Coronavirus and commerce: Online shopping's advantages and challenges in the face of a pandemic

by Michael Hill

Coronavirus and commerce: Online shopping's advantages and challenges in the face of a pandemic

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to limit the amount of “brick and mortar” shopping people around the world can (or want to) do, more and more customers are turning to ecommerce as a solution to get the items they need and want — but that’s turning out to be both a blessing and a curse for some online businesses.

Many ecommerce and other businesses are reporting issues with inventory and supply chain, especially with products that are made overseas, though that’s been the case for many for several weeks.

If that’s the case with your business, you’ll want to make sure you’re being transparent and communicating these delays and challenges to customers.

Here are some tips for weathering the outbreak while still helping customers get what they need — and even buy “fun” items that bring a little light to dark times.

  • This should probably go without saying, but price gouging is rarely a good (or ethical) strategy. Trying to profit from an already tense situation — beyond your normal margins — could end up “costing” you more than any extra profit you realize. There are also reports of online sellers getting in legal hot water over attempts to raise prices unfairly. 
  • There are certain products that are going to be very hard to get over the coming months. Even big businesses with extensive supply chains and contracts are finding they’re getting short shipments or none at all — so don’t beat yourself over the head trying to stock items that prove hard to find.
  • Use caution when promoting coronavirus related “sales” or “specials.” There’s nothing wrong with making products that customers are more likely to need now more prominent and accessible, but gimmicks with references to the virus and disease are rarely a good idea.
  • That said, less “virus”-y related marketing campaigns — with headlines that reference “staying busy,” for example, can be a great way to help customers find fun products you sell that they might not have thought of as a way to help fill the time. 
  • Be sure to keep close track on inventory levels — especially if you don’t let Shopify manage inventory. In other words, you don’t want to sell items only to realize you can’t fill the order. 
  • If your products are designed or claim to protect people’s health or well being, it’s important to do your research and make sure you’re meeting all published requirements for the claims you’re making. For example, most countries have requirements for claiming a cleaning product is effective against killing coronavirus (or any other germ). Many countries also require special disclaimers for wellness products that claim to boost the immune system or other health aspects. Not doing this could lead to big legal problems down the road. 
  • Consider waiving shipping minimums, especially if you sell products that are either going to be in higher demand but are unlikely to meet the minimum requirement — whether it be health and cleaning supplies or things to keep people entertained and busy while hunkering down at home. Of course, you’ll want to make sure this makes sense financially, but you may be able to make up slightly lower margins on volume.
  • On the other hand, you may want to consider limiting purchase quantities of items that will be in high demand so that everyone has a chance to get some. 
  • Some stores may also want to remove products temporarily, even if you have a reliable supplier, that may be needed by health or emergency responders more than household buyers just looking to stockpile. 
  • Keep in mind that shipping times may be delayed for any number of reasons and will very likely fluctuate over the coming weeks given shifts in capacity, staffing and local restrictions. This is likely to be even more true for international shipping, especially in countries heavily hit by the virus. Check with your shipping carriers frequently as situations are very fluid. 
  • Review and update your terms and conditions and other policies to cover the "new normal" of life under coronavirus. You may want to remove any shipping guarantees as well as include an "acts of God" exception to policies per your legal adviser's advice. 
  • Review your fulfillment and return processes and consider changing them or beefing up sanitation measures. While it’s not always clear how long the coronavirus (or any germ) can live on surfaces, it still might be worth having people who handle fulfillment boost handwashing or other measures as appropriate for your industry. However, be sure to consider that many supplies such as gloves or masks are in short supply to medical professionals — so try to limit the use of these unless you’re already required to (such as with food products).
  • If you have employees and find that business is down or they, unfortunately, become victim to COVID-19, try to support them as best you can. As a business owner, your employees are what make your business successful and, as a leader, you should take this responsibility very seriously.
  • Some governments are in the process of enacting bills (or already have laws) that require you to give paid time off for anyone ill — or ones diagnosed with coronavirus or caring for a dependent with it. In some cases you may be able to apply for government support for these costs, but many of these measures are still taking shape.
  • While some businesses are sending out email blasts listing the changes they are making, many consumers are quickly getting tired of seeing these messages and just deleting them. A good alternative is to create a FAQ page with an announcement banner or posting such information on social media.
  • Consider offering free or low cost digital products. This could range from educational activities for kids and adults alike related to your product line, digital content and lighthearted entertainment from your team and more. 
  • If you sell digital downloads, particularly entertainment, educational or informational related ones, these products could be prime for some extra promotion. Not only do they not require shipping, but you’ll also be able to help keep the many people who are home with kids out of school sane (and therefore loyal to your brand).
  • If you’re out of certain products or don’t carry specific high demand ones and know another Shopify entrepreneur who does, consider giving them a “courtesy” link. 
  • If you accept returns, keep in mind that there could be longer return shipping times, so it may be a good idea to relax timelines a little now. 
  • With many people finding themselves out of work, adding a financing option could be a good idea to consider. 
  • If you’re sold out of items that people will still need once everything stabilizes, consider selling or promoting gift cards. This can lead to value revenue streams even as other orders go down and give you opportunities to build longer term relationships with customers (Shopify has also made gift cards available on all plans for the foreseeable future).
  • While there have been some memes circulating encouraging the purchase of gift cards, there are some jurisdictions that have accounting rules which may prevent revenue from gift card sales from becoming “liquid” cash until they are redeemed — but check with your accountant or lawyer for details. Shopify itself also doesn't release funds on gift card sales until they are redeemed (these sales are also excluded for most sales reports).
  • Keep in mind that if you find running your store is too challenging or next to impossible, there is always the option to temporarily close down for a few weeks (Shopify lets you "pause" your store for $14 per month for up to 90 days without losing any data). For some stores, there might not be a choice due to local regulations or inventory issues.
  • If you find business is slow, this could be a great time to catch up on “maintenance” or an early “spring cleaning” — or update your Shopify theme

Now is the time that the Shopify community can band together to support and help each other through potentially challenging financial times. Give each other shout outs on social media. Network with each other — virtually of course — and help people out in any way you can, even if it’s just to keep each other from going stir crazy.

Michael Hill
Michael Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn. While comments and feedback are always appreciated, Michael regrets that, due to the volume of inquires received, personal responses are not possible. For specific assistance or support with Out of the Sandbox themes, visit the help center.