COVID-19 has accelerated the already rapid growth seen in ecommerce, encouraging new behaviours and challenging existing customer loyalties.

More of us are shopping online for the first time, buying products we’ve not previously bought online and switching brands and retailers if products are unavailable.

New research from Kantar shows that more UK consumers now want to support local businesses and with BigCommerce reporting a 62% rise in curbside fulfilment during the pandemic and Google a 150% increase in “near me” retail searches in the past two years, it is clear they are.

This growing appetite for immediacy coupled with a desire for local services is becoming a potent catalyst for smaller scale ecommerce.

A more level and more local playing field

COVID-19 has accelerated an already growing movement towards helping consumers identify smaller, independent and local businesses with more platforms and opportunities emerging to help these businesses grow. 

Shop Appy recently launched to help consumers find and index local retailers, NearSt, a startup who link products on shop shelves to nearby customers searching online received a funding boost and Mighty Small, an ecommerce site operated by a collective of independent food brands who had seen their shelf space squeezed, arrived in April.

Smaller businesses are also receiving a much needed boost in visibility from bigger platforms. Google has added tools to show curbside pickup and delivery options, Snap has made local businesses more visible through it’s maps and since May Facebook has enabled businesses to set-up free storefronts on Facebook and Instagram.

A new duality

Whilst Amazon has benefitted most from the lockdown, growing it’s UK share from 30 to 35%, recent research from Wunderman Thompson revealed that concerns about Amazon’s growing dominance have grown in step with purchase intent.

As the high street has struggled, Shopify has exploded in popularity. Nearly 300 million consumers around the world purchased from a Shopify merchant in 2019, leaving it second only to Amazon.

Shopify is now taking the fight to Amazon with the launch of ‘Shop’, an ad-free app that provides product and relevant online and local retailer recommendations. In a swipe at Amazon, Shopify has pledged that ‘Shop’ will not use retailer data to build competing private-label products.

Shopify has also signed a deal to enable Walmart to open its online marketplace, which reaches 120 million monthly visitors, to Shopify’s more than 1 million business clients, a direct challenge to Amazon’s dominance in eCommerce and a boon for smaller businesses,

Are we witnessing a new duality in ecommerce, the monolith marketplaces typified by Amazon and eBay versus a growing cohort of smaller, independent and local players?

The dress rehearsal is over

So if COVID-19 has been a dress rehearsal for retail’s new normal, how should smaller retailers think and act in order to establish trust and relevance as retail stabilises?

I believe there are three key principles for smaller retailers, regardless of category, in a post COVID-19 world.

1. Get the basics right to become a contender

It’s been long said that consumers are becoming service, not brand loyal. This has never been more true than during the pandemic when faced with long queues (on and offline), store closures and poor product availability so many of us shopped at places we didn’t expect to shop and bought brands we didn’t expect to buy.

To even be considered retailers need to put product availability, payment and fulfilment at the heart of their propositions. Simplifying product-finding and offering choice and flexibility across payment and fulfilment including online-to-offline delivery, are table stakes – if retailers can’t get these right it doesn’t matter how good their product is, Amazon is just a click away 

2. Inspire, don’t just transact

When it comes to convenience, Amazon is the natural choice but is it an inspiring shopping experience? Of course not. 

Smaller should be more personal. Smaller, expert brands and retailers have a unique opportunity to offer a more intimate and inspirational shopping experience that inspires and guides the user, particularly in more emotive categories such as specialist food, gifts, crafts and fashion.

Curation opens up opportunities for expert content, to offer recommendations and of course the holy grail in ecommerce, tailored subscriptions

Smaller retailers should not forget who they are and why they exist. Telling their story, bringing their people and expertise to the fore and (for those with physical outlets) weaponising their local presence to win and retain local customers whilst widening their pool.

3. Organise for growth

Moving at the speed of the customer is critical to delivering growth.

To remain competitive smaller retailers must continually benchmark themselves against peers, listen to customers and test everything, from product assortment, merchandising and content to payment and fulfilment to shape their roadmaps.

Having a retail strategy is no longer enough to capture and keep today’s consumers, a data-led product strategy that guides how you continuously improve your website and apps and prioritise change, is equally critical.

Smaller, independent and local retailers have a unique opportunity to stand their ground in today’s Amazon shaped world and increasingly, the tools and support are available for them to do so.

It’s time to open up ecommerce, how will you challenge the status quo?

Jasper Bell is Experience Strategy Director at VCCP.

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