeatability is about building a relationship with the consumer beyond the first sale. In light of COVID-19, it means looking after your customers and exploring ways to help them out as much as possible.
The first consideration should be looking at and adjusting the conditions of your loyalty programme. If you have a loyalty programme that's based on how often people do something and there is a time limit, consider freezing those requirements or dramatically lowering them. A good example is the one of airlines. Obviously, people are not flying nearly as much as normal, so adjusting frequent flyer miles programmes makes sense. The last thing you want is to alienate customers who really enjoy your product and services by making them feel punished for something that is out of their control. A good example of a sensible approach is the one of Hilton, which recognised that earning and using points is not possible for many of its customers at the moment and extended its 2020 Hilton Honors Status through March 31, 2022.
You should also proactively communicate the actions you take to help the community and minimise disruption. For instance, you could send an email to your customers to show how your brand is ensuring the highest levels of cleanliness in the production chain, or to let them know about new delivery options. However, it doesn’t mean you should mass-email every single person who has bought your products once, which could have the opposite effect and appear as opportunistic. Focus on the engaged and regular customers to show them how you can help them.
As people are trying to adjust their daily lives to the new normal, they might want to cancel subscriptions, might want to return orders, might have additional questions about delivery… and customer support will become even more important. Ensure your customer support team receives clear guidelines on how to handle consumer requests with empathy and honesty, both in one-on-one communications (e.g., chat) and in public user reviews. Monitoring tools can alert the support team when negative reviews are posted so that they can quickly address them. Additionally, check-in with the support team more frequently than usual to identify recurrent concerns. It can help you continuously improve the information you provide upfront, as seen in the Availability section (e.g., communicating a bigger shipping window).
Support bots can also relieve stress on customer service by providing useful information to users. Brands with chat bots or voice activated digital assistants must ensure they are updated as well in terms of content and tone. Brands that do not have a bot should look into this opportunity. The main platforms have a lot of templates available for building actions and skills very quickly. For instance, an FAQ is one of the easiest things to program and you can build and launch a simple and efficient bot in a few hours. You can then progressively add more information, for instance product feeds, to turn the bot into its own shopping channel over time.
Using the Commerce Success Framework as a Lens
The examples described above provide a glimpse of what brands can do to build or maintain a strong online commerce presence in these challenging times. As each business is going to be affected differently by the consequences of the pandemic, we believe that the Commerce Success Framework will provide marketers a useful lens to focus on the main areas (Availability, Findability, Buyability, Repeatability) and to prioritise the actions that make the most sense for their customers.
Above all, remember to protect yourself and your relatives by following the World Health Organisation or your local authorities’ guidelines. We will get through this together.
iProspect constantly monitor the impact on COVID-19 on brands and work with partners to support clients with the most up-to-date actions to ensure business continuity.
 Microsoft Advertising, How COVID-19 is affecting in-store pickup interest, March 20th, 2020