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LONGITUDES

Customer Expectations and E-Commerce in the Age of COVID-19

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A retailer’s main goal is to perfect the overall customer journey — and the online experience has been front and center for the past decade.

From social media to same-day shipping, successful retail brands chose to pivot and innovate to keep up with the competition. Then the pandemic hit — forcing all brands to vastly adjust operations to not only keep up with demand but also comply with changing regulations.

COVID-19 has likely changed e-commerce forever, but meeting customer expectations remains the priority. And for now, flexibility, communication and sustainability top the wish list.

Here’s why — and how — retailers can find success in the COVID-19 era of e-commerce.

“COVID-19 has likely changed e-commerce forever, but meeting customer expectations remains the priority. And for now, flexibility, communication and sustainability top the wish list.”

Embrace flexibility

Prior to the pandemic, retailers were already implementing more flexible omnichannel models to keep up with consumer needs and expectations.

During the pandemic, storefront closures and restrictions on when and how many consumers could shop meant everyone from the retailer to the shipping carrier to the end consumer had to shift their expectations and approaches.

This resulted in a spike in buy-online (or by phone), pick-up-in-store (or curbside) models for many businesses — and consumers are now unlikely to relinquish those conveniences.

To continue meeting heightened expectations, we’ll see e-commerce retailers consolidate their tech stack and streamline everything from marketplace channels and carrier management to inventory organization and automated, post-purchase customer communications.

Additionally, COVID-19 significantly impacted returns. As storefronts closed or reduced their hours, and a greater demand on the supply chain caused delays, many customers needed additional time to complete returns.

What’s more, customers were hesitant to make returns in stores even when they began to reopen. As a result, retailers offered extended returns windows — yet another pandemic perk consumers likely won’t want to give up.

In a national consumer pulse study ShipStation conducted during the height of the outbreak, 58 percent of respondents said they expect brands to maintain extended returns windows launched in response to COVID-19 delivery delays.

E-commerce brands can easily reduce friction here by providing customers with information on returns in their initial order confirmation. This can include information on reusable packaging, customer-initiated returns portals and other conveniences.

“Fifty-eight percent of people say they expect brands to maintain extended returns windows launched in response to COVID-19 delivery delays.”

Embrace transparency

In a national consumer study ShipStation conducted last fall, nearly 90 percent of respondents said they consider shipping speed when making online purchase decisions. However, this level of convenience remains a luxury.

Our recent pulse study found that due to the pandemic, 68 percent of respondents lowered their expectations of delivery speeds, and 58 percent say they will place less emphasis on delivery speed in the future.

That said, even though consumers have become more understanding when it comes to shipping speed (even if temporary), there is one nonnegotiable in our post-pandemic world: communication.

In the pandemic pulse study, a whopping 94 percent of consumers surveyed say they now expect retailers to have information readily available on their website about shipping delays. Additionally, in the 2019 study, nine in 10 consumers said a negative delivery experience directly impacts their perception of the retailer.

Upfront transparency provided to customers when they visit a digital storefront can mitigate long-term, negative brand perception. This information can include the most recent changes in policies, partnerships, inventory availability and shipping updates.

Most importantly, businesses should ensure this information is clear and easily accessible, both prior to checkout and after the purchase. While much of this might sound obvious, the reality is that many retail brands don’t adhere to these customer experience basics.

“Even though consumers have become more understanding when it comes to shipping speed (even if temporary), there is one nonnegotiable in our post-pandemic world: communication.”

Embrace sustainability

Sustainability in retail has been a major conversation over the past few years when we look at how we collectively reduce our carbon footprint.

Consumers increasingly take note of sustainability when making purchases — even more so now during lockdowns. Making the shift toward sustainable operations can seem like a daunting task for many e-commerce retailers, but third-party logistics providers can ease the burden.

Third-party fulfillment allows companies to scale operations to meet demand while storing inventory in locations that reduce transit time — thereby reducing fossil fuel emissions.

There are also more options for sustainable packaging than most realize, which include variations of recyclable, reusable and compostable packaging.

Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and we’ve seen great innovation across industries in light of the current pandemic. The retail industry is no exception, and I truly believe e-commerce businesses will persevere, adapt and come out on the other side of the pandemic stronger than ever before.

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