In a time like none other in e-commerce, inspiring women were at the helm of many brands as they innovated and excelled online, notes ChannelAdvisor’s Marketing Director EMEA Andrea Snagg.
Recently, we hosted a seminar featuring four female global leaders in e-commerce: Jennifer Alexander, head of e-commerce, EMEA at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health; Georgie Harmel, digital transformation lead at Bayer Consumer Health; Wafae Akarriou, e-commerce sales specialist, EMEA at Harman International; and Amy Rumford, vice president of global services at ChannelAdvisor. They shared their thoughts about the opportunities, challenges and decisions they faced in 2020, their ideas and solutions to address them and the plans they’re making to continue to lead e-commerce into the future.
Here are a few highlights from their discussion:
Rapid Reactions to Extraordinary Circumstances
In the incredible year of 2020, each one of these professionals leaned on their diverse experiences to address every unique challenge head-on. From experiencing the massive surge in demand for toilet paper in March 2020 to navigating unusual circumstances brought by lengthy lockdowns and the gradual reopening of shops, they identified solutions and forged new paths to meet consumer needs and move their companies forward during the crisis.
As Rumford noted during the webinar, nearly every vertical was thrown into turmoil during the course of the year. Online sales for essentials surged initially as consumers felt unsure of their needs for and availability of certain necessities. Johnson & Johnson and other companies in this vertical felt the effects of the “pantry loading” phenomenon, as Alexander referred to it, with disinfectants, hand sanitizer, over-the-counter medicines and other related products selling out. Soon after, as working from home went from a temporary move to a long-term practice, demand for office supplies increased. Harman International saw a significant surge in purchases of noise-cancelling headphones in the spring of 2020, according to Akarriou, as individuals sought solutions to help them focus in the home environment with multiple family members, activities and noise levels. Consumers soon sought hobbies to pursue and options to refresh their living spaces, setting record sales in categories such as home and garden. In the summer of 2020, home audio sales at Harman soared as consumers adjusted to long-term life at home. As the school year loomed, shoppers flocked online for desks, laptops, monitors and similar supplies. Fashion sales made a sharp pivot from formalwear to loungewear.
At Johnson & Johnson, Alexander grappled with how to successfully roll out new direct-to-consumer (D2C) shipments during the pandemic. In several markets, contact lenses, for example, can only be purchased through eye care professionals. To retain patient-doctor relationships in the face of extended office closures and limited patient contact, D2C shipments had to be enabled in those markets. A part of the initiative involved accelerating marketplace sales that would allow 40,000 independent doctors to drive sales for Johnson & Johnson’s Accuview brand online.
At Bayer, efforts to listen more closely to consumers sharing their thoughts online about the company’s brands and products and relevant key topics increased. According to Harmel, the company responded by generating more curated digital content developed by an in-house team and sharpening its focus on giving consumers utility rather than solely presenting products. The company also adjusted its priorities in selling channels, as the company continues to look for new routes to market such as D2C and social commerce.
As companies reacted, so did consumers. Previously hesitant online shoppers attempted more online purchases, and many people simply spent more time online than ever before. According to a recent survey Rumford cited, 37% of consumers bought items they’d never purchased before and 32% bought items from a brand or retailer they’d never made a transaction with before the pandemic. Direct deliveries, and curbside pickup, or modified in-store pickup options expanded. Expectations shifted — and many shopping activities adopted during the height of the pandemic are remaining in place.
“Consumer behaviour is changing all the time, and so what I think the pandemic did was either accelerate it or present it in a way that we haven’t seen before,” said Alexander.
Harmel noted a marked shift in how consumers are obtaining healthcare information and making related purchasing decisions. She noted consumers have had approximately 75% less time with their healthcare professionals in the last year — but they have been turning to the internet. Harmel reported a huge increase in Google search volumes across all of Bayer’s categories. As a result, Bayer provided informative options such as diagnostics tools and symptom checkers via their websites to help consumers find the products and solutions they were looking for.
Johnson & Johnson understood that consumers and patients were searching for and purchasing products that were important to them, such as contact lenses. To sustain patient-doctor relationships and continue revenue streams for the eye care professionals in its network, the company accelerated the implementation of initiatives to allow consumers to easily and conveniently obtain their contact lenses.
As a result of these ongoing and multilayered mechanisms implemented throughout the pandemic, consumers now expect both convenience and an experience when interacting with a brand.
The View Ahead
The consensus in the session was that new consumer habits are here to stay — until further change requires more adaptation — and that brands need to seize the opportunity to connect with buyers through decisive actions.
As shared in the webinar, brands will likely need to continue to develop a strong focus on D2C options.
“Even before the pandemic, the D2C space was heating up in Western Europe. But the side effects of lockdowns helped to accelerate D2C’s popularity, and the landscape looks to be permanently altered,” Rumford said. “D2C was seen as a promising opportunity but now we’ve seen it become a strategic must-have for our clients.”
Marketplaces are a key ingredient to selling D2C — and establishing and nurturing a brand presence on these digital malls is increasingly important.
“The real story is what we call the long tail of marketplaces. More and more consumers are engaging in marketplaces to make their online purchase,” Rumford said.
According to Rumford, the long tail of marketplaces — emerging and nice marketplaces selling to a variety of consumers — are growing in pace and taking an increasing share of the market.
And brands must rely on intelligent data analysis to select the best path forward in the wake of the pandemic.
“Analytics are super important. There’s so much data available,” Rumford said. “Having the ability to assess and synthesize and make database decisions is critical.”
Harmel pointed out the benefits of obtaining first-party data through a D2C channel.
“Continuing to use data that we have to really help with refining the targeting with our campaigns and really making the communications as laser-targeted as possible is also something we’re all looking at.”
It’s clear that more than one channel is necessary to gain access to a wider array of consumers browsing products across a variety of feeds.
To find success in the new era of e-commerce emerging after lockdowns and restrictions lift, D2C brands must be prepared with a robust omnichannel strategy, according to Rumford.
So how can you identify the best e-commerce options to pursue in the current environment — and convince senior stakeholders to invest in them? Akarriou suggested approaching the issue as if you’re planning to penetrate a new market. Depending on your locale, whether you’re a national or international brand, do a SWOT analysis, look at what your competitors are doing and try to evaluate the opportunity from a data standpoint.
Past to Present
As the women described their career paths through e-commerce into leadership roles, common themes emerged — in particular, an appreciation of work that provides variety and requires innovation.
“What attracted me to e-commerce as an industry is the fact that it’s so unbelievably dynamic. And nothing is set in stone. What can be top of mind today is already old news tomorrow, so you kind of need to stay on your toes within the industry,” Akkariou said.
And it’s clear the need to engage and act to challenges with resourcefulness will not be limited to 2020. “The landscape’s always changing. We have to adapt to new opportunities,” said Harmel.
“That’s the exciting part of e-commerce. It’s not just one role or one specific career path,” Alexander said. “It’s really about that problem-solving piece for me and that’s what led me to this particular role in terms of leading e-commerce.”
According to Rumford, the key to developing keen insight and acting on a deeper understanding of the market is to listen and communicate. “I’ve learned to incorporate collaboration — cross-functional, cross-team, cross-industry. It’s always good to have visibility to diverse opinions and different thoughts and I’ve incorporated that into my decision-making over time,” Rumford said. “Working with clients — the ability to just listen, not try to solve their problem right away, but just listen, hear them out, ask questions and learn — helps me build my own internal expertise and also to diffuse risk.”
Want to learn more about how these women successfully navigated a historical time in their industry? Listen to the full seminar here.