5 e-commerce strategies for coping with demand peak

With approximately 3 billion people around the world living under various degrees of COVID-19 lockdown, we’re witnessing fundamental changes across industries, work environments and lifestyles. As citizens everywhere continue to operate remotely, ecommerce is experiencing a new ongoing demand peak as retailers respond to consumers’ growing preference to engage with brands from the comfort of their own home. According to research by Ipsos, the outbreak has prompted more consumers to move their shopping online, even for goods they would traditionally prefer to purchase in-store.

Retailers are used to managing multiple peak demand periods every year – from Black Friday to Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day, but how prepared are they for this constant online demand peak that the pandemic is driving?

While peak seasons present retailers with significant revenue opportunities, they also place additional pressure to deliver exceptional customer experiences. With so many retailers competing for consumers’ attention, customers are now spoilt for choice, comparing not only deals and product selections, but also the customer experience.

From marketing to IT to customer service, retailers need to ensure they overcome the various obstacles they face in meeting demand, requiring strategic planning across every aspect of the business. Here are the five key strategies retailers should consider adopting to ensure they capitalize on the accelerating shift to online shopping and to earn the long-term loyalty of customers.

1. Deploying 24/7 incident management and response

When it comes to online shopping, a positive customer experience relies on websites that are fast, reliable, and safe. A survey by AppDynamics found that more than 70 percent of customers abandon their shopping carts at the first sign of a poor customer experience. Operating in such a highly saturated and competitive industry, retailers must therefore ensure they consistently provide instant, reliable and secure access to their websites.

This is even more important during a period of ongoing high demand when increased order volumes put additional pressure on a retailer’s digital as well as physical fulfilment infrastructure.

To prepare for the welcome onslaught from online shoppers, 2020’s retail winners will be those that establish a team dedicated to round-the-clock incident management and response. They will also have clearly defined incident management protocols, enabling their organization to immediately attend to incidents such as web traffic overloads or a coding error that compromises website performance. On top of this, retailers must circulate incident bridges and postpone non-urgent scheduled maintenance tasks to ensure they are fully equipped and ready to handle the increased traffic volumes.

Peak demand seasons are also prime times for cyberattacks as retailers process large volumes of customer data. This provides cyber criminals countless opportunities – and multiple points of entry – to steal customers’ personal and financial information. The increased potential for cyberattacks could spell trouble if not properly managed. Successful attacks could render a website and a retailer’s services unavailable for hours, or even days, resulting in a loss of revenue for the business and a less than optimal experience for customers. Preparing for the possible increase in cybercrime requires retailers to monitor spike loads – both trade-related and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

Retailers need to adopt an effective cyber resilience strategy which involves putting into place the requisite policies, methods and solutions to ensure they can swiftly identify, respond to and recover from a cyberattack, while they keep operating and serving customers.

2. Setting up a web operations room

Another vital step that retailers must take to prepare for a peak demand period is to set up a web operations room. The web operations team plays a critical role in monitoring the entire customer journey and managing any risk to trading or service. Serving as the central clearinghouse for all communications within the business, the web operations room coordinates between online and offline parts of the retail journey for customers.

Members of the web operations team need be in constant contact with the different service parts of the organization – such as marketing, logistics, store operations and call centres – so they can be alerted early of emerging issues and ensure all departments are working in tandem to combat them. The web operations room is also responsible for escalating decisions to the appropriate member of the management team where necessary, and providing reports and updates as required.

3. Preparing and scheduling content on all channels

The key to taking full advantage of an ongoing demand peak is a well-timed retail marketing campaign that serves up compelling content and is offered across multiple channels to attract and engage customers. Implementing such campaigns requires well-planned launch schedules, which should include details around the initial go-live strategy, any scheduled changes, and the takedown plan.

In order to effectively roll out successful marketing campaign launch plans during any peak demand period, retailers require a content management platform that will allow them to tag all prepared content by location, channel, time, and customer segment. This will help the retailer stay organised and navigate the high traffic volumes. Moreover, these tags will come in handy for processes such as media buying and assigning budgets for keyword searches.

Competition heightens during any peak demand period. Having a content management platform will also help retailers prepare and launch new offers with greater agility in response to competitors’ actions such as unprecedented flash sales, or when competitors sell out of trending products.

As with the extra monitoring required on retailers’ websites, employees should also be assigned to pay close attention to social media channels during the peak demand period to spot any issues. Relevant escalation paths should be identified to ensure that all queries or comments are addressed in a timely and appropriate manner. 

4. Preparing contact-centre staff

As the first touchpoint for customer service, contact centre staff play a pivotal role in managing inbound requests during peak shopping periods. Contact centre team members should be ready to respond quickly and efficiently to every customer outreach, from complaints about missing or delayed shipments to queries about product availability and the retailer’s return or exchange policies. 

There are several tactics retailers should undertake to prepare contact centre staff for peak demand periods. This preparation begins with training staff to manage significantly higher volumes of calls. Retailers also need to adjust standard scripts, employ extra service agents and put in place special procedures to reduce escalation.

5. Increasing resources at the distribution point to address higher volumes

Peak retail seasons always call for extra planning, particularly when it comes to distribution. This is especially important during the COVID-19 outbreak, where consumers have been ‘panic buying’ or ‘bulk buying’, where sometimes retail therapy is driven out of boredom whilst social distancing, and where traditional supply sources might not be assured in the way they once were with many producers and suppliers struggling to stay afloat.

All aspects of distribution – including the distribution centre, dropship vendors, and trunking services – must be adequately resourced to meet anticipated higher volumes. Retailers also need to book and put away extra stock to cater to the increased volumes. Over and above these considerations, additional fulfilment capacity and resources as well as alternative supply sources, should all be tested and provisioned in the event it needs to be tapped. 

It is critical too that retailers ensure communication and synchronization between distribution and marketing teams, as this will aid in projecting estimated volumes and allow products with higher volume predictions to be moved to front racks for easier picking.

Key Takeaways

Undoubtedly, what used to be a race to the bottom for discounts, in a shorter-lived peak retail season, has evolved into a more diverse set of approaches to maximise the opportunity of an ongoing retail peak. With competition now stronger than ever, it pays to provide the best customer experiences as much as it pays to offer attractive discounts.

With these five strategies in mind, retailers can ensure all aspects of their operations run smoothly during this pandemic and meet the table stakes of efficient incident management and web operations, well-trained customer service staff and proper resource management, all of which result in excellent customer experiences every time.

A one-size-fits-all approach is no longer feasible in today’s omnichannel landscape. As such, retailers must start actioning these strategies well in advance – this ensures that all systems and launch plans are in good shape, so they can spend less time resolving issues and more time focused on delivering excellent service during the constant retail peak that the COVID-19 outbreak will maintain over the next couple of months or more.