Holiday Shopping: Online Retailer’s Survival Guide 101

With just weeks away from the holiday season, scores of online retailers have been stocking their virtual shelves and revving up their digital platforms to make the 2021 online holiday shopping experience no less than fabulous, not to mention, smooth, seamless, and headache-free.

According to a recent study by Adobe Analytics, this year’s holiday e-commerce sales are expected to reach an unprecedented high of $910 Billion in the U.S. alone. While this is great news for online retailers, since the holiday season has always been their annual cash-in, many are still struggling to recoup lost revenues from the 2020 pandemic. Despite the online buying frenzy due to lockdowns and when countless brick-and-mortar stores closed their doors for good, last year, online retailers just couldn’t keep up with the spike in consumer demand.

What did online retailers learn last year to guarantee a very Merry Christmas this year? One thing, and one thing only – digital transformation. Plain and simple, to not only maintain business continuity but to drive their business forward, they could not have made it without robust front- and back-end e-commerce systems.

Let’s look at how online retailers bridged the great digital divide by implementing smart business management systems, and what the challenges of 2020 taught them. Here are some of the key takeaways, the lessons learned, and how 2021 (and beyond) can and will be different.

Data, you say?

While there are always logistical hurdles for online retailers before the holidays, the first and foremost is data. In abundance, at every turn, with every purchase, every shipment, and every delivery, there’s always a dramatic increase in the amount of data to be handled. Retailers learned that to gain real value from these heaps of customer information, it had to be stored securely in a central database, namely that of a strong and viable business management system. This data also had to be accessible and shareable – and it had to be analyzed and used for the greater good.

And what makes good data – when it’s used, when it doesn’t lie in disparate, siloed systems, where it can’t be effectively matched or used on time, in real-time. From customer information to chatbot conversations, through internal transaction management, data management is the cornerstone of selling products and services online. 2020 taught online shop owners if they wanted their items “under the Christmas tree” on time, then data management had to be part of the process.

To achieve this, many retailers opted for omnichannel commerce, a multichannel approach to sales that focuses on providing a seamless customer experience, whether the client is shopping online from a mobile device or a laptop. Retailers quickly valued the importance of data visibility throughout the entire supply chain, by closely tracking ‘behind the scenes’ data that was linked to merchandise returns, and inventory availability.

Building a centralized platform for customer data is the most important step online retailers can take to make their data accessible and usable. This now actionable data can be analyzed to forecast trends, make predictions, and adapt strategies based on consumer response. A business management system that supports actionable analytics optimizes the customer experience. Not only does this mean happier customers, but it also means using the data to drive smarter and better-targeted campaigns to drive their business forward.

To infinity and beyond!

If the pandemic taught retailers about the critical need to process their customer data, although that’s great, the real survivors didn’t stop there. The smart ones knew they had to power their e-commerce operations all the way from the back-end to the point-of-sale, and not miss a beat along the way.

For those who turned their attention to business management platforms to market and sell their wares, by either onboarding a new system or replacing their legacy standalone tools, they learned the value of having an end-to-end system in place. Not only could their new management tools track customer data and interactions, but it also handled finance and budgeting, customer service, marketing and sales, automated and integrated core processes, inventory and warehousing, and even synchronized fulfillment, including distribution and delivery, right to the customer’s door.

Last year, retailers were quick to realize their ability to increase their operational capacity by identifying demand, and processing and fulfilling more orders with the help of a viable e-commerce platform. What’s more, they could predictively anticipate volume, prioritize orders to prevent delays and oversights, keep customers satisfied, and promote repeat visits. But boosting the customer experience goes far beyond having what shoppers want, having projects stacked up neatly on warehouse shelves, or expediting orders on time.

The lesson learned?

As e-commerce sales continue to skyrocket, the online retail marketplace will soon transform into a jam-packed horde of competitors fighting for first place. If an online retailer wants to be a viable contender, they should embrace digital processes with both hands and not let go – ever. Because most online retailers have just one shot at reaching the right customer, they must understand and react fast to changes in shopper behavior. They must promote be able to automatically promote alternative products or sell via a different online channel, processes that can be seamlessly integrated into a business management system. In the months leading up to the holidays, right up until Santa arrives with presents in tow, it’s time to lock in customers from the get-go, and create a strong and ‘memorable’ customer experience.

Don’t wait – Integrate!

Experienced online shoppers are more calculating than ever. They’re smart and they’re getting smarter with their time and their wallets. They learned their craft during the pandemic, and have since honed their skills, and developed an almost faultless approach to getting exactly what they want, when they want it – online. Online retailers and brands had to step up, and fast, to leverage digital technologies to deliver the best possible customer experience. In 2020, when retailers’ key objective was to handle the surge in supply and demand and simply stay afloat, they worked equally hard to gain and maintain customer confidence and loyalty.

To ensure a lucrative holiday season, some ‘smarter’ retailers expanded their online sales channels, ramped up fulfillment processes, onboarded drop shipping methods, and aggregated their customer data, making it available to all stakeholders across their supply chain. They did all this, and a whole lot more, with robust e-commerce functionality integrated into a business management system.

E-commerce integration enables online retailers to connect the front-end shopping cart to a back-end business management system that efficiently handles both inventory and accounting processes. This integration facilities bi-directional data flow between inventory/stock levels, and pricing.

No more double entries, and fewer manual errors when typing in orders and plucking products off the warehouse shelf. Strong back-end systems help track and manage the influx of holiday orders, in addition to handling credit card authorization, integrated payment solutions, order and billing information, and status, inventory availability, product pricing, more streamlined customer support, and service for shoppers, and delivery tracking. Plus, many modern systems include built-in POS functionality.

The lesson learned? With a standalone e-commerce system, although an undoubtedly important and useful tool, online retailers learned that they were only halfway there. Even though implementing a business management system and integrating it with an e-commerce site is no easy feat, in the short- and long-term, retailers increased their ROI and their bottom line. Know this – budgeting, choosing, planning, and implementing a business management system can take months. It’s potentially an arduous, time-consuming, and costly process, depending on how complex the system is, and matching it to a retailer’s unique needs. If a retailer’s looking to onboard a business management system, integrate it with their online shop and reap its many benefits before the ‘mistletoe’ goes up, they must start the process early to be ready for next year’s holiday season. And when should they start? Right now.

Spreading that holiday cheer

Every holiday season for every retailer everywhere, be it online or in-store, exudes the “Three C’s” – chaos, confusion, and costs. If the online retail industry has learned anything at all from surviving 2020, it’s that spending valuable time and resources on the processes you can automate and optimize, is the key to a profitable business. When the year-end holidays come calling, shortly after Halloween in October, if you’re an online retailer, you need to be primed and ready to spread that holiday cheer. You need to harness that customer data, enhance that customer experience, ramp up or replace your legacy e-commerce software, and this time, ‘you do the shopping’ – for a tried n’ true business management system with integrated e-commerce functionality. It will do the work for you.

But most of all, have a happy holiday and a prosperous New Year.

The Author
Todd McElroy
Head of Sales, Priority U.S.

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