We’ll start with this: we don’t know. The very act of offering advice involves assuming a level of authority, and we’re not authorities on the subject of public health. This weighed on us as we decided whether the potential helpfulness of a COVID-19-related blog post for our ecommerce merchants eclipsed the very real helpfulness of letting other voices speak. 

We don’t want to add more noise to the cacophony of COVID-19 content. We don’t want to disguise best guesses as a fixed set of best practices. And we certainly don’t want to abuse the privilege of having a platform by pretending we’re any less uncertain than you are. 

Ultimately, we decided that if we don’t know how to proceed…well, maybe that’s its own kind of authority. Maybe being up-front about what we don’t know contributes to the conversation in a positive way by showing other marketers that it’s okay to admit these things. 

So we researched the current state of ecommerce and distilled our findings into eight actionable strategies that can lend you some structure while we all take a break from business as usual. We’ve made a good-faith effort to stay in our lane and filter our advice through the lens of what we actually know, vetting resources as we go and linking to the best ones.  

We’re not stock market experts, nor are we pandemic experts (but we support amplifying the genuinely-helpful concept of flattening the curve). We don’t know what it feels like to experience supply chain issues, and we can’t predict what tomorrow will look like. We do know marketing and ecommerce, and we know what it’s like to care about each other and our business. So in the spaces where we can’t offer answers, we offer our solidarity instead. 

The Impact of Coronavirus on Ecommerce 

image of ecommerce merchant running a store amid coronavirus pandemic

The question of whether or how your business will be impacted by the current crisis is so situation-dependent, it’s no wonder that predictions are all over the place. Here’s a small sample of the information we encountered when we explored the subject: 

  • Some forecasters predict ecommerce sales will increase as people move their lives indoors and temporarily halt their brick-and-mortar shopping. 
  • A survey of ecommerce retailers reveals uncertainty: 38% of retailers predict their sales will increase, 26% predict they’ll hit their projected numbers, and 36% think their sales will decrease. Results of that survey were published March 11, and attitudes may have shifted since then. 
  • Others point out that market anxiety will negatively impact business sales across the board, ecommerce included. On Monday, the Dow recorded its worst one-day point drop in history and its worst performance on a percentage basis since Black Monday in October 1987.
  • In this period of economic uncertainty, some people predict luxury brands will take the hardest hit, while others (referenced in the same article) point out that luxury spending isn’t rational, and that people may actually spend more on luxury items to cope with anxiety. 
  • Still others predict that disruptions in the global supply chain will have a ripple effect on businesses of every type. 

When predictions are all over the map, the only conclusion we can draw is that we’re in a period of uncertainty that impacts us all. The extent to which your business will be impacted varies based on what you sell, who you sell to, and where you source your products. 

Taking action for your business during this time doesn’t look quite the same as usual. Our tips are heavily focused on business resilience and transparency, not sales. If you’re not quite sure what your next move should be, ground yourself in the following actions: 

1. Remember Your Priorities 

It can be helpful to write down your business priorities and use the list as a North Star when it’s time to make decisions. Set a single priority at the top of your list: the health and safety of your employees and their families. That includes you. 

While keeping your business financially healthy is part of considering the well-being of your employees, it shouldn’t come at the expense of physical safety. So if you’re looking at any tactics that clash with Priority #1, critically examine them now and find solutions if you can. Get comfortable with the tools and systems that make working from home possible: project management software like Asana or Trello, a good team-wide chat system like Slack, and meeting tools like Zoom or Google Hangouts. 

For roles where in-person work is unavoidable, take extra measures to reward the hard work and keep people safe. Don’t disincentivize sick days, either implicitly (through your team culture) or explicitly (by docking pay). Nobody who feels sick should feel pressured to power through and show up. 

2. Focus on Transparency

Your customers have questions. Put the answers front and center by publishing a page or blog post that communicates everything your customers need to know. This includes: 

  • Your supply chain – Where do you source your products and what safety precautions are you taking with your supply chain? Do you anticipate delays or speed bumps? 
  • Your inventory – Do you anticipate running out of certain products? What can people expect if that happens? 
  • Product safety – Reiterate information that can assuage fears about product safety by outlining the measures you take to maintain the cleanliness and safety of your warehouse(s) or fulfillment center(s). Unless the postman sneezes on a package while he hands it over, it would be nearly impossible to get the virus from a package anyway; while viruses can live on certain surfaces for up to three days, their infectiousness degrades within minutes. However, this probably isn’t the place to share that information. Quelling fear is a wonderful idea, but telling your customers their concerns are moot in the middle of your product safety documentation conveys the wrong message. You can link to additional resources at the end, though.  
  • Shipping information – Add relevant shipping-related information to this page and, if needed, to each product page. Delays will most likely happen at the level of your shipping provider(s) and thus will be out of your control, but you can be up front about what to expect. Stay updated on where things stand with your shipping partners and pass the informational along, bookmarking the current statements from USPS, UPS and FedEx
  • Staff Safety – Your customers don’t just care about themselves; they want to support companies that treat employees well. Without tooting your own horn, share what you’re doing to protect your whole team. 

The tone to strike here may feel more subdued than your natural brand voice. Strive to be informative, sympathetic, and neutral. This page is not an opportunity to move people down the funnel or convince them how great your brand is; it’s simply a way to address concerns, manage expectations, and reassure your customers that you’re taking this seriously. 

If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve put together some free downloadable graphics and a safety awareness message to help you out. 

3. Plan How You’ll Handle Out-of-Stock Products 

If you foresee product shortages, put together (or double-check) your plan for out-of-stock products. 

  • Does the product page clearly communicate that the product is out of stock and provide information about whether/when the product will return? 
  • Can customers request to be notified when an out-of-stock product becomes available? 
  • If you use a sort and filter feature, does it automatically exclude out-of-stock items? 
  • If you use a Related Products feature, are helpful (and in-stock) substitutes out-of-stock products displayed? 
  • Can customers add out-of-stock-products to their cart? It can be helpful to automatically disable this function for products that run out, so customers don’t encounter surprises during checkout. 

Omnichannel friends, heads up: there’s evidence that going out of stock can impact your Amazon rankings. The information about this is fuzzy, which is why there might be a bigger story to tell about those unscrupulous Amazon price gougers. It’s possible that for every opportunistic Purell scalper, there are five honest merchants who raised their prices to avoid going out of stock and getting dinged. 

Regardless, there’s a better way to handle the issue: simply close the product listing when you’re out of stock. This tells Amazon that you care about user experience, which makes it easier to regain your position when you re-open the listing. This post from JungleScout outlines additional strategies for managing out-of-stock products on Amazon. 

4. Funnel Resources to Customer Support 

If you’re experiencing an uptick in customer support requests, make sure your support team has everything they need. Provide training and resources to help the team address customer questions about product safety and your supply chain. Stay on top of issues customers might ask about, like when a product will become available, and prepare your team for those questions. And pay attention to team morale — your support reps experience the brunt of customer frustrations and complaints, so make it clear that they’re valued. 

5. Adjust Your Marketing Calendar

If you have ads, promotions, social media posts and/or your content calendar scheduled out well in advance, we applaud you. That said, now is a good time to throw out (or at least scrutinize) your regularly-scheduled content. Brands have already seen some fallout for poorly timed ads, serving as a good reminder that brand content shouldn’t be in “set it and forget it” mode. When normalcy is shaky nation-wide, the messages and promotions that usually land with customers can feel tone-deaf. 

Consider pushing major promotions to another month, and audit your scheduled content for tone and subject matter. We have some more information about this in tip #8.  

6. Revisit Your Sales Goals  

If you pushed off a big promotion or know for a fact that your sales will take a hit, adjust your goals sooner rather than later. When people scramble to hit impossible KPIs, morale suffers. It’s also a good business practice to know what you’re working with so you can budget accordingly. The more time you have to shave costs and stay lean, the more likely you are to come in under-budget at the end of Q4. If you spend like you’re going to hit your initial projections and then fall short of your goals, you might have to make some tough decisions come Q4.  

7. Regroup and Optimize 

Whether you’re experiencing fewer sales or you’ve hit the pause button on your regular promotional content, there’s a decent chance that this is a slow period for your business. As tough as business slow-downs are, they also offer an unprecedented opportunity to regroup. Now is the perfect time to plan, learn, optimize, and tackle back-burned projects. 

Here are a few suggestions: 

  • Content strategy and development – If you didn’t have a strategy before, now is a great time to put one together. If you already had one, take a breather and dive into Google Analytics. Content is in “go” mode 90% of the time, and it’s hard to create space to periodically audit and fine-tune your strategy. Now is your chance. 
  • Email marketing – Customer communication is extra important right now, so assess and revamp your email marketing strategy. 
  • Design changes you’ve been putting off – Like content, design is commonly fast-paced and promotion-driven. If your non-critical design items get pushed to a backlog and promptly forgotten, take on the backlog now…and then reap the benefits of a freshly-polished site. 
  • UX improvements – Sometimes non-critical UX improvements are even harder to tackle than design improvements because of their potential impact and/or chances of breaking the site. There’s no better time than the present to explore these changes. While traffic is slower than usual and there are no promotions running, test out the faceted search or revamped navigation you’ve been wondering about. 
  • Schema markup implementation – Great-looking in the SERPs and boring to implement, schema markup is one oft-back-burned SEO task that you can cross off your list now. 
  • Plan ahead – Promotions, customer loyalty programs, major content pushes and more: plan ahead today and hit the ground running when things return to normal. 
  • Team education – Think your team could benefit from becoming Google Analytics-certified or taking some Lynda classes? Let them explore the wealth of webinars, videos, e-courses and other educational opportunities that can help them take their work to the next level. 

8. Participate in the Conversation Mindfully 

Outside of transparency-related content, most brands are currently maintaining a respectful distance from the discourse about COVID-19. In a world where newsjacking is a widely-accepted marketing practice, this silence speaks volumes about the sensitivity of the topic. Brands are rightfully wary of contributing to the din created by 24-hour news cycles, and the idea of capitalizing on the virus is near-universally repellant.  

While adopting a “When in doubt, stay out” approach is best, there’s certainly room for nuance. Twitter’s post about communicating during a crisis is the best one we’ve read about the subject, and we highly recommend reading the post and grounding yourself in those practices. 

The bottom line is, if you want to engage, maintain a tight focus on legitimately helping. Can you contribute something uniquely useful to the conversation? Are you making sure the resources you share are credible and up to date? Are you using your platform to amplify the voices that should be heard most? Are you doing everything you can to prevent misinformation from spreading and support the right messages?  

Then proceed, cautiously and with the awareness that your brand (along with our own) takes a back seat to the CDC. To the immunocompromised. To people who are sick, and to their families. To the people teaching us how to flatten the curve and the ones working to combat misinformation and reinforce a unified message. To the people who can’t work from home or take paid time off. Those are our real experts and authorities. The best thing the rest of us can do is admit that we don’t know.