2020 was a year like no other. Whilst online shopping has been a mainstay of retailers for the past 20 years, the forced closure of non-essential retail outlets meant that every single retailer in the UK had to adapt to changing consumer behaviours overnight.
No longer could they rely upon personalised customer service and face-to-face interactions to garner a sale.
Nor could customers have the opportunity to see products in the flesh, touching and feeling them before making their purchasing decision.
Instead, the majority of all retail transactions were forced to take place solely online.
For some retailers, particularly those who operate solely online, it meant business as usual. But for others, it meant a complete change in their business models. Firms had to react quickly to respond to increased customer demand for online shopping. Some businesses needed to adapt their existing website (ensuring that they had the scope to maintain and enhance sales) whilst others needed to build entirely new platforms, converting them from a physical-only retailer to an online competitor.
As a digital agency, we continually work with clients to help design, develop, and implement innovative online platforms, enabling retailers to make the most of their e-commerce opportunities.
When the pandemic hit the UK, we were developing and project managing a large web project for one of the UK’s largest retailers, ScS. As a sofa and carpet specialist, they are a great example of a retailer who had an efficient online operation but was reliant upon their in-store offering for the majority of their sales performance. The closure of retail outlets forced them to become an online-only business, and as such the scope and performance of their website (both existing and the one in development) became an unexpected priority.
In our view, when creating an e-commerce strategy, businesses must be prepared to be flexible and have the scope to change their approach at a moment’s notice. Website development projects can be lengthy – it’s not uncommon to have 12+ months between the initial project specification and the final launch. During which time, consumer habits and society can change immeasurably.
Let’s take a look at what you should expect as best practice to help you mitigate the effects of an ever-changing situation.
Implementing adaptable technology that allows you to transform your e-commerce strategy quickly.
Online retail solutions are built upon technology.
From the web hosting platform which keeps your website online through to the stock control systems and financial systems that allow you to take payments. But are you using the right technical solution that will allow you to adapt your business seamlessly?
Most brands will have a comprehensive e-commerce strategy that will outline exactly what they want their website to do. It may set targets for how much any investment can help to achieve business growth, and it may outline how your website links in with internal systems and processes. But too many e-commerce strategies focus upon the launch of a new website as its destination.
There’s a miscomprehension that as soon as a newly developed website is launched, work switches to maintenance rather than continual progression. It’s this lack of future-proofing which may have caused issues for retailers over the past year.
In our opinion, a website should always be a starting point of any e-commerce plan, rather than an endpoint.
An e-commerce strategy shouldn’t be about simply having a website that can merely handle online transactions. Instead, it should be about creating an online platform that establishes new ways for businesses to flourish. A key part of this is choosing the right technical infrastructure which will allow you to make continual changes and enhancements to your website, long after its initial launch.
Too many retailers were left floundering this year because they didn’t have the right technical capability in place to adapt to the ever-changing situation. They were reliant upon continuing to drive sales through physical stores and simply didn’t have the right strategy in place that gave them the flexibility to change to the unexpected.
At Sherwen Studios, our e-commerce strategies incorporate an informed roadmap for clients, helping them to identify what they should expect from their digital commerce strategy for years to come. We take the time to think about what clients need ‘right now’ and what they could need in the future, and we scope the right technical solutions which allow them to implement new changes quickly and easily.
Audience behaviours should be continually monitored – before, during, and after a website project.
We regularly educate and advise our clients on the importance of audience analytics and monitoring how their shoppers are behaving.
Too many firms think that they understand how a consumer is using their website, but that thought process is often driven by how the retailer believes a customer should be using it. We advocate for heavy UX testing throughout any website development project which allows us to gain insights into how consumers are behaving from the moment they log onto a site, to the moment they decide to log off.
There is often a clear disconnect between what a retailer thinks a customer is doing, and what they are doing. And this can cause issues for retailers because it means that their website isn’t working as effectively as it could be.
In our view, retailers must continually revert to their audience analytics to ensure that their website remains relevant.
It’s also important to consider how shoppers are acting. The psychology behind consumer behaviour can change dramatically, and this has never been more prevalent than in 2020.
As shoppers were forced to switch to online-only shopping habits, it would have been easy for retailers to focus upon increased web traffic and sales as a benchmark for success. But there are many nuances in consumer behaviours. Those brands who took the time to understand that didn’t just maintain their sales, they increased them.
When we consider audience behaviours, it isn’t just about tracking the number of clicks that a shopper takes before completing a purchase. It’s about understanding their motivations and helping them in different ways. We pay close attention to the news agenda because that is a heavy influencer of shopping patterns. For example, when shops could re-open in the summer, there was a clear feeling of nervousness from consumers who were still unsure if it were safe to return to physical stores.
If we consider the work that we undertook with ScS as an example, we thought about how we could support any nervous shoppers. A key aspect was to introduce pre-bookable appointment sessions. We carefully communicated what to expect from in-store visits. And as a result, consumers felt much more comfortable because they knew what safety measures were in place, and what plans were in place for social distancing guidelines.
It’s also important to note that when working on large projects over a significant time frame, shopping habits can change dramatically. With the ScS project, the initial concepts were first scoped in 2019 –a time when the company was operating in an entirely different retail landscape. If we hadn’t paid close attention to shoppers' needs and wants and been able to change our approach, the website would have been immediately dated upon its launch in 2020.
Retailers who are brave enough to change their approach, even when they have made significant headway into a project are far more likely to succeed than those who continue their way down the same path, even if data is telling them something different.
The ScS website is a great example of understanding how audience behaviours had changed from the start of the project. It meant that we could adapt and use new technologies which provided the flexibility to seamlessly implement (and continue to implement) new shopping opportunities quickly and easily. From pre-bookable appointments through to video sales tactics, the brand has been able to be far more flexible and reactive to the changing retail environment.
Can you future-proof your business so that you can react accordingly to changing circumstances?
There’s a strong expectation that we may not return to ‘pre-pandemic’ normality.
For many people, their shopping habits have changed forever. The increase in the availability of online shopping has meant that many high street brands will now operate solely online and with this shift, comes a change in the way that you might mitigate any logistical challenges.
For some businesses, it could be as simple as investing in new technologies that allow their employees to collaborate effectively whilst working remotely. For many retail businesses, it could be about setting up your retail website so that online orders and individual store stock checks are synchronised. Many retailers are now working hard to change their systems so that customers can click and collect an item from their local store within an hour of ordering, rather than relying on a centralised stock ordering system.
Therefore, it’s important to look at the bigger picture and start to anticipate how shopping trends may change.
By facilitating a more flexible online platform, you can start to be proactive about changing your business processes quickly and in response to changing circumstances.
Our approach puts clear, consistent communication at the heart of each project
At Sherwen Studios, we’ve always worked very closely with our clients. It’s this closeness that enables us to fully understand what our clients do; what sectors they operate in, what systems and processes they use (internal and external), and what they need their digital strategies to achieve.
Our experiences over the past year have demonstrated the important role that clear, consistent communication has within any digital strategy. It’s vital to be able to communicate effectively between us and the client (understanding what they want us to do) and us as a team (ensuring that each team member fully understands the project brief).
We believe that communication and effective project management should overcome many of the logistical challenges that occur when working in a changing environment. We may not be in control over where we are physically working and how often we can physically see our clients to build relationships. But we are in control over how we react to these challenges. It’s why we’ve focused heavily on communication over the past few months. It’s been vital to ensure that everyone knows what they are working on and that clients know what to expect from projects and when to expect delivery. By setting out clearly communicated project plans, we’ve been able to ensure that projects have been delivered on time and have met all agreed deliverables.
For more information about how Sherwen Studios implement flexible and adaptable digital strategies for clients, please contact Matt directly on 01244 340 023 or email firstname.lastname@example.org