The 4 Biggest Lessons Ecommerce Businesses Learned In 2020

Rodney Laws Updated on June 17, 2021

biggest ecommerce lessons 2020

In early 2020, life changed almost overnight and every facet of our daily routines had to change with it. How we eat, how we shop, how we interact… and certainly how we work. Mandatory office closures sent companies of all kinds hurtling into the unknown territory of fully remote operations. The need for supply chains to focus on essential items led to major delays for non-essential businesses. It seemed that everything was falling apart.

Now that we’re in a position to look back on this time (though we’re somewhat accustomed to this new way of life, we’re not out of the woods by a long shot), one thing is abundantly clear: not a single industry emerged unaffected from the maelstrom of that early COVID-19 panic.

That doesn’t mean that every industry was seriously harmed. In fact, some arguably benefited more than they suffered — and the prime example of this is online retail. With traditional brick-and-mortar retailers either unable to open or left to endure the greatly diminished footfall of desolate high streets, the demands of worldwide shoppers fell upon online merchants. Demand skyrocketed and remains incredibly high.

Some sites couldn’t cope with the odd combination of increased interest and diminished supply, while others were able to adapt. It’s the latter that we’re going to think about in this piece, as we’ll be looking at the four biggest lessons that strong ecommerce businesses learned in 2020. If you’re running an online store or plan to run an online store (perhaps by buying one), then you should take note of these lessons. They’ll continue to prove significant throughout the end of the year and should inform your approach to 2021. Let’s get started.

Being found takes a broad strategy

As merchants everywhere sought to build up their operations following the effective suspension of most offline retail, they concentrated on marketing. After all, there’s no use in having extra stock and fulfilment capacity if no one is finding you. Since many of them hadn’t made huge alterations to their marketing strategies for quite some time, they were in for some surprises.

What they learned was just how broad the digital marketing discipline has become, and what it takes to stand out when you’re up against a vast ocean of like-for-like competitors. Consider that it wasn’t just the buying demand that scaled up this year: it was also the selling demand, owing to the allure of ecommerce self-employment in a time of mass firings and layoffs. Countless professionals came to understand the appeal of starting their own stores.

The result was a huge uptick in competition for an industry that was already highly competitive. Where competition in traditional retail was always necessarily limited by available geographical opportunities (a store with high prices and low value could still do well if it occupied a spot in a busy area), there’s no such limitation in the online world. Through efficient international shipping, stores from different continents can go head-to-head.

The stores that succeeded were those factoring in the three core elements of a modern digital marketing strategy. Let’s run through them briefly:

  • Content marketing. Consistently producing high-quality content demonstrates brand expertise and gives you material to use for other promotional efforts. It also feeds into general SEO, improving your chances of ranking for actionable terms.
  • Technical SEO. In addition to ensuring that their websites are fast and work flawlessly on mobile devices (vital for customer experience), today’s store sites would do well to take advantage of structured data (if deployed correctly, it can earn position-zero featured snippets).
  • Social engagement. Though social activity can backfire, the risk is a necessary one. Influencers have a lot of power, brands need to show personality through direct conversation, and it’s even possible to sell directly through social channels.

A huge part of this process, of course, is starting with the right platform. In the ecommerce world, the content management system (CMS) you choose will have immense impact in the long term, shaping not only what you can do right away but also the extent to which you can expand your business over time.

If you’re on the fence, WordPress extended through the free WooCommerce plugin is a smart choice. It’ll keep your costs down and give you access to a vast range of extensions. Take a look to see what WooCommerce storefront reviews have to say (here’s one), and consider your requirements carefully before you start. While it’s possible to migrate between store platforms, it’s a headache that you’d rather avoid.

Corporate ethics are rising in importance

When the pandemic hit and people started to lose their jobs, it became crystal-clear how important it was for companies to stand by their employees. In addition to being essential for continued growth (long-serving workers are more reliable, skilled, and productive), it was vital for brand image. Just one negative comment from a fired employee could cause a backlash.

That isn’t the only reason why companies need to care about their perceived ethics. Well before COVID-19 struck, calls for sustainability were getting louder, and this year’s global introspection has only accelerated this process. People are wondering about the future of our species and are eager to support companies that invest in green operations.

Accordingly, it’s no longer enough (in most areas of ecommerce, at least) to serve as a dispassionate vendor. In addition to selling products, you also need to be supporting causes: explaining the things you care about, encouraging those who follow you to get involved, and donating where possible (usually through offering related products or simply passing on a small percentage of everything you sell).

Adaptability is key to lasting success

Some companies were set in well-worn grooves when 2020 began, making more than enough revenue to meet their targets and generally enjoying the fruits of their successes. But many of them began to struggle when circumstances changed — all due to their inventories. In a heartbeat, consumer interests shifted significantly, and continued to shift.

Think about those selling travel items, for instance, such as neck pillows or suitcase locks. With the air travel industry slowing to a crawl, such merchants found themselves in big trouble. If they continued in the same vein, they’d run out of funds and need to shut down with no idea if they’d ever be able to effectively resume operation.

Now consider the sellers who rapidly identified the coming demand for face masks and rapidly pivoted to take advantage of it, first stocking whatever generic masks they could find and then moving to offer more expensive (and more lucrative) personalized masks. Those sellers made a lot of money very quickly and built reputations for selling masks that continue to serve them well even half a year down the line.

We also need to factor in the move to remote working, since not all ecommerce companies worked remotely before this year. Those that didn’t were called upon to adapt all their processes to function with their teams scattered. Succeed, and they’d be able to maintain some momentum. Fail, and they’d be left in the dust by their competitors.

Overall, the lesson that must be learned for the coming years is that adaptability — far more than strength in a set area — is the key to long-term success. Sooner or later circumstances will conspire against you and your entire industry, and you’ll have two options: let them drag you down, or change the way you do things to benefit from them.

Reliability has Become a Core Concern

There are two notable reasons why ecommerce businesses have learned the value of reliability this year, with both pertaining to COVID-19 to some extent (unsurprisingly). The first is that ecommerce has bridged the gap between suppliers of luxury goods and providers of staple supplies. More than ever before, people this year have been buying groceries online.

In many cases, they’ve had to. Those called upon to shield themselves from viral harm have had to take their chances at busy supermarkets or call upon their ramped-up home delivery systems, with the latter obviously being markedly safer. This has also allowed supermarkets to offset some of the damage to the employment market by temporarily hiring many more delivery drivers.

An inevitable result of this change was a shift in the perception of online delivery, taking it from something that matters somewhat (with people really wanting to get their purchases as soon as possible) to something that could be absolutely essential. Imagine, for instance, someone who needs medication but is unable to reach their pharmacy and can only order it online.  Naturally, home delivery is all but essential for someone in this situation.

The second reason is that unclear or outright false messaging about some in-demand products has left many prospective customers wishing only for sellers that are brutally honest about their stock levels. The gaming industry is the top example here. New graphics cards, processors and gaming consoles have released in recent months, but stock levels have been nowhere close meeting demand and some merchants have strung people along only to fail to have stock.

Having been through these four vital ecommerce business lessons, we can think ahead to how ecommerce will fare in 2021. Demand will certainly stay high, regardless of what happens with COVID-19 — and it’ll be those sellers who learn from what we’ve covered here who will be best able to overcome the inevitable roadblocks and turn themselves into online retail powerhouses.

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