Don't let your business be on lockdown: What you need to know before selling online
Posted: Mon 18th May 2020
Ahead of a free webinar on 20 May covering how to pivot towards e-commerce, Kiel Harkness, marketing director of UK, Ireland and the Nordics at UPS, shares tips for how small businesses can pivot towards online sales.
As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, small businesses are facing significant changes to how they operate day to day.
the end of 2019, a reported 5.9 million small businesses were operating in the UK, which accounts to 99.9% of the business population nationwide.
Right now, nearly two months into the lockdown, many small businesses are determined to stay open, or to re-open if they had to make the difficult decision to temporarily turn off the lights. Being open for business is symbolically and financially a significant decision in itself; and if businesses are open then they are undoubtedly experiencing disruptions to their sales channels and supply chains.
I've outlined key actions small businesses can take to plan ahead and ensure they can continue to deliver on their aspirations and their potential.
1. Test the waters: New sales channel and new products
Can you consider new sales channels and new products in the midst of a crisis? Probably better than most businesses. Small businesses are in a unique position where their size creates the agility to be quick and nimble in response to change.
During this crisis we are seeing businesses turn from bricks and mortar stores to online shops, sometimes overnight. For those who are taking their first steps to meet the recent surge in online demand it is necessary to first assess inventories. Ask yourself, where is your existing inventory and does it have the potential replenishment options to align with e-commerce demand patterns that vary by day. Knowing where current product supplies stand and how accessible replenishments are will support your venture into online sales.
As the reality of a long-term recovery and "new normal" starts to set in, diversifying product offerings is another option for small businesses. In March, the proportion of retail sales in online shopping reached a record high of 22% according the latest ONS figures.
We will continue to see many businesses adapting to address the rising demand for certain product lines, such as the record 11% increase in grocery items sales in the UK as households stock up during lockdown. Other industries also pivoting to address changing needs include distillers who are turning to hand sanitiser production and clothing designers making PPE and face masks.
If you are selling through new channels to new customers, ask what new offerings will compliment what made you successful before. To match consumer needs in the short term, there could be a product route that has not yet been explored but is well within the means of your existing supply chain.
2. Provide options, but keep it simple
We recognise the challenge of delivering convenience in a whole new world, as consumers are still likely to expect flexible solutions to meet their needs. In 2019, the UPS Pulse of the Online Shopper revealed that 95% of shoppers believe it is important to see their full shipping prices and delivery options before or during check-out.
To help meet this expectation, ensure your webshop is suited for buyers outside your local market and information is readily available for deliveries and returns. This could include duty and tax calculations for worldwide shipments, different delivery speed options and potentially a "shipping included" option too.
Customer experience remains a priority, which we realise can be particularly tough with third-party distribution being disrupted globally. For individual sellers and small retailers, this could mean keeping inventory on-hand, including within your home. Where home-based shipping and order fulfilment emerges, choose a carrier that can offer reliable and affordable home collections for outgoing products to reduce the need for parcel drop offs at local postal service locations (which may be closed). This provides the added benefit of supporting government guidelines to stay at home and maintain social distancing measures while saving you time.
3. Visibility matters: Keep a real-time view of inventory and orders
In these uncertain times, delays can occur with receiving your inventory and fulfilling your orders. Having a view of when these delays happen will enable you to keep your customers informed and ultimately improve customer experience. Tools that provide visibility are often readily available when working from a shop or other places-of business.
But when the supply chain is volatile and businesses are running from kitchen tables rather than back-offices, accessing visibility and tracking dashboards is critical. This also relates to inbound visibility as it supports accurate inventory management so you know what you can sell and when to market it. With improved visibility of inventory and outgoing orders, businesses will be able to plan ahead on cash inflows and outflows and predict customer satisfaction or potential pain points.
Online marketplaces create selling options that can be integrated seamlessly with a webshop to help simplify the shipping process. This is why choosing the right carrier and right webshop platform is so important. Their connectivity can enable simplified shipping and the ability to effectively manage outstanding or incoming orders. The option of API plug-ins with online platforms helps to facilitate the processing of shipments for online orders and ultimately gives you back precious time.
By taking a few key steps now to prepare your business within this current crisis you can improve your chances of success. Here are my key takeaways:
Consider widening your sales channels to include an online presence to access consumer direct or e-commerce based B2B.
Know and understand your inventory availability and product ranges while adapting them where necessary.
Ensure that your website shows a range of shipping information and options, and have a supplier that can meet those needs.
Use a service provider's integration options to create a seamless order fulfilment experience for yourself and to keep your customers accurately informed of their order status.
 Business statistics - UK Parliament, December 2019
Kiel Harkness marketing director of UK, Ireland and the Nordics at UPS, will join Dimple Patel, COO at online marketplace Trouva, to share tips on pivoting your business towards e-commerce in a free webinar at 12pm on 20 May. Sign up here.