How retailers are making up for lost sales by boosting online offerings

The COVID-19 crisis has changed many aspects of our work and personal lives. While many businesses have been frantically trying to implement remote working strategies that will ensure their employees can continue to do their jobs, those working on the UK’s high streets have fallen into two main camps: Those considered essential businesses, and thus remaining open, and those that have been forced – or have decided on their own terms for the safety of their employees – to temporarily close the doors.

What is a non-essential high street retailer supposed to do to overcome this momentous obstacle? Well, it seems many have realised the online opportunities that have arisen thanks to remote workers and isolating consumers still needing to purchase tech and IT goods.

We saw the effects of this within the first few weeks of the UK being asked to work from home wherever possible. British consumers almost doubled the number of IT monitors bought during the week ending 14th March compared to the week before, reports GfK.

In contrast to the same period last year, the increase amounts to a staggering growth of 133.9% in volume, and 132.3% in value.

The report shows that this spending is not limited to monitors, either. Purchases of keyboards jumped during that same week, giving a year-on-year growth of 68.8% in value, and so too did pointing devices (e.g mouse, track ball, stylus pen), although less dramatically – but still giving value growth of 29.7% compared to the same period of time a year earlier.

Communication devices also saw a jump of 29.4% in value year-on-year for that same week – driven by sales of routers, repeaters, port replicators and docking stations.

“Following the Government instruction to stay at home and avoid crowded places, IT manufacturers and retailers are witnessing a sales uplift as home-bound workers rush to invest in IT equipment to help them work comfortably from home. IT is not the only area we’re tracking that shows increased sales, though – with sales of freezers, fridges, hair clippers, and food deep fryers all showing significant year on year growth during that week,” comments Kelly Whitwick, UK retail lead for market insights at GfK.

With Amazon being inundated with online orders, the online retail giant has decided to prioritise essential orders – things like food, health and personal care products. This gives tech retailers yet another edge for boosting their online offerings, as they can potentially offer quicker delivery options on non-essential items than the big guns.

Ecommerce intelligence company Fanplayr unveiled the adjustment consumers are making in light of significant lifestyle changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By tracking aggregate behaviour across clients’ sites, Fanplayr has seen a clear change in the purchasing landscape from retail to online. This channel change is mostly predicated on health and safety measures put in place by governments responding to COVID-19 such as shelter-in- place and school closures.

According to analyses of sites with over 20 million visitors per month, key indicators of e-commerce success have risen consistently and simultaneously during the period of time a market has been dealing with COVID-19: visitor traffic, conversion rates and AOV (average order value) have all increased.

“This information is critical for retailers scrambling to make up lost profits. It demonstrates that lost revenue from shelter-in-place and school closures can be recovered from increased online sales, and the overall impact can be further mitigated through promotions that increase at-home engagement as well as strategies to increase closure rates of shoppers,” says Fanplayr.

As transactions move increasingly online, the revenue attributable to behavioural personalisation has shown a corresponding increase. Simon Yencken, founder and CEO of Fanplayr points out that as buying habits change from in- store to predominantly online, companies generally lose the ability to speak directly to their customers particularly with the loss of third-party tracking.

He says that Fanplayr’s behavioural personalisation is able to respond to anonymous online visitors by understanding their intent, based on their online behaviour, and then responding appropriately. This removes the need for third- party tracking to target and increase conversion rates.

No longer a sin

UK courier expert ParcelHero says that it has seen ‘green shoots’ that online retailers are returning to business. It believes there has been a change in the public mood as retailers have got to grips with the new normal for home deliveries.

David Jinks MILT, head of consumer research at ParcelHero, claims many mothballed online stores are now returning to business as home deliveries of non-essential items become acceptable again.

“Many retailers of all sizes closed the door on their online operations as well as their physical stores when lockdown was imposed on the evening of the 23rd March. The feeling was that home delivery services should be freed up for essential deliveries of items such as masks, hand gels and groceries. There was also concern that retailers and distribution centres would be unable to operate safely. However, now the Government has spelled out that it wants all online trade to continue where possible, not just for essential products,” comments Jinks.

“On 8th April, the Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, urged ecommerce retailers to continue trading, saying: “The Government has always been clear that online retail can continue to operate and is encouraged, and that postal and delivery services will continue to operate.” In addition to the pent-up demand for products to shake-off lockdown lethargy, this has resulted in a number of sites re-opening and online stores returning to action. The feeling that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to order non-essential products has eased.

“And it’s not just big names returning. Small online stores, from craft and hobby products to clothing and electronics, are coming back into operation where it’s safe to do so. Just recently, ParcelHero has seen a number of our online SME retail regulars returning, as companies come to grips with opening their distribution operations again, while maintaining safe social distancing for staff,” he says.

“As the emphasis on essential deliveries dies away, we’ve seen shipments of DIY tools, musical instruments, games and craft products rise rapidly in the last few days. Clearly, shoppers now feel less guilty about ordering products to help them fill furlough time without hindering the delivery of essential goods.”

Jinks concludes: “Consumers have decided it’s no longer a sin to start buying a few non-essentials, and that home delivery networks can cope with the extra traffic. We believe they are right. Retailers returning online may no longer be able to access their exact usual delivery service but there is still a wide choice to compare at ParcelHero.”

Matthew Robertson, Co-CEO of NetDespatch, agrees that online retail has been bouncing back over the past couple of months.

“Online retail sales rose dramatically in March, with a 74% growth in average transaction volumes compared with the same period last year, according to data from ACI Worldwide. The analysis, of hundreds of millions of transactions from global online retailers, demonstrates the extent to which people’s shopping habits have changed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“As you can imagine, this rise in ecommerce sales has been particularly profound in products related to staying indoors, such as home products and furnishings, DIY, electronics and garden essentials.”

However, Robertson warns that any organisations wishing to take advantage of growing ecommerce opportunities also need to be mindful of the security landscape that this pandemic presents.

“In particular, the increase in online sales has led to an increase in fraud activity. According to Forter, the leader in ecommerce fraud prevention, fraudsters are exploiting confusion and uncertainty caused by government and corporate policies,” he explains.

“As people adjust to working from home, Forter sees a marked increase in social engineering fraud, associated with fake emails purporting to be from HR and corporate addresses. Here, fraudsters invite people to click for more information, instead taking victims to malicious sites.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is also putting pressure on deliveries and local logistics. I have heard some talk in the industry about the possibility of autonomous vehicles (AVs) helping to alleviate the strain on existing delivery services while reducing the risk of exposure for citizens. However, there are significant regulatory hurdles to overcome before AVs can be deployed at scale.”

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