How E-Commerce Sites Can Remain Competitive in a Rapidly Accelerating Digital Age

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We’ve all seen it across the news: major retailers are going under, while others are trying to remain afloat. We’ve seen iconic brands and retailers including Brooks Brothers, Nieman Marcus, SteinMart, Lucky Brand, and Ascena Retail Group (Ann Taylor Loft, Lane Bryant) declare bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Walmart, Amazon, Etsy — and the company I run — – have been finding new and innovative ways to grow and thrive as we bridge the gap between online and offline.

For e-commerce sites, digital innovation has always been the name of the game, but in many ways we’ve played it safe. The global pandemic forced everything online, and the move to online, though inevitable, arrived much faster than anyone expected. 

But that isn’t an excuse to get comfortable. Rather, it’s an opportunity to think about how we’ll keep building trust with customers and innovate in ways that makes it even easier and more enjoyable to shop online.

The answer is simple: Innovate smarter. This is the time to think about retail completely differently. It’s no longer just about bricks and mortar versus online but rather about true customer engagement and being bold about what the future can be.

Create the in-store customer experience online

Customer experience isn’t anything new, but new ideas can be applied here, especially in the digital space. The question now revolves around how to create the same welcoming environment you’d create in a physical store online. It can be as simple as choosing colors for your website to elicit certain moods or using certain tech features like a chatbot to welcome customers as they “enter” your store. And it’s about making sure that customers can find your store — and this is where our affiliates become a key part of our strategy.

At Jane, we count on our affiliate program to attract new customers. When the pandemic hit, many of these programs were cut — Amazon reported commission rate cuts as large as 5%; however, while Amazon and others were cutting these programs, we invested more in our affiliates. As a result, we drove over 273% new users to our site and increased our revenue by 165.8%. This may not be the right strategy for everyone, so find what works for you — it never fails to invest in your customers and those who help build your business. When you start thinking of affiliates and influencers as a part of your internal team, and treating them that way, you become one cohesive unit focused on creating the best customer experience. 

Place your company first on the block, digitally

Just as certain factors can attract people inside your store, there are things that can bring people to your website. And at the end of the day, so much is about convenience. For example, if you’re wandering around a main street, you’re most likely to visit the shops on that street, instead of the less popular streets around it.

Similarly, when you look for places to shop online, you’re more likely to visit the websites on the first page of Google instead of clicking back a few pages to check out those websites. What this boils down to is SEO strategy, and if you don’t have a strong SEO strategy, you’re not going to be listed on that front page and therefore won’t receive as much digital foot traffic to drive customers to your store. 

Adapt and adjust

Retailers and brands that adapted the fastest at the beginning of the pandemic were more likely to succeed, and those that continue to adapt remain ahead of the competition. Walmart is a great example of this — though they closed their e-commerce experiment earlier this year, they’ve shifted to focus on new partnerships. In late July, they teamed up with Verizon to allow Yahoo Mail users to buy groceries straight through their inbox, and more recently, they announced a partnership with Instacart for grocery delivery.

Whether it’s shifting to make face masks available or shifting your available products to most accurately reflect the areas with the greatest consumer demand (cleaning products for example), being nimble will put you at an advantage relative to others. 

Create an emergency plan for your supply chain 

Even with stores who had products in stock, challenges along the supply chain may have caused a delay or backup in products, which could lead to frustrated customers. While issues in the supply chain may not always be within your reach, this pandemic has been a reminder to all how delicate the supply chain is.

If you didn’t have an emergency plan in place for supply chain failures — in case of a storm, for example — now is the time to create that plan, and communicate each step clearly with your suppliers. By having a plan in place, you’ll be dealing proactively, instead of reactively, to any issues. During these times, customers are most reliant on businesses to provide them with the products they need and if you can deliver on that, you can build a loyal customer base. 

Expand your store’s presence

If there’s one positive result of this pandemic for retailers, it’s that more and more people are shopping online, which means we can reach a wider audience. However, simply placing products on your site doesn’t necessarily work.  Marketplaces make this possible.

At Jane, we’ve begun beta-testing new features on Facebook and Instagram so consumers can shop on the social media platforms they’re already on throughout the day. The more platforms you have your products on, the wider audience you’re able to reach and hopefully sell to. Our philosophy is simple: let our sellers do what they do best — find and curate great products — and we’ll do what we do well: go and help them find customers that share their excitement and passion for great products.

For e-commerce platforms that are feeling the pressure from traditional retailers doing their best to catch up to the digital world, this is an opportunity. It’s a chance to realize that customers deserve selection, speed, quality, and a meaningful shopping experience. Success means really tackling this challenge on head on — and investing into what it means to really be customer-centric in a way that builds trust, loyalty, and profitability.

Taleeb Noormohamed is CEO of Jane.