Ecommerce experts on the impact of #COVID-19

We asked some of the UK’s leading e-commerce experts to answer a few questions about the impact COVID-19 has had on their digital marketing strategy, as well as how they look to adapt their offering during and after the pandemic.

Special thanks to Ellie Clark – Marketing Manager at Joshua James JewelleryAlex Humphries – Head of Digital at Luxury Flooring and Furnishings, Freddie Chatt Ecommerce Consultant at and Pierre Larose – Founder of Hippie Pants

Has your business been affected by the coronavirus pandemic?

Ellie Clark – “As a jewellery company, we did expect a dip in sales, due to consumers receiving reduced wages and, therefore, wanting to limit their spending on luxury items. However, what we’ve actually seen are record-breaking performances for both April and May, with both months more than doubling turnover from the previous year. 

We expect that people may have been using our jewellery items and homeware to send as gifts to loved ones who they’ve been forced to spend time away from. Also, due to people not being able to go out to celebrate special occasions, they were willing to spend more money on gifting.”

Freddie Chatt“Most of my clients have seen an uptick in sales, with some seeing extraordinary growth. One client in the home-office-accessories space has seen sales increase over 200% in April and May, compared to the previous period. Demand for home improvement and home office equipment seems to be through the roof right now.

Conversely, a new cricket brand which we planned to launch in March this year has been completely delayed. This is due to a combination of supply chain issues and the obvious lack of cricket being played at this time.”

Alex Humphries“We’ve been fortunate that with the population being urged to “stay home”, many have taken it as an opportunity to undertake home improvement projects and we’ve seen our sales increase.

Since the 16th March and up until the end of May, we saw revenue increases of more than 48% compared to the same period last year. In May, sales were also up by more than 65% compared to 12 months ago.

However, we’ve also faced our fair amount of challenges, many of which centred around the supply of stock. Some of our key suppliers and wholesalers closed their factories and offices, so we were unable to get hold of certain brands for a considerable length of time. This led to indefinite lead times for our customers.”

Pierre Larose“Yes, we saw a total collapse of the supply chain to Brazil which is our main market. As a cross-border merchant, this meant we were suddenly unable to deliver our products with some orders stuck in transit and others unable to be processed. We work with a cooperative of local artisans, so our production was also affected by lockdown and social distancing rules.”

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Have you changed your digital marketing strategy in any way?

Ellie Clark“A lot of companies in light of the crisis decided to cut down their spends significantly, and reduce their advertising output, anticipating that consumers would be spending less. 

However, we chose to keep our advertising costs the same and kept a close eye on performance instead, to measure the impact and respond accordingly. This strategy meant that while our competitors were less visible online, we were often the first brand to be seen, making us the primary option for consumers.”

Freddie Chatt – “Initially, when many brands seemed nervous and immediately cut down ad spend, we held our nerve and increased our spend. With less competition, the cost to acquire a customer actually dropped. 

Additionally, we’ve doubled down on some of the more inspirational social channels such as Pinterest, where we’ve seen huge increases in traffic – presumably from people who have more time on their hands and spend time browsing for inspiration at home.”

Alex Humphries – “We were unsure as to how the business would be affected by the pandemic. As, we didn’t know whether sales were going to be negatively impacted, especially with so many people facing financial uncertainty. Also, we didn’t know how difficult it would be to secure stock since many of our products are sourced from mainland Europe.

We had to slightly reduce budgets and closely monitor the performance of paid media channels, such as Google Ads and Shopping. We’ve now been able to return to normal levels, with the exception of certain campaigns, which are based on products which we’re struggling to receive regular deliveries for. 

At no point did we pull the entire spend out of fear. This would have been catastrophic for our company and there’s no way we would have seen the results we have, had we done that.”

Pierre Larose – “We switched ad spend to markets which were either less affected by the pandemic or geographically closer to our warehouse and, therefore, reachable via courier. We’ve also been focusing more on the bottom end of the funnel to take advantage of the increased demand.”

What digital media channels will you be investing or reducing in 2020?

Ellie Clark – “We continually see a positive performance with PPC campaigns, specifically on Google Ads, which contributes to over 40% of our revenue. So, throughout 2020 we will carry on investing in this area and develop our strategy even further to improve our ROI. 

This paired with a competent SEO strategy is key to ensuring customers see your brand and the services you offer. We are spending a significant amount of time creating targeted content to optimise our large catalogue of products and brands.

Since consumers are spending more time than ever online, we’ll also focus on social media advertising. With last-click tracking through Google, we can see that this form of advertising might not always get immediate and direct conversions, but it helps to create brand awareness and will eventually result in conversions through other channels.”

Pierre Larose – “We will be reducing influencer marketing due to difficulties in content generation at this time, but investing in shopping, search and paid social.”

Freddie Chatt – “In general, with most ad costs (pre-pandemic) increasing and likely to continue to rise again post-pandemic, I’m seeing more and more e-commerce brands looking to invest in sustainable, long term channels like SEO, content and email marketing. 

Despite getting a fraction of most brands’ attention and budget, these channels can be utilised to target customers at almost every point in the funnel, as well as being a key driver in getting customers to shop again and again.”

Alex Humphries – “We’ll continue to invest in our paid media strategies, including Facebook ads, particularly as Facebook and Instagram continue to encourage businesses and users to utilise their ‘shop’ facility. We will also be investing heavily in our platform and user experience for the remainder of the year.”

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What is the most important tip you would provide to others to help improve their digital marketing strategy?

Ellie Clark – “Tracking, monitoring and reporting are the most essential part of improving your strategy. Make sure you dedicate time each month to really look at what is happening across your digital channels. It’s something that can often be overlooked, especially when you want to spend time getting your strategy in place, but without diving deep into your data, you might not be getting the full picture.”

Freddie Chatt – “In general, with most ad costs (pre-pandemic) increasing and likely to continue to rise again post-pandemic, I’m seeing more and more e-commerce brands looking to invest in sustainable, long term channels like SEO, content and email marketing. 

Despite getting a fraction of most brands’ attention and budget, these channels can be utilised to target customers at almost every point in the funnel, as well as being a key driver in getting customers to shop again and again.”

Alex Humphries – “Your marketing efforts should be focused on generating ROI and maximising profit; if something isn’t profitable and generating results, then stop doing it! It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of businesses who continue to use certain channels despite it not demonstrating a return on investment. 

Ensure that every piece of activity you do has a clear goal and clear objectives, whether that’s a Facebook ads campaign offering promotional codes, or building content marketing.

Also, ensure that you measure the results to find out whether it works, and consider running promotions on products which offer the most Gross Profit to provide real value to the business.”

Pierre Larose – “In the context of the pandemic, I would encourage marketers to review product margins in the wake of delivery surcharges, to adjust all ad copy for the post-COVID19 era and to leverage AI to quickly maintain ROAS in a rapidly shifting environment.”

Do you expect e-commerce sales to increase due to the continued social distancing practices?

Freddie Chatt – “It definitely feels as though the coronavirus pandemic has pressed the fast-forward button on e-commerce sales. It has sped up the transition from offline to online in what would have taken three-to-five years, and done it in just a few months. 

So long as online retailers can continue to provide a great service to their customers, there is no reason why the growth in online sales will not continue.”

Pierre Larose – “It depends on the category. Certain product types such as homeware and garden wear will see an increase in sales. On the other hand, alternative categories will decrease and some will see behavioural changes, such as the type and style of clothing being bought. In broad terms, there’s little doubt commerce sales will increase overall.”

Ellie Clark – “We have to see post-COVID-19 as a new normal, rather than a return back to normal. People will continue to shop online as shopping habits have changed for the long-term, which is why it’s more important than ever to offer consumers some sort of online shopping experience. 

This doesn’t have to be a complex and expensive online process. Small businesses have found success through using their shops as dark stores and selling their items through Facebook posts, offering only local deliveries to simplify the process. There are endless ways of offering your customers an online service right now, and businesses need to be taking advantage of these to ensure survival post-COVID-19.”

Alex Humphries – “It wouldn’t come as a surprise if e-commerce sales continued to grow across the board, particularly with social distancing in place. So, retailers should be prepared for this. Even once social distancing measures are lifted, some people still may not feel comfortable being around other members of the public. Therefore, there will still be considerable demand for products online.”

Our thoughts

The impact that COVID-19 has had on businesses will be felt for months and even years to come. There’s no doubt that e-commerce and other sectors have changed as a result of the pandemic.

However, the common theme from our experts was that of determination with a little bit of risk, since many focused on increasing marketing spend and pivoting their target audiences.

The risk of this approach was high and others chose the opposite by reducing spending, turning off their website and hunkering down in the meantime.

I don’t believe there is a right or wrong method; numerous organisations did what they thought was best for their business. The new focus should be on how we can return to profitability, as well as revising what we can do to adapt our marketing strategies, to deliver a higher level of efficiency.