How the Pandemic Has Changed Online Businesses, According to an E-Commerce Expert

Women buying online with credit card.
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During the scariest days of the virus, laptops became lifelines and commerce became e-commerce. A handful of giants like Amazon and 1800Flowers were perfectly positioned to thrive. But for most online sellers, it was an evolve-or-die moment that forced swift changes in shipping, marketing, logistics, customer service and supply chain management. Some of those changes were improvised and temporary. Others have become baked into the DNA of the e-commerce industry. To understand the difference and to gain insight into what lies ahead, GOBankingRates asked an expert.

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Travis Turner is the director of business development for e-commerce and supply chain at Hire Dynamics, a staffing firm that specializes in the supply chain/logistics/e-commerce sector across the Southeast. 

He’s noticed a common theme among the online businesses that did well — they made it easy to send stuff back.  

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Difficulty in making exchanges and returns is “perhaps the biggest pain point for customers,” Turner said. “Typically, the easier it is for them, the better the experience.” 

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The winners were and will be those that anticipated returns. They took little but effective steps like including a USPS return shipping label with the original purchase. 

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Turner highlighted innovative and successful COVID-response return policies like:   

  • Amazon partnering with Kohl’s to accept customer returns  
  • Target and other big-box retailers waiving the returns process on certain items altogether and simply sending a new one or issuing a refund
  • A Staples/Optoro partnership that allowed mobile purchases made through phone QR codes to be returned at Staples stores

Those examples deal with big, corporate chains, but their success disproves a widespread myth about the virus delivering the coup de grâce to physical stores of all sizes. 

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The Death-of-Brick-and-Mortar Narrative Is Only Partly True

The virus clearly accelerated the longstanding trend toward e-commerce, but the idea that the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin of brick-and-mortar retail is mythology. Industry publications like Retail TouchPoints are part of a growing chorus of experts who predict a future dominated by physical/web retail hybrids.

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When supply chains crashed, physical retailers had at least some inventory stockpiles on hand. Others used their stores as staging points for deliveries when shoppers stayed home. As the economy began to open, physical stores that offered customers the option to buy online and pick up in-store instead of waiting for delivery were suddenly a hot commodity.   

“Enhanced delivery options have enhanced the customer experience,” Turner said.

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The Future Belongs to Those Who Can Manage Inventory

The virus created choke points in global supply chains early in the crisis, which led to shortages and delays across the world and the web — those aren’t good ingredients for customer satisfaction.

“It’s frustrating to find what you want is on backorder,” Turner said. 

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Stockpiling excess inventory, however, can be just as dangerous as running out. Getting it just right “requires accurate forecasting of customer demand,” Turner said. 

The future of e-commerce, then, will be won by businesses that have the tech and the talent to assess demand and manage inventory accordingly.

Transparent Shipping Is as Important as Free Shipping

Everyone knows the value of fast, free shipping. It’s what made Amazon Amazon. But the urgency of the pandemic put a new premium on communication and transparency while the packages are en route. 

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“Treat this experience like an Uber ride,” Turner said. “Notify the customer about each step in the delivery process. Companies can partner with other local last-mile delivery options to obtain customer-desired delivery times.”

Packaging Became Marketing

Fair or not, marketing budgets get cut first when money is tight. The clever and nimble companies — those likely to endure — compensated by making their newly busy shipping departments pull double-duty on marketing detail.   

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“Packaging can be used to tell a story and relate to and connect with your target customer,” Turner said. “Green packaging solutions, for instance, are becoming more popular and can make the CX experience better on the back end, creating a brand association with environmentally friendly practices.”

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Last updated: March 11, 2021

About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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