Four challenges facing online retailers in 2021 after the pandemic uplift

online retailers challenges
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To no one’s surprise, 2020 was a brilliant year for ecommerce. Sales were up, brands turned their attention to their websites and the public spent more time online than ever before. 

However, any online retailers thinking they can just waltz into 2021 and keep riding an upwards trajectory are sorely mistaken. 

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic may have given ecommerce a little extra push towards its inevitable domination of the retail market, but that doesn’t mean ecommerce store owners should be looking forward to a year void of challenges. 

Framed in this context, here are four challenges we think every online retailer should watch out for in 2021. 

Customer expectations are higher

An increase in online shoppers doesn’t just mean improved profits, but also heightened expectations.

There will be customers coming from far and wide to your store, many of whom will be familiar with (and miss) the attentive nature of in-person retail. They’ll want their hand held throughout the process before it’s shaken and thanked for its business. 

Both new and experienced online shoppers understand the scale of modern ecommerce. This isn’t some revolutionary concept like it was 15-20 years ago. Online shopping is supposed to be a simplified, refined process that anyone can complete in a few clicks. 

Remember: you’re trying to appeal to a crowd whose only previous interaction with ecommerce was Amazon next day delivery. 

If you don’t have the budget for a fantastic bespoke website, see what experienced ecommerce professionals are saying about the store builders available on the market. 

Whether it’s a platform designed for small-scale operations such as OpenCart (this review covers everything anyone previously unaware of the platform will need to know) or a market leader such as Shopify or Wix, it’s essential you’re investing in something that appeals to the ecommerce shopper in 2021. Professional reviews can help highlight whether you’ll have all these crucial elements out-of-the-box. 

There will be so many small details customers will be looking out for, so from content to images to website speed, make sure you’re across everything to match expectations. 

A fierce level of online competition 

This increase in online shoppers won’t just lead to higher expectations though. Right now is perhaps the most fiercely contested period in the history of ecommerce. 

With many markets (particularly in Western countries) closed, such as entertainment, fitness and physical retail, many people are leaning on ecommerce to both acquire daily essentials and simply entertain themselves. 

This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Hundreds of first-time entrepreneurs have jumped on the bandwagon to try and get a piece of the ecommerce action. Side hustle stores and online expansions were two of the major stories of ecommerce throughout 2020, and these new competitors continue to pop up throughout 2021. 

Online retailers need to consider all of the battlefields they’re fighting on. If there are more stores out there selling similar (or the same) products, that means there are more stores advertising on social media, working with top influencers and pushing your website off the first page of Google with more refined SEO. 

Social media, in particular, is an important growing battleground. Recent changes to apps such as Instagram have shown these companies see ecommerce as the future and want to encourage people to shop through their platform. Smart store owners need to make 2021 a time to both develop on these platforms and find ways to not become dependent on them.

Perfecting customer service for less tech-savvy users

With so few places to turn, it’s hardly surprising to hear that lots of people tried ecommerce for the first time in 2020. However, you might be surprised to the extent of it, particularly worldwide. 

There is a huge base of fertile customers just looking to be hooked by certain stores. Their loyalty is there to be won, but you need to work around their limited understanding of typical ecommerce practices. 

This new audience is older and less tech-savvy than your original customer base, and online retailers across every sector need to know what they struggle with. Do they know how to complete a typical customer journey? Do they know the difference between your store and a competitor’s? Do you have a payment method that will make them feel secure? Detailed customer surveys and even heat maps offer a great starting point for noticing gaps in your business for new users. 

If you haven’t already, now is a great time to analyse your customer service. With a whole host of first-time buyers on the way, it’s important that you’re making yourself available through multiple channels. Ensure customers can reach you through:

  • Telephone
  • Email
  • Instant messenger (Live chat)
  • Social media

Many of these new customers are still feeling out ecommerce and will continue to shop cautiously throughout 2021. If you can provide their best experience yet, they might just stick with you for the remainder of the pandemic and beyond. 

A return to old habits?

Who’s to say that a 2021 defined by vaccinations and (hopefully) improved social distancing habits won’t lead to many of us yearning for days gone by and opting for brick and mortar retail over a digital equivalent? 

It’s not ridiculous to suggest that after over a year and a half of disrupted livelihoods people may be drawn back to physical stores where they can try items on, see them in the flesh and take them home that day. Since the early days of the pandemic, people have been reaching for the mundane relief that shopping in person can so often provide. 

This is a genuine problem that online retailers need to be ready for, whenever it hits. Transitioning into a post-COVID life will be a slow process. But when we get there, people will be less inclined to stay indoors shopping and perhaps even less glued to their devices than ever before. They’ll want to put their attention on the people they haven’t genuinely been able to since March 2020. 

It’s worth all online retailers considering the new competition they’ll be up against and the right time to cool down their spend, taking stock of where to go after COVID. 

After the year we’ve just had, it feels almost fruitless to start making predictions. However, a good store owner is always prepared for the worse and armed with a solution. 

These challenges are likely to come for everyone in ecommerce, particularly international sellers. Maybe not all at once, or in ways you can immediately recognise, but they will push the limits of your store, so be prepared. 

Written by Rodney Laws, Editor at Ecommerce Platforms

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