The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way consumers and businesses shop, and the trend towards online buying and browsing is expected to continue growing even after the pandemic slows. In fact, Google Trends recently showed a huge spike in Canadian search interest for “buy online.” In late March, global search volume for “curbside pick-up” grew 70% in just one week. Plus, research shows 89% of Canadians choose retailers based on the quality of their online experience with them. 

That means the companies that will survive and thrive in our post-COVID world are those that adopt a strong online presence, early and fast. Yet while there are 143,000 small- and medium-sized retail businesses in Canada, only 17% are selling online today. It’s time to catch up, or get left behind. 

And while it’s probably easier than you think to get your business up and running digitally, the tools and best practices to do that have changed significantly from the days when you built a website and then hoped buyers would find you. That’s why EDC has developed this eight-part series on everything you need to know to build your winning e-commerce game plan. We’ve teamed up with industry giants like Shopify, Google, major shippers and others to show you how to develop, market, prepare, ship and drive traffic in the new e-commerce world.

This first article in the series explains why the role of e-commerce is so important to Canada’s small and medium-sized businesses right now, and how that role is changing as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves. 

Crunching the numbers: The changing retail environment

While COVID-19 has been a vast upheaval socially, economically and medically, the prospects aren’t all doom and gloom. In fact, companies that embrace e-commerce are very likely to do well in the post-pandemic world. The challenges may be great, but they bring with them great opportunities.

A happy couple shops online

The recent changes in consumer buying behaviour are unprecedented in their speed and scope. Existing trends have speeded up and new ones are appearing, sometimes in unexpected ways.

  • Even before the pandemic, Canadian consumers in every age group were doing more online shopping. According to a Statistics Canada report, nearly 84% of Canadian internet users bought goods or services online in 2018, spending $57.4 billion as compared to the 2012 figure of $18.9 billion. 
  • In more detail, again from Statistics Canada, 88% of the 15–24 age group shopped online, while 94% of the 25–44 group did so. Of the 45–64 cohort, 83% were online shoppers, as were 64% of people 65 and over.
  • Large numbers of consumers have coped with the lockdown of retail stores by obtaining goods online. A Statista report shows a sharp year-on-year growth in several sectors during March-May 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. Online sales of household appliances, electronics, building materials and DIY, for example, rose by 625%.
  • In the food services sector, to take a further instance, a consumer shift toward ordering prepared meals for takeaway or delivery was developing even before COVID-19 appeared. As the above Statista analysis shows, this trend accelerated as the lockdowns took hold, with online food and restaurant purchases increasing by 203% year-over-year. This change may persist even after the pandemic abates, especially if the restaurant sector finds that a mix of online sales plus in-restaurant dining is a viable business model.
  • Post-COVID-19, consumers may not return to their former buying habits. If this happens—which seems likely—retailers will have to adapt in a hurry. This is a seismic shift in the Canadian retail landscape, says Jean-Philippe Senneville, director of Business Innovation and Technology at BDC. “Businesses will wake up to a new reality when the crisis subsides. Many new consumer behaviors displayed on a massive scale during the lockdown will become permanent.”
  • E-commerce innovators are being rewarded while many slow adapters and non-adapters are struggling. “In times where trade shows and traditional face-to-face interactions are off the list,” says Senneville “a strong online presence that attracts traffic and converts to leads is more important than ever. Not only does e-commerce have the potential to help your company through the crisis, but it can position it for faster recovery and prepare it for the post COVID-19 economic reality.”

E-commerce and your competitive edge

Using e-commerce can greatly enhance your competitive edge, especially over rivals that are adopting the approach too slowly or not at all. Turning to e-commerce or expanding your existing e-commerce capacity can help you:

  • Enlarge your customer base and save money
    E-commerce can not only open up new demographics at home, but also give you access to global markets. Geographical limitations vanish when you no longer need brick-and-mortar stores to reach potential customers. Less need for physical storefronts and retail staff also reduces your cost of doing business.
  • Become more visible to consumers
    The lockdowns have made it more difficult for consumers to do in-store browsing before making a purchase. As a result, online searches for goods and services have increased sharply. Consumers are becoming accustomed to this approach, which means that being easy to find online will be vital for your future business growth.
  • Reduce marketing costs
    You can replace traditional marketing strategies with more cost-effective online strategies. This is important if you sell abroad, where marketing by conventional means can be expensive, difficult and unpredictable.
  • Improve your ability to adapt
    A good e-commerce platform will help you adapt as sales channels evolve and customers’ shopping behaviour changes. It will be easier to modify your products or services, create new offerings or reach customers in new ways. This will be especially important as the pandemic and its aftermath drive radical changes to the retail marketplace. 
  • Streamline your business operations and customer intelligence
    You can keep all your customer data, order history, inventory and sales records in one integrated database. This will help you understand your customers singly and in the aggregate, so you can better reach them with targeted sales messages. Since consumer behaviour may be sharply different in the post-pandemic word, this will be an important survival strategy. 
  • Provide a better customer experience
    You can provide detailed product information whenever your customers want it, tell them about other products they might like, offer sales incentives and respond to queries or complaints quickly. Plus, you’re open all year, every day, around the clock. These advantages may be decisive in coping with the pandemic and its longer-term effects.

Overcoming corporate barriers to adopting e-commerce

Because of the pandemic, there’s never been a better time to create or expand your e-commerce presence at home and abroad. This applies whether you’re an experienced e-commerce company, a company with a minor e-commerce presence, or a business with just a bare-bones website or Facebook page.

A lone shopping cart

Barriers you may need to overcome include the following:

  • Little or no management interest
    There may be lack of buy-in by company management. To overcome this, management should be encouraged to understand the benefits of e-commerce and how it can help the company survive. The possibly disastrous consequences of acting too slowly or not at all should be stressed, for example via these arguments:

- If your company has never had an e-commerce presence, now is the time to innovate. Seizing the opportunity now may not be a question of choice but of necessity, if the company is to survive. 

- If the company has been slowly developing an e-commerce presence, this should assume a much higher priority and faster deployment. Nimbler companies may already be encroaching on your firm’s sales and customer base. If they secure a significant lead, catching up may be impossible.

  • Lack of company capabilities
    You may feel your company lacks the capability for e-commerce. Solutions include:

- Instead of developing an in-house solution, turn to a ready-built platform such as Shopify to speed the development process. Such platforms can be configured for most SMEs regardless of size, in weeks rather than months. The companies that provide such platforms usually offer resources for deploying them as well.

- Whatever platform you choose, make sure it provides a customer-friendly interface, easy product searches, flexible payment options, simple methods for returns and refunds, and good customer analytics and reporting.

- Be prepared to revamp your internal organization and processes to support the platform and your move to e-commerce.

- Use third-party help to get you to where you need to be. Trying to stretch company resources to do everything yourself will be counterproductive.

How to find out more

  • Watch for upcoming articles in this series: 

- Shopify: Selling online has never been easier--or more necessary
- Localize your shopping cart to boost online sales
- Getting online with Google: What your customers want
- Costing and financing e-commerce platforms
- A fulfilling endeavour: Ensuring your online store is ready to take orders
- Canada Post and eShipper: Getting your e-commerce store ship-shape
- Series wrap up