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If You Think You’re Good at Ecommerce, You Need to Take a Look at the New Digital Normal

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The opening line of my profile on LinkedIn is, “37 years’ experience in the IT business, 33 of those running my own businesses so I've seen the trends come, go...and come back again.”

It’s a bold claim, but I find myself once again suffering from déjà vu.

At the turn of the Millennium, 1999, we developed a ground-breaking (well I would say that wouldn’t I?) enterprise portal that integrated legacy systems and opened up business’ internal systems for ecommerce. It was a bit too far ahead of its time over here in Scotland so we took it to the USA and rolled out a CRM version of it called iportinstant.com, going head to head with a small start-up called Salesforce.com.

Well…we lost that fight, but we have done well enough ever since by using our ecommerce platform to provide flexible solutions for our own clients.

Point being: 20 years ago ecommerce was THE hot topic for business and we were finding, even then, that there was a general sluggishness on uptake here in the UK.

Ecommerce in The Modern Day

Fast forward to now and how well has ecommerce taken hold? Amazingly, although almost every business at every level claims to have a web site and claims to do business online, the actual fabric and infrastructure of their offering is often creaking at the seams.

I hesitate to criticise anyone running a business at any level, but I have to wonder if the Primark Board are having a “Doh!” moment now, since they don’t have any online sales strategy and have gone from £650m in sales per month to zero. That is going to sting. Or Marks & Spencer – one of the most revered “special occasion” food suppliers in the UK, and yet they have no online food ordering capability. In a world where we already have to line up for basic foodstuffs, who wants to go wait in another queue for a limoncello tartufo? An online strategy would have served them (and fellow limoncello tartufo addicts) well right now. Ok so they have just announced a limited deal with Deliveroo ahead of the main roll-out with Ocado, but that does not start until September 2020…getting ready for the second peak perhaps.

Infrastructure is Important

Building a coherent online sales strategy is not easy. We are working closely with one client who is putting together such a process at breakneck speed. There are lots of inherent, legacy problems to overcome, not all of which are IT based, and sometimes it ends up in the great Directions To Limerick Conundrum: “Well if Oy woz you Oy wouldn’t start from here, Sor.”

Even well-established ecommerce systems are creaking and crashing under the strain. Anecdotally I can avow that Argos’ site is suffering significant issues in its payment gateway, order confirmation and customer service follow-up systems. Just sayin…

Never mind the big players, it baffles me also why my local garden centre does not even have a website, never mind the ability to sell online. And they are far from alone in the SME sector, many of whom have stuck stubbornly with inert brochureware, if they have a presence at all.

The real problem is, of course, that these issues have been there for the last twenty years and could have been resolved at any time: it is just that they are now having to be resolved under extreme pressure of both time and budget. In the laser focus that deep crisis brings to such matters, the old “that will do” approach just unravels, often in a spectacular, high profile fashion.

The New Digital Normal

A major change that is already feeding through is that the over 65s have spent 94% more on online sales in the three months to April than the same period last year. These are the so-called vulnerable group: it is unlikely that they will be going out more in the near future so as an early indicator of what is to come this is as good as any.

Possibly reacting to that number, Tesco recently said it delivered one million orders in a week - breaking records for supermarkets which have been scrambling to recruit more drivers and temporary staff to pick orders off the shelves since the outbreak took hold. It now plans to offer 1.2 million weekly online order slots, double the number at the start of the crisis and has achieved an increase in online capacity of 103% in the space of a few weeks, growth which would normally take years to achieve. 

It must have taken a fair piece of change to implement such change at such speed, but in reality, what choice did Tesco have?

For those that say why spend money we don’t have right now on ecommerce when we may never need to use it simply because it will all go back to normal very soon; I would strongly suggest that you are mistaken. There is a slow, inexorable realisation dawning on everyone that very little will be the same after this. And as for spending money when you don’t need to, well we spend a lot of money on a fire service; not because there are fires every day but because when there is a fire we have the systems and capacity to cope. A lot of businesses sure wish they had smelt the smoke years ago.

Be advised: this New Normal that everyone is touting will be a New Digital Normal. The ecommerce winners right now are already hungrily eyeing your markets: Mr Bezos is happily watching his wealth snowball (up 25% this quarter alone) and you can expect him, and others, to be reaching ever deeper into your pockets simply because they have already built a business that solved those fundamental ecommerce problems.

That changes the question from “But how can we afford to do this now in the middle of the crisis?” to “How can we afford not to…”

Be agile. Be strategic. Most of all, Be ready.

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About The Author

After 33 years of running my own IT businesses, I've seen trends come, go...and come back again. With each business I've been involved in, the focus has always been on building in value for my customers. I was honoured to receive an OBE for my services to Scottish business in 2018.

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