eCommerce and COVID-19 in 2021: A challenge or an opportunity?

b2c eCommerce Platforms

The digital commerce industry has come a long way since its inception in the 1970s with Electronic Data Interchange and teleshopping. From Amazon being one of the first B2C eCommerce platforms in the US to sell products online in 1991 to market studies suggesting $3.5 trillion in global eCommerce sales in 2019- a smooth 4% rise from the previous year, the B2C eCommerce landscape has grown by leaps and bounds. There was a time when people were afraid to buy products online at the expense of inputting their personal information or financial details. Cut to the 21st century, everything- from groceries to diamonds and enterprise product solutions can be purchased online in the blink of an eye.

It won’t be wrong to say that the digital commerce market is driven by a singular key aspect- ‘Change is the only constant.’ This profitable business segment has not only successfully navigated the waters of dynamism, constantly shifting market trends, and the changing B2C eCommerce customer behaviour but has emerged as the goliath in today’s fast-paced and agile IT industry.

True that the pandemic accelerated the shift towards the digital world at an unprecedented level leading to $82.5 billion in eCommerce transactions by May 2020- a sharp 77% increase from 2019; however, this growth and expansion certainly wasn’t a new trend. In fact, eCommerce sales experienced an average growth rate of 25.6% from 2014-2017, much before the pandemic. And that’s proof that eCommerce is thriving, and it has been for a while.

However, at present, merchants and retailers face the grave reality that consumers have moved online to make purchases typically made in physical stores and are in no mood to reverse back to their old brick-and-mortar buying habits. Even after governments worldwide relaxed restrictions and allowed physical stores to reopen, many customers continued to use convenient and comfortable online storefronts. The fact that they were already embracing online retailers like Amazon, Alibaba, and Walmart with open arms has made this transition considerably more effortless.

Digital Commerce: Driving the change for the retail industry

The initial promises of B2C eCommerce for enterprises involved expanding customer reach from immediate surroundings to anywhere in the world. However, its early years of growth were slow and stagnant, clouded with concerns over the safety of online shopping. In addition, accessing these digital stores demanded reliable internet connectivity, which was a rare occurrence back then.

Despite all that, the retail and digital commerce landscape has undergone a tremendous evolution in the past decade, from thriving physical stores to fewer brick-and-mortar abodes and then a complete switch to digital commerce. This transition could be realized with the growth in the number of online shoppers over the past few years. In 2021 itself, there were 900 million more digital buyers than there were in 2020- a 4.4% year-over-year increase. Moreover, with rapid internet penetration around the world, online shopping becomes increasingly convenient, paving the way for a higher number of shoppers than before. Given the rising trend, the potential for a digital store is enormous. A deeper look into eCommerce statistics will throw some light on its exponential growth: 

  • The global eCommerce sales will surpass $650 billion by 2021-end
  • By 2021, the total number of digital buyers will spike to 2.14 billion- 27.6% of the worldwide population
  • More than one out of every four people is an online shopper
  • Consumers spend close to 36% of their budget on online shopping

These staggering numbers detail the very fact that the changing customer behavior primarily drives the D2C and B2C eCommerce markets. As more shoppers look for their preferred physical retail outlets online, it becomes imperative for retailers to double-down on their B2C eCommerce platforms efforts at a rapid pace and fulfill consumer demands to survive and thrive in this competitive digital landscape.

Opening the floodgates: How Covid-19 triggered the B2C eCommerce turning point

In the coming time, we will look back at 2020 as the year that changed everything. No industry has ever witnessed such an unprecedented and unforeseen growth as the digital commerce sector amidst the Covid-19 crisis. Even with the stagnant economic activity and closed retail quarters, the eCommerce industry experienced a surge in demand and fulfillment, accelerating digital transformation.

As per the UNCTAD experts, the eCommerce sector saw a dramatic rise in its retail sales share- from 14% in 2019 to 19% in 2020. Not that this growth and expansion would not have occurred eventually, but looking at the year-over-year increase, it would have taken 4-6 years to reach that number. But all it took for businesses to realize the importance of ‘going digital’ and achieve this feat was the pandemic.

The thing is, customers, before the conundrum, were skeptical of purchasing products online. They preferred the try-and-buy approach, the idea of being treated by retail specialists, and the fact that they could look at a product in real-time and judge its quality before making a purchasing decision. However, when traditional shopping became difficult or impossible due to the nationwide lockdown, they had no other choice but to move online. From panic buying to placing bulk orders, consumers had a greater instinct to over, rather than under prepare for what lay ahead. This change in eCommerce customer behaviour resulted in an additional $174.87 billion in eCommerce revenue in 2020, says Digital Commerce 360. If it weren’t for the bump in the online sales from the pandemic, the $861.12 billion in eCommerce sales wouldn’t have been reached until 2022.

Addressing the challenges of B2C eCommerce online store

For businesses everywhere, it is time to address the long-term implications of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, for B2C and D2C brands, it is undoubtedly critical to evaluate their current stand on digital commerce and the associated challenges as it will play a game-changing role moving forward.

Changes in B2C eCommerce customer behaviour will become even more ingrained:

The average 21st-century human was already embracing B2C eCommerce platforms, but then the pandemic made them digitally savvy. However, apart from being exceedingly active on digital channels, customers have become pretty clever regarding their research-and-buy approach, which has led to a vast variance in consumer behavior who are now well aware of their importance for a brand and expect an inspiring omnichannel experience always.

Although shopping in physical stores will remain a possibility, with B2C eCommerce in the picture, shopping via mobile and desktop for everything- from pantry staples to impulse buying, panic shopping, and purchasing products out of sheer boredom will become a thing. Home deliveries or Amazon’s famous one-day delivery, free shipping, in-store pickup, buy now- pay later, and so on, will become the new shopping norms for an average customer in urban and suburban communities. For businesses without an effective B2C eCommerce platform, this lack of ‘going with the flow’ will now become an evident crisis.

Changing market trends place retailers in distress:

Retailers are in trouble, and it’s only because of the pandemic. Over the last two decades, retailers have spent time, money, and resources building their physical footprint, whose performance was already lagging much before the COVID-19 crisis, thanks to eCommerce giants like Amazon, Walmart, Rakuten, and Alibaba. The pandemic, however, decreased the footfall altogether, with retailers hitting rock-bottom much earlier than anticipated.

The distressing sound you hear is the halting wheels of every retail house, except groceries and medicines. Many retailers do not have an effective digital commerce channel in place, let alone implement omnichannel capabilities like BOPIS solutions.

And to add fuel to the fire, the virus disrupted supply chains and logistics, which unfortunately led several retailers to declare bankruptcy or close their doors for an indefinite time. All of these havocs together drag the economy down and towards recession or stagnation.

Agile B2C eCommerce trends and behaviors:

For the 21st century, shopping is not just a necessity; it’s entertainment. Customers today don’t just buy products because they have to, but because they like being the center of attention in a retail store. They like the fun part of shopping more than a product’s utility. And this is what retailers need to understand. Several critical surveys define customer satisfaction comparable with the shopping experience offered by a merchant. And this goes true for both online and offline stores.

We no longer live in a product-as-a-service economy. We’ve moved to an experience-as-a-service market, which ultimately puts pressure on retailers to invest more in novel digital innovations and creative B2C eCommerce platforms like social buying and alternative shopping streams. Merchants need to experiment with the popular B2C eCommerce trends and customer demands and judge how it improves their customer experience. Until you test certain strategies, you’ll find it difficult to fill the void created by your lack of transformative capabilities.

Dealing with vendors for end-to-end operations:

Surely, opening an online store is easy, thanks to B2C eCommerce platforms with their ready-to-use templates. But running a successful B2C eCommerce business is not a cakewalk. With so many things behind the curtain, you need to build a scalable, flexible, and engaging B2C online store that can manage multiple storefronts for different geographies or products and launch innovative marketing campaigns to boost sales. However, this doesn’t satisfy even half of the mountain you’ll have to climb to accomplish these goals.

What about providing customers with different payment options?

What about shipping products to different locations or even countries?

How will you manage different vendors for your end-to-end operations?

Offering omnichannel experiences at all times and costs:

Modern shoppers transition between online and offline stores and are open to retailers who best facilitate this movement. While most customers do shop online, when frolicking around retail outlets, they don’t mind getting in, trying a few pieces out, and even buying them. So, if you really want to reverse all the sales and revenue losses experienced during the pandemic, having either of them won’t do the trick, but together they will.

However, retailers don’t believe in ‘the more the stores, the merrier’; instead ‘the more the stores, the more the hassle.’ And, let’s be honest, they are, in fact, right. An online store can take several forms: social store, web store, mobile store, mobile web store, etc. Managing all these stores along with your physical outlet (omnichannel retailing) and ensuring that you offer a second-to-none customer experience across all B2C eCommerce platforms seems like a monumental task.

Therefore, an omnichannel B2C eCommerce strategy should cater to different consumer shopping habits:

  • Physical in-store shopping
  • Inspect products physically but purchasing online 
  • Placing online orders but shipping them to a local store for pickup 
  • Buy online and enjoy doorstep deliveries

Where to from here: More answers lay ahead

While nobody can deny the growing potential of B2C eCommerce platforms, one has to prioritize offerings that align with business goals. As for us customers, we now appreciate the convenience of online shopping more than ever before. While the pandemic did make it more appealing, it was a long time coming. Retailers should see digital commerce as an opportunistic move- a chance to offer transparent, flexible, and convenient omnichannel solutions that customers desire.

But our story doesn’t end here. We’ve understood the conflict with eCommerce- now it’s time for resolution. Access our next resource in this series eCommerce in 2021 and learn how to solve your common eCommerce bottlenecks and emerge as a victorious brand.

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