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Coronavirus and its effect on e-commerce trends

Read how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted e-commerce trends globally, and possibly permanently.
Coronavirus and its effect on e-commerce trends

Updated on 12/06/2020

It’s safe to say that the whole of the UK has faced challenges posed by coronavirus, including the UK government’s lockdown restrictions which forced a huge chunk of the country to work from home. All areas of our society have been affected; from businesses and schools adapting to remote systems, to shops having to adapt to supply and demand emergencies.

Customer buying behaviour has changed too, and one of the main trends that has emerged has been a steep rise in e-commerce. E-commerce simply means conducting transactions online; the direct opposite to the kind of in-store buying and selling which was halted by the virus.

Both traditional online platforms and physical stores with an online presence have seen a massive increase in online orders, and businesses are recognising a need to use e-commerce to make their products available to customers. In this blog we’ll explore the key trends emerging within e-commerce, and suggest how you, as a business owner, could capitalise on them.

Identifying the main services requested due to coronavirus

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Some of the largest increases in product and service demand has been within:

Subscription services

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With uncertainty over how reliably they might be able to get their hands-on foodstuffs and essentials, many customers turned to subscription services to source their goods. Having a trustworthy supplier shipping produce on a weekly or monthly basis has tempted many customers, largely because it allows them to avoid physically visiting the shops. With the sheer volume of uptake, though, huge waiting lists have sometimes cropped up on delivery services.

Some companies have adapted to this surge in demand very well, pivoting in their services to offer subscription boxes containing all food essentials. Others, however, have responded by refusing to take on additional clients- which may ensure they are able to keep up with demand.

There are difficult decisions to be made by businesses on whether they can actually alter their service to support people and capitalise on opportunities - or, whether they must cut back and reduce their services. Whatever the response of individual businesses, subscription services have seen a steep increase in demand so businesses may want to consider building out their own subscription service now, or planning one for the future, to tap into this trend - which might be here to stay.

Online shopping

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E-commerce and online orders have boomed since the beginning of the pandemic. Sites like Amazon had so many online orders, especially for pantry essential products, that they opened up job vacancies to hire more drivers and warehouse operators.

From a safety perspective; getting into a habit of having someone drop your items directly to your house may be both convenient and safe. The World Health Organization’s advice states that ‘avoiding contact with others will protect from possible COVID-19’ – hence the move towards buying more products online rather than in store.

And, in terms of consumer buying behaviour, this boost in online shopping may not just be a temporary fad. Many consumers will have had to upskill; learning how to shop online and use generic e-commerce platforms - so it’s possible that they’ll continue to do so even if physical sales start to make a return toward the end of the year.

Store pick-ups

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Where some retailers have struggled to meet the demand for deliveries, some consumers have turned to store pick-ups instead.

In a store pick-up, a customer shops online and takes their time putting their order together before placing it. Then, the store in question approves the order if they’re able to fulfil it, and gives the consumer notice to come to the store to pick up their goods. An example of a major company using this kind of service is Halfords. The motoring & cycling giant’s stores have remained open as essential services, and the company has responded to coronavirus by offering in-store pick-ups and cashless payments.

This shopping method has been suggested as a way to help to limit the spread of the virus when compared with regular in-store shopping, as customers are not touching products or coming into contact with each other when browsing through products in-store. Businesses deemed ‘non-essential’ are unable to offer this option, but could the increase in pick-ups be a trend that continues even after the lockdown ends?

How have people reacted and what products are they now shopping for?

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After lockdown begun, people quickly started online shopping to source the goods they needed. Market research company, Nielsen identified some key trends around how consumer online shopping behaviour changed during the pandemic. They found that consumers reacted with:

  • Proactive health-minded buying – people would purchase health-related supplies and stockpile on recurrent prescription medicines they would need.
  • Reactive health management – people would purchase protective gear like surgical face masks and hand sanitizers.
  • Pantry preparation – people stockpiled groceries and house essentials.
  • Quarantine prep – people bought all the essentials to be able to avoid going out to stores whatsoever during quarantine.
  • Restricted living – number of store visits were massively reduced, and people avoided going out if not absolutely necessary.

These trends apply to all sorts of online shopping, but some products were more sought after than others. The main supplies that have seen a rise in demand following the coronavirus outbreak have been:

Long shelf-life products

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At the start of the outbreak, consumers stockpiled food items that didn’t require refrigeration or those with a longer shelf life. This could be a product of people wanting to make sure they were guaranteed access to the supplies needed to feed themselves if shops were to experience a shortage of food. Fortunately, with the initial panic having settled now, there doesn’t seem to be any severe shortages of essential products.

Could people have built up a preference for long shelf-life products while buying them during lockdown? Will they show more of a preference for cartons of milk, or canned products? These questions are good food for thought, and we’re yet to find out whether this trend will continue beyond lockdown.

Medical supplies

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The government’s initial lockdown advice included that people should stay at home as much as possible and avoid contact with others. Naturally, some people may have wanted to get their normal medication in higher quantities than they ordinarily would to prepare for any possible medical emergency. Because of this, the UK has seen a sharp rise in prescriptions.

Digital streaming services

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Another lockdown trend has been the increasing popularity of digital streaming services. Consumers realized that having to spend weeks, or even months, in their homes can become pretty boring, pretty quickly. With people unable to visit friends or family members, streaming services like Netflix saw a rise in subscriptions as people prepared to binge-watch more TV at home to help pass the time.

The Register report that Netflix saw 15.5m new subscribers in the first quarter of 2020, bringing the total amount of subscribers up to 182.86m worldwide. That’s almost double the subscription growth they have seen in recent quarters.

With more time being spent on digital streaming services, and online in general, new opportunities could potentially emerge for companies to invest more into digital advertising- which could help them drive traffic to their e-commerce sites.

Gym equipment

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Another e-commerce trend brought about by coronavirus has been an increase in the purchase of home gym equipment. Consumers have realised a need to stay active, both for their mental and physical wellbeing, and found tools such as yoga mats, resistance bands and dumbbells to be a solution to this. As a result, major retailers like Amazon ran out of stock for these products very quickly.

Google searches home workouts Google searches for ‘home workout’ and ‘home exercises’ have increased drastically since the UK’s lockdown began on 23rd March.

As a business owner you could look to predict the aftermath of these trends as they’re happening; for example, UK gyms and exercise experts raced to produce home exercise content to capture people’s changing needs. This investment of time may well be worth it if this trend in home workouts continues after lockdown and people look to save money by doing work outs from their living rooms- so there’s still opportunity for fitness influencers to gain an audience in this space.

Kitchen equipment

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Bread making machines and baking equipment have also seen a surge in online purchases. This craze could have been brought about by a need for consumers to feel that they have access to all the equipment required to bake fresh food themselves- meaning they would ideally have to make less trips to the shops.

What to do if you have a traditional ‘bricks-and-mortar’ shop

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If you have a physical shop that you’re still unable to operate from effectively because of the UK’s lockdown restrictions or social distancing measures, you might want to consider investing in developing a solid online presence. Many major retailers have seen an increase in online shopping, such as Next- who were forced to halt their online offering temporarily due to a huge surge in demand.

So, whilst online shopping is enticing and popular, retailers who only operate offline are suffering. Clothes retailer Primark, for example, have never had an online presence, and have reported no sales after being forced to close its stores in Europe and the US.

So, what we can learn from this information? If your business has an online shop already, it might be worth monitoring it, updating it and checking that it’s coping well if you have an increased amount of orders. Having an e-commerce site, especially one that runs quickly and is easy to use, could give you an edge over your competitors and help you capitalise on any opportunities in the market created by businesses who are choosing not to, or who cannot, make this digital shift.

There’s a good chance that the increase in online orders is here to stay, and the global economy will have to reassess shopping habits and sales models after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. Will we see larger investments within e-commerce in case a future pandemic occurs? Will people’s habits of online buying during lockdown be here to stay for the long run? There’s no way of knowing for certain, but we hope that all businesses will find a way to adapt and be successful in the face of the challenges brought about by coronavirus.

How could Esme help?

These are difficult times for many businesses, so it’s important now more than ever, to take good care of yourself and your team. If you’re concerned about your business being impacted financially due to coronavirus, visit our advice page for information about how we may be able to support you.