ecommerce

How Small Businesses Can Use eCommerce to Boost Sales During COVID-19

Anne Shaw

As the world reels from the effects of COVID-19, no one is exempt. Even those who remain healthy have had their lives changed. And we know that workers in every industry are dealing with changes, from reduced hours to working remotely or even facing sudden job loss. As a business owner, it’s important that your business has a strong crisis management strategy going forward. We know that large corporations are seeing significant shifts and small businesses are trying to stay afloat.

We’ve been checking in with many small business owners via The Hartford’s Small Business Owner Online Community. To help them and others, we’ve put together a list of 10 resources that help small businesses survive during the global coronavirus pandemic. Beyond learning details about their current struggles, we also noticed an admirable trend among our small business owner community—one that showcases adaptability. Whether they’re in an area with state-mandated closures or not, some small business owners are completely adjusting their models, often working with digital tools to engage a customer base that’s now largely staying home:

  • “I am on a daily conference call with my management team for the restaurant… the business model has completely changed to ‘To Go.'”
  • “We are investing more in marketing as our products could be something people at home might want to use.”

Rather than wait out the pandemic and its effects, business owners are revamping how they reach and sell to customers. And you can too.

Why Now is the Perfect (and Necessary) Time to Make Money via eCommerce

This is your opportunity to learn eCommerce skills that will not only help you prop up your business while you can’t allow customers to physically visit your location, but will also benefit your operation long term. If you’ve never sold anything online, this could be a long-term blessing in disguise. After all, you’ll be setting up a new revenue stream and may also discover an expanded customer base.

If you already sell via eCommerce, boost your current efforts during a time when everyone is at home and many are shopping online. Capitalize on the growing consumer sentiment that favors supporting small and local businesses, as evidenced during 2019’s record-breaking Small Business Saturday. Most consumers are acutely aware of how today’s health and economic crises are harming small businesses, and they want to help.

3-Steps for Small Business Owners to Get Started with eCommerce

Whether you’ve dabbled in eCommerce, have never taken an online order or consider yourself an eCommerce expert, now is a prime opportunity to sell online. Never before have so many people been confined to their homes and had the ability to shop from their phones and computers this much. In fact, the eCommerce industry has sparked a hiring boom while many other companies are being forced to lay off their workers. If you’re looking for a strong eCommerce strategy for your small business, follow these steps:

Step 1 – Decide what you’ll sell online.

Every business can sell something online. That may sound like a bold statement, but even businesses that typically don’t sell physical goods can start. The key here is to align whatever you decide to sell with your current brand and/or product offering. If your business is a local breakfast cafe, for example, consider selling (and delivering) branded mugs, freshly roasted coffee beans or daily-made bagels.

If your business enjoys an especially loyal customer base, consider selling creative merchandise during these trying times as a way for your customers to further show their support of your business. Popular branded items include hats, clothing and various types of cups. While promoting these items online, share the message that by purchasing your merchandise, your customers are helping to keep your business alive. On that note, if you’ve already been selling products or taking orders online , consider adding special items or promotions to thank your customers for helping you get through these tough times. One burger restaurant in Virginia, for instance, used social media to promote their offer of adding a roll of toilet paper and a bottle of branded hand sanitizer free of charge with every online order. They also made a point of telling customers the impact of their continued patronage: “See Menu & Order Online. Take-Out Orders Are Keeping Us Open & Our Staff Employed. Thank you!” Many small businesses have also been waiving shipping fees or offering free delivery.

Try tapping into the subscription trend by creating packages you can promote and sell online that will not only keep cash coming in for you, but will also make your customers’ lives easier while social distancing measures are still in place. For example, if you’re delivering take-out orders to stay afloat, offer a discount or a special item to customers who commit to a certain number of orders. For example, a Mexican restaurant could consider offering a free branded t-shirt to customers who commit to six weekly take-out orders. The tee can include a fun saying, like, “Not all heroes wear capes… some eat tacos.” Either way, include a note thanking them for their business during this critical time.

Step 2 – Consider your audience.

Once you’ve identified what you will sell online, consider how the audience you’ll sell to might differ from your current customer base. After you’ve outlined potential customers, think about how this target audience most likely shops online. Do they browse from their phones or computers? Do they visit your website or see products from their social media platforms? Answering these questions will help you choose the best way to present your products online, and which type of eCommerce platform to use. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in Step 3.

If you’re already using eCommerce, consider going through this exercise anyway. Your customer base may expand during this time and perhaps your eCommerce tools are outdated. Completing this step will help you make sure that you’re using the best eCommerce tools for your business and for your customers.

Step 3 – Determine how you’ll sell online.

This step will help with the logistics of setting up and selling via eCommerce. Once you know what you’re going to sell and to whom you plan to sell, it’s time to decide how you want to sell online. You can choose to keep it simple for short-term survival, or use this as an opportunity to create a long-term eCommerce strategy, adding an additional revenue stream. Some businesses are opting to take orders via phone and email, asking customers to pay at pick-up or upon delivery. That may work just fine for the short term, but it does require a more hands-on approach and may result in some missed opportunities.

If you choose to set up true eCommerce strategy, then you’ll need to make it possible for customers to not only shop, but also pay via your website. To sell from your existing website, add eCommerce-related upgrades. Choose from eCommerce extensions or plug-ins (depending on your website software), or by adding Shopify’s Buy Now button.

If the software hosting your current website is outdated or clunky, then you may decide to start fresh, creating a new website using an all-in-one website and eCommerce platform. These platforms include everything from website design templates and domain names, to shopping carts and credit card processing. A few of the top all-in-one platforms include:

  • Shopify – Everything is included. You’ll get a domain name and have a secure shopping cart so you can accept credit cards and PayPal payments. The service also offers ready-to-go templates or custom-designed themes.
  • Volusion – Beyond standard all-in-one features, Volusion allows you to integrate your online store with Facebook, Amazon and eBay. This is especially helpful for businesses that want to tap into a customer base that enjoys shopping via those channels.
  • BigCommerce – This platform integrates with plenty of other applications that small businesses often use including Mailchimp, Constant Contact, Quickbooks, and more. It also offers marketing features that help with search engine optimization (SEO), special offers, product reviews and more.
  • 3DCart – This option includes many value-add apps that you’ll often pay for with other platforms. These include customer wish lists, third party shipping calculations and loyalty reward programs at no additional cost.

When comparing platforms, keep your customers and their shopping habits in mind, along with any marketing tactics you plan to use to capture customers’ attention. Use those as a guide to look for the right eCommerce solution for your business.

While the outlook may look bleak right now, we hope that most small business owners can make it through. Using eCommerce can help tide you over until social distancing measures are lifted. Keep in mind that no one yet knows how long this could last, and your customers’ shopping habits may evolve long-term as a result. We’ve also put together a list of small business resources to help you survive the coronavirus pandemic. Be prepared in case, and use this time to become a more meaningful part of their lives.

Next Steps: Want to learn more? Sign up for the Small Biz Ahead newsletter to receive a weekly roundup of the latest tools, trends, and resources. 

2 Responses to "How Small Businesses Can Use eCommerce to Boost Sales During COVID-19"
    • Michael McMahon | May 11, 2020 at 9:59 am

      Very helpful. Thanks,

    • Bob Blaustein | May 13, 2020 at 3:00 pm

      Useless for an IT service company. Not every business offers, can offer, or wants to sell a tangible product.

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