Small Retailers Pivot With Online Offerings

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Consumer Trends and A Global Pandemic Create A Tidal Wave of eCommerce Expansion.

With consumer behavior trending increasingly towards online purchasing in recent years, online sales—even for smaller retailers—have been consistently trending upward. By the year 2021, worldwide retail e-commerce sales will reach $4.9 trillion (Source).

Why are more people shopping online? Convenience and price sensitivity have been the primary drivers—particularly with millennials who go online to compare prices and look for coupons (Source).

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March of 2020, the power and potential of e-commerce became even more apparent—if not downright essential. For brick-and-mortar businesses to avoid closing their doors for good, online store offerings became a lifesaver.

Ongoing lockdowns, rapid changes in legislation, and new regulations for businesses worldwide have contributed to eCommerce quickly becoming an essential component for retail companies desperately trying to stay afloat.

In a single week, nearly one million retail workers were furloughed, and more than 250,000 stores were shuttered. Some analysts predict at least 15,000 retail stores closing permanently this year, marking a 60 percent increase from 2019’s record closures (Source).

With the upward trend in online shopping along with the economic impact of the pandemic, Statista predicts that eCommerce revenue will surpass $638 billion in the U.S. alone by 2022. For small businesses, this number should serve as a beacon of hope—signaling the importance of online shopping to consumers and the necessary motivation for so many retailers who haven’t yet made the move to online sales.

Convenience and Necessity Drive Online Purchase Behavior

Not only do today’s consumers avoid minor inconveniences like driving, parking, and spending time in the store themselves, but purchases are generally just a few simple clicks away. An online shopping ‘trip’ requires minutes, versus an hour or longer running errands the traditional way.

Health concerns continue to contribute to the increase in online purchases.

  • A poll taken in October 2020 reported three out of four consumers fear contracting COVID-19 while shopping (Source).
  • A national consumer report revealed that 68% of those surveyed were still shopping online and having groceries delivered as of September 2020.
  • The same survey showed that 81% of those shoppers would continue to do so even when the pandemic subsides.
  • 49% of people in another survey reported they or a family member are considered high-risk for contracting COVID-19, reinforcing their decision to avoid shopping in-store (Source).

Depending on where the consumer lives, it’s likely that many of their local retailers will remain closed or operating at partial capacity even months after official lockdowns. Therefore, consumers will shop online out of necessity.

Even as the seasonal holidays approach, nearly nine months after the virus descended on the world, data indicates a higher than anticipated reliance on eCommerce.

  • For the first ten days of the holiday shopping season, U.S. consumers spent $21.7 billion online—a 21% increase from last year (Source).
  • Given an already elevated importance placed on online shopping during recent years, this figure is significant, and retailers should take note.


Technology and Social Media

The ubiquity of cell phone ownership continues to drive online sales worldwide. With more than half of all internet traffic shopping from a mobile device, it’s now more important than ever for retailers to adjust their online presence accordingly.

  • Almost 40% of all eCommerce purchases during the 2018 holiday season were made on a smartphone.
  • eCommerce dollars now comprise 10% of all retail revenue.
  • 80% of shoppers used a mobile phone inside a physical store to either look up product reviews, compare prices, or find alternative store locations (Source).

Consumers are reliant on digital devices now more than ever, and it’s predicted that mobile will become consumers’ preferred channel for online shopping in the next five years.

In 2019 mobile commerce, also known as m-commerce, comprised over a quarter of total e-commerce. It’s forecasted that at the end of 2020, that number will reach $284 billion, or 45% of the total U.S. e-commerce market (Source).

The widespread use of social media has also played a role in shopping behavior. Even pre-pandemic, roughly half of Americans reported making online purchases using their cellphones. In contrast, 15% have purchased something by following a link on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter (Source).

When Retailers Adapt to the New Economy, Sales Follow

A common fear for retailers who have yet to transition to online sales is that there is little to no demand for their business online. However, as long as business owners are willing to give it a fighting chance and get a bit creative, they’re often pleasantly surprised with the response.

Gary’s Wine and Marketplace

Gary Fisch, owner of four wine and marketplace stores in New Jersey and Napa Valley, launched a mobile app a year ago, long before the pandemic took hold. Initially, he was disappointed more customers weren’t using it.

Before the pandemic, Fisch’s marketplace app had 2,000 users. Fast forward to April 2020, and the app had 15,000 users—a 750% increase in under a month. 

  • On average, the app has been seeing 500 new users each day (Source).
  • Every time a user downloads the app, sales spike upward.
  • In today’s economy, every sale counts and can make the difference between a retailer thriving or closing their doors for good.
Pufferbellies – A Toy Store

Similarly, Virginia-based toy store Pufferbellies decided to move to curbside pickup and delivery when the state-mandated retailers shut their doors to the public.

“Every time we’ve had to make a change, I’ve thought to myself, ‘Oh gosh, this is it. It’s all over. We’ll never sell another thing,’ but that hasn’t been what we’ve experienced,” noted Erin Blanton, owner of Pufferbellies.

In fact, their local delivery service experienced increased demand, and customer demand outside of the local market increased. “We’re shipping a lot more orders now,” she said (Source).

eCommerce Increases Customer Loyalty

Loyalty plays a role in online sales for retailers. Local customers want to support their local retailers, and they’re proving it with their dollars—ordering takeout from local restaurants, purchasing produce from local farms, even buying beer to-go from their local breweries.

The loyalty is likely to extend beyond the pandemic, too. According to a Nextdoor survey, 72% of members believe they will frequent local businesses more often after this crisis.


Getting Started Is Simple

Transitioning to online sales offerings is now easier than ever for retailers. With three simple considerations, small businesses can expand to online channels and open up new opportunities for bringing in revenue. These include setting up the online shopping platform, creating a digital marketing plan, and incorporating best SEO practices to attract more customers.

3 Key Considerations


  • Setting Up Shop Online. A website developer is a necessary component in transitioning to online sales for retailers with little to no online sales experience. Developers’ seemingly unrelated technical decisions can impact organic search traffic, placing added importance on finding a trusted web developer when retailers transition to online.
  • Digital Marketing. Social media management, advertising, email marketing, and search engine marketing are powerful tools for small businesses to attract online sales. An effective digital marketing strategy encompasses these strategies, giving retailers the power to reach new customers and increase revenue.
  • SEO. If there’s one key element that can’t be missed regarding eCommerce, it’s search engine optimization or SEO. SEO gives retailers the best possible chance to get their product or service in front of as many potential customers as possible. And not only is it cost-effective, but an effective SEO strategy pays dividends for years to come. When your website, your marketing materials, and content are designed for SEO, your business keeps working day or night and builds itself over time.

Given the vast array of resources, tools, and information online, it’s never been easier for small businesses to establish an online presence.

Some of the most popular resources include:

  • Woocommerce. An open-source eCommerce plugin for WordPress. Even with minimal experience, any business owner can use the product to set up an online store in minutes.
  • ShipStation. Allows online sellers to quickly and affordable ship their products.
  • Shopify. Their motto is “Anyone, anywhere, can start a business.” One of the most popular eCommerce platforms on the planet, Shopify helps build your online store and offers helpful apps for every step of the eCommerce journey.

Looking Ahead

Businesses must accept that eCommerce is here to stay. And they must take action before it’s too late.

Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, insists retailers take a good hard look at selling online to survive the pandemic economy. “Let’s face it; you’re going to have to sell your way out of this,” he said. “That means now, but it also means later.”

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