That’s the word being used to describe the jarring scenes taking place around the world. Deserted cityscapes. Plummeting markets and skyrocketing unemployment. Hospital ICUs overflowing with critically ill patients. It all feels like something out of an episode of “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone.”
And while the scientific community races to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 and healthcare professionals rush to respond to the outbreak, the business world is grappling with the financial implications of the virus. One thing is for sure: no industry will be the same after this pandemic, and some will be completely transformed.
TRADITIONAL RETAILERS STRUGGLE AS DIGITAL GIANTS FLOURISH
For struggling brick-and-mortar retailers, the coronavirus could be the death blow. Last year, there were 10,000 store closures in the US and this year analysts predict that number could reach as high as 25,000.
Two of America’s oldest department stores, Macy’s and J.C. Penney, announced employee furloughs within days of businesses everywhere shuttering their doors to limit the spread. It’s difficult to imagine how these two brands – dating back to 1858 and 1902 respectively, and heavily reliant on foot traffic – will recover from this crisis.
On the other hand, digital giants Walmart and Amazon are seeing record numbers as millions of Americans shelter in place and shop exclusively online. According to leading analytics firms, overall eCommerce sales were up 25% in March with online grocery delivery sales doubling (and meal-delivery services also seeing rapidly rising demand).
While other companies shed jobs, Amazon just announced a plan to hire 100,000 warehouse workers, with Walmart set to onboard 150,000 new employees and Instacart seeking 300,000 contract workers for the next few months.
Other big retailers have had to quickly add new services and fulfillment options to their eCommerce operations to stay afloat. Major brands including IKEA, Best Buy, Michaels, Joann and GameStop all recently instituted curbside pickup at thousands of stores for customers who are buying online and picking up in store (known in the industry as BOPIS). Best Buy is also ramping up its video chat capabilities in order to offer more virtual in-home consultations.
HEALTH AND FITNESS EXPLOIT NEW STAY AT HOME HABITS
With physical stores closed, fitness-focused retailers are doubling down on their online presence as well. Life Fitness has seen a spike in eCommerce sales of their home gym equipment. Gold’s Gym is offering their premium app for free as a gesture of goodwill (and brand building). And Nike recently rolled out an expanded version of their virtual workout program, Nike Training Club, to address soaring demand for at-home fitness programs. The result: Nike’s digital sales are up 40% and app usage has doubled.
To be sure, some segments are sensing new opportunity, particularly in telemedicine. Companies including Nutrimedy (B2B clinical nutrition management), Beam (billable telemedicine for primary care providers), GYANT (AI-powered medical history analysis), Hale Health (a remote care platform) and Zipnosis (a system for treating common health conditions) are all seeing a surge of interest.
NETWORKING SERVICES HELP STRANDED WORKERS AND STUDENTS
Education technology companies are also experiencing solid growth as millions of students attend virtual classes from home. While many teachers opt for Zoom as the simplest way to replicate the classroom environment, companies including Top Hat (education software), Pronto (chat and video messaging) and Bisk (online program management) are all trying to distinguish themselves as providers of essential services.
E-learning firms are also getting a boost, with both Coursera and FutureLearn offering free access to a variety of online courses due to demand.
To address the growing unemployment crisis, there are new firms providing networking services for tech workers (Upstream) and targeted job leads (Silver Lining). And, of course, companies providing food delivery, facilitating remote work and virtual meetings, or offering streaming and gaming services are thriving.
A NEED FOR NEW DIGITAL STRATEGIES
But the online explosion has meant significant challenges across the board. Brendan Witcher, principal analyst for digital business strategy at Forrester, says the sudden spike in demand – particularly for home delivery and the huge volume of related inquiries – has overwhelmed many firms, leading to backlogs, cancellations and deluged customer support systems.
Meanwhile, companies in the B2B space have been scrambling to adapt to virtual business practices overnight. In some cases, this is proving exceptionally challenging since much of B2B selling – particularly in property-focused businesses – relies heavily on offline channels.
According to Gartner, there are adjustments all businesses can make to their digital strategy to respond. Now is a good time to deploy chatbots, for example, so that common queries can be automated at scale. Augmented reality (AR) / virtual reality (VR) technologies can enhance video streaming and conferencing services to keep customers engaged and support sales. Gartner also emphasizes the importance of aligning all channels to ensure consistent messaging and frictionless experiences.
Another imperative is securing reliable cloud services to ensure network capacity, especially important given that surging demand is stress-testing the system and revealing cracks in some platforms.
WORK FAST AND SPEND SMART
As economic uncertainty swirls, many enterprises are scaling back on big investments and opting instead for “smart spend” initiatives. This means delaying (or cancelling) big infrastructure projects and costly upgrades. One result: Salesforce recently announced plans to postpone its Summer ’20 release due to customer concerns.
But brands need to keep in mind there are smart ways of dramatically improving their digital presence that don’t involve disruptive changes. Now is clearly not the time to switch out an existing Commerce platform or commit to an expensive all-in-one digital experience platform (DXP). In fact, there’s an urgent need for agile, best-of-breed solutions that can easily integrate with a wide range of systems via open APIs.
In times of crisis, being able to respond quickly is essential. As is being transparent and communicating clearly – to customers, prospects, partners and employees. And being open to change, even in the form of radical new ideas or ways of working, may be most important of all.
Brands that adopt this mindset and find ways to deliver digital content better and meet eCommerce demands faster will survive COVID-19. Some may even emerge more secure for the future.