eCommerce has been on the rise since the internet became prevalent: for approximately the past twenty years. Unfortunately, many online retailers have only just begun to optimize their eCommerce presence in the face of the current pandemic, which has driven a massive increase in online sales alongside a huge drop in brick-and-mortar shopping. In June, online retail grew by 76%, whereas one year ago it actually suffered an 11% drop. Retailers who felt comfortable putting off enhancing their online presence in 2019 are now scrambling to keep up with online demand, fulfill their customers’ needs, and stay competitive amongst thousands of other online options customers have to choose from.
With its fast pace, broad range, and rapidly changing landscape, online retail can be a daunting problem to tackle, even for retailers who have been involved in eCommerce for years already. How can online sales be increased to make up for the lack of customers visiting physical stores? What can be done to enhance the customer experience and draw new and repeat buyers? And most importantly: What changes are most important in achieving these goals? Obviously, most retailers will want to begin with the changes to their eCommerce presence that will yield the greatest returns in the shortest period of time.
This is where we have answers. There are three top challenges that eCommerce retailers must address immediately if they are to effectively compete and maintain their businesses throughout the pandemic. In fact, by making these changes, many retailers will actually be able to grow their businesses in the face of COVID-19, not just tread water.
Make Products Discoverable
This crucial step is the entire idea behind online product catalog optimization. Customers can’t purchase the products that they want unless they’re able to surface those products through your website. The profusion of other options available means that if the product a customer wants doesn’t come up quickly and easily, they can always try another site where it does.
What makes products hard to find? Data on products comes from suppliers in a certain format, which may differ between suppliers and not be particularly user-friendly. If a business is putting this data into their catalog manually, it can take a lot of time (which makes it difficult to scale) and be prone to human errors, not to mention that it may not be structured intuitively for customers searches.
The best solution to this problem is an automated one that not only optimizes the structure of data so that customers can accurately find the products they seek, but also surpasses human labor in speed and accuracy. CrowdANALYTIX’ DataX is one such solution.
Have the Right Assortment
When they’re first dipping their toes into the world of eCommerce, many retailers simply mimic their brick-and-mortar stores when it comes to online product assortment. Unfortunately, this is not an effective strategy! After the optimization of its online search, product assortment can be a business’ biggest asset in customer attraction and retention, but this means having an understanding of the competition.
eCommerce competition is not the same as competition between physical store locations. When it comes to brick-and-mortar sales, a clothing store in the mall is in close competition with every other clothing retailer in that same building, and they can be competitive simply by having a different assortment of products—for example, by being the only store in the mall that sells youth sports equipment, or the only one that sells women’s clothing in extended sizes.
Online, customers can get everything they want at all times, unconstrained by the physical limits of location. The way to compete online is to have a larger assortment of products, on average ten times what would be available in a physical store location. The same type of solution mentioned above, which can drastically speed product onboarding, is also what is needed to rapidly scale product assortment.
This is the aspect of eCommerce that most retailers focus on, because it is usually the biggest bottleneck as online retail expands: How can a sudden surge in demand be dealt with? How can we fulfill rapidly increasing numbers of orders that may require us to physically scale our distribution centers? But far from being the only important eCommerce challenge, scaling fulfillment goes hand in hand with applying the automation solution that we have already discussed.
Distribution center automation not only helps retailers massively scale their operations, but also decreases the kinds of inaccuracies that they cannot risk when selling directly to consumers. Inaccurate shipments to brick-and-mortar stores can be absorbed fairly easily, but an inaccurate shipment directly to a consumer always results in a complaint and a decrease in the customer satisfaction that drives repeat purchases. DC automation solutions like those offered by SDI Systems help turn traditional retailers into eCommerce giants, especially in conjunction with product catalog automation solutions.
Now is the time for retailers to boost their online presence by enhancing their product catalogs, growing their assortments, and automating their fulfillment processes. If retail sales ever return to being primarily in-person activities, which seems unlikely, that change will happen only over a period of 18-24 months or more. Retail enterprises cannot afford to wait for a return to shopping centers, malls, and shops—at this point, survival and growth mean embracing eCommerce and using AI solutions to make it the backbone of the business.
Learn more about AI and automation in retail on our YouTube channel.