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Preparing Ecommerce for the “New” Holidays

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October 17, 2020 4 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Sometimes the holidays aren’t quite “the most wonderful time of the year.” According to one study, the holiday season stresses out 88 percent of Americans. For ecommerce companies, this is even more true. Every year, store owners spend months preparing for the fourth quarter, and few ever feel like they’re fully prepared for the wave of — and the headaches — that come with it.

This rings true this year more than ever, with COVID-19 pushing more and more retail volume online. Data shows ecommerce penetration skyrocketed from 16 percent in 2019 to 27 percent, year-to-date, in 2020. This is a direct result of the pandemic and the full extent of this impact remains to be seen in the holiday season. 

So how can ecommerce store owners prepare for what looks to be an avalanche while controlling , and more importantly, maintaining their sanity? The truth is, from small mom-and-pop stores all the way to Fortune 500 companies, nobody knows what to expect this year, but here are some ways you can use what little time is left to prepare.

Related: What Comes Next for Ecommerce and Digital Retail?

Optimize your shipping

Many small ecommerce companies don’t know what shipping options are available to them. All three of the major parcel shipping companies — , and UPS — have enacted holiday surcharges for the first time ever, and store owners will feel pressured to absorb some of that cost and not pass it on to customers due to heavy competition.

But there are more than three options out there for parcel shipping. Consolidation services often provide a tradeoff between speed and cost, giving stores a good opportunity to maintain “” options while still offering more premium, faster options. Consolidation works by collecting packages and mail, handling the sorting through a third party company, and then passing it to the closer to the customer. By making USPS do less of the work, they’re able to secure better rates and lower the cost.

Packaging is also a place to explore better options. Are your products suitable for padded mailers or do they require a box? Packaging has become more complicated and branded, often being much more complicated than simple mailer boxes. Is your packaging easy and fast for fulfillment employees to assemble? If not, explore a redesign to save time and labor expense.

Related: Report Gives Before and After View of How the Crisis Changes Small Business Priorities

Rethink customer service

Customer service is unfortunately often thought of as an expense and many businesses overlook the branding power and revenue opportunity of directly interacting with customers. Often it’s the only interaction your customers will have beyond the purchase itself, so it needs to be meaningful.

Developing brand-focused interactions for your customer service team helps spread positive goodwill about your brand and has quantifiable results. Direct reductions of refunds, as well as upsell opportunities, are created through positive customer experiences.

Don’t be afraid of multichannel customer service. Email and social media are great, but many customers still prefer to have billing and returns handled by phone. It also can present a more “human” feel by putting a voice to your brand. 

Make sure to measure KPIs ranging from direct refunds and cancellations of subscriptions to response times of emails and phone calls to one-touch interactions with customers. The better experience a customer has, the more likely they are to help evangelize your brand for you. Think about it — would you recommend a company that makes you sit on hold for an hour or one that picks up immediately and resolves your issue in one call?

Manage inventory like the pros

While dropshipping has become a popular method for many stores, COVID-19 exposed massive risks in this style of ecommerce business. The lack of air cargo capacity slowed international mail almost to a halt, and it still hasn’t come close to recovering. Epacket and other international mail-based shipping methods typically rely on passenger airplanes for from countries like to the . With passenger airlines still at reduced capacity, this means slower or even immobile shipments.

Related: 3 Drop Shipping Secrets Beginners Need to Know

Projecting your inventory needs can be difficult, but can often increase your margins and improve customer relations. Bulk purchases reduce per-unit costs and reduce freight costs. Ocean freight can be less than 10 percent the cost of a similar shipment for air. 

Customer expectations are higher than ever, but with adjustments, ecommerce retailers can compete, and even thrive, in this new environment.

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The Strand Calls for Help, and Book Lovers Answer

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For months, the Strand bookstore in downtown Manhattan, from its fiction stacks to its cookbook section to its rare books, has been nearly deserted. But on Sunday, half an hour before the store was scheduled to open, about a dozen people lined up in the cool fall breeze, waiting to get inside.

They had come in response to a plea from the store’s owner, Nancy Bass Wyden, who announced on social media Friday that its revenue was down nearly 70 percent from last year and that the business had become unsustainable. “I’m going to pull out all the stops to keep sharing our mutual love of the printed word,” she wrote. “But for the first time in the Strand’s 93-year history, we need to mobilize the community to buy from us so we can keep our doors open until there is a vaccine.”

The Strand’s legacy has not been without complications, and Ms. Wyden has a tense relationship with the union that represents her employees. But it is a New York City institution, a throwback to a quirkier type of local retail, and many New Yorkers were unwilling to let it go down without a fight.

“I really couldn’t believe to see that such a big piece of New York culture is struggling,” said Victoria Pompa, 23, who came from Staten Island with her parents after seeing a post from the store on Instagram. “So we just wanted to come and show our support.”

Ms. Wyden said the call for help produced a boom in business on Saturday: a single-day record of 10,000 online orders, so many that the website crashed. That day was also the best single day in the month of October that the flagship store, near Union Square, has ever had, and the best day ever at the Strand’s Upper West Side branch, which opened earlier this year. In the 48 hours since the plea went out, the store processed 25,000 online orders, compared with about 600 in a typical two-day period.

One of them was a purchase of 197 books from a customer in the Bronx. “I’ll have to write her a thank you letter,” Ms. Wyden said.

ImageCustomers at the Strand on Sunday. Its owner said that the previous day was the best one it had ever had in October.
Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Ms. Wyden said that employees have canceled vacations and were coming in on days off to help with the surge.

“We’re optimistic,” said Laura Ravo, the Strand’s new chief operating officer. “We asked for a lot of love and we received a lot of love, both in store and online, and on social.”

With millions of people largely stuck at home, book sales are up this year. But much of that shopping is happening online, and independent bookstores across the United States have rushed to reinvent themselves even as they watched their sales crater. The American Booksellers Association said this month that more than one independent bookstore has closed every week since the pandemic began.

Among the stores struggling most are the larger independents, which have higher expenses for space and staffing and need more sales to keep going. They also tend to be more reliant on events like readings and signings for their revenue. The Strand usually hosts about 400 events a year.

In their place, the store has done online readings and is experimenting with offerings like a Book of the Month program and boxes of “book hookup” surprise titles, which are grouped by genre. The store is also providing private guided tours of its rare books collection, a staff expert to curate and stock home libraries, and “books by the foot” sold as decorative space filler in the new era of bookshelves as Zoom backdrops.

Still, when Ms. Wyden saw the store’s receipts for September — a month in which she had expected business to rebound as students returned to school and some businesses reopened — she said she realized that those initiatives weren’t enough. She decided to make a direct appeal to customers.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“People tell me all the time that this is their favorite place,” she said. “They seem to always have a Strand story. I met somebody at a cocktail party and she told me about getting engaged in the rare book room. Two people came in yesterday, this was their first date.”

Ms. Wyden’s relationship with the union has been less romantic, with allegations of contract violations and union busting going back for years, said Melissa Guzy, a shop steward in the Strand’s art department. This summer, employees protested outside the stores saying that Ms. Wyden had laid off most of its employees despite receiving a Payroll Protection Program loan to retain 212 jobs.

The union also criticized Ms. Wyden for buying stock this year in Amazon, a company that is despised in the indie bookstore world. Ms. Wyden has said it was a way to generate money that could be put back into the store.

“Really, sustaining the stores, it’s been a marathon with no end in sight,” Ms. Wyden said. “So we really had to be careful with the P.P.P. loan money.”

Ms. Guzy said that despite their disagreements, she still hoped the store would survive.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

“When people support the Strand, they aren’t just supporting Nancy, they’re supporting us, they’re supporting the workers,” Ms. Guzy said.

There were no demonstrators outside the flagship store on Sunday, just a steady stream of customers in a line stretching around the block. Many, like Dan Bressner and Kaitlin Kwiatkowski of Manhattan, who were shopping together, said they had heard about the store’s plea for help and about its labor dispute.

“It’s awkward because the track record for the ownership here is not great,” Mr. Bressner said. “But it’s also an institution. My parents shopped here.”

Ms. Kwiatkowski agreed, and she bought three books that day. “We’ve got to do our small part,” she said.

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Wall St. Alarm at Surge of Virus Sends Stocks and Oil Lower

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A rise in coronavirus cases in the United States, new restrictions on activity in Europe and a standoff in Washington over aid for struggling businesses and out-of-work Americans left investors reeling on Monday.

The S&P 500 fell 1.9 percent in Wall Street’s worst day in over a month.

“You can only pretend that Covid was not a problem for so long,” said Steve Sosnick, chief strategist at Interactive Brokers in Greenwich, Conn. “I think the market has finally kind of gotten it through its head, at the same time, that there’s very little shot at stimulus.”

Shares in Europe also ended lower as more limits were introduced to try to combat a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. In Spain, the government declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew. In Italy, cinemas and gyms are closing and indoor dining ending at 6 p.m. In France, a six-week curfew for most of the country began on Friday.

SAP, the giant German business software company, on Sunday reported disappointing earnings, saying that demand for its products, particularly relating to business travel, was recovering more slowly than expected because of the new lockdowns. Its shares fell more than 20 percent on Monday.

“The real disappointing news is out of SAP,” said Matt Maley, chief market strategist at Miller Tabak, an asset management firm. “Their guidance is giving investors a reality check about what a renewed round of lockdowns will have on earnings.”

Several large American technology companies with similar businesses fell after SAP’s report. Hewlett Packard Enterprise dropped 4.4 percent. Oracle dropped 4 percent. IBM fell 3.3 percent.

Tourism-related stocks like cruise-ship operators and airlines were also hammered on Monday. These companies have suffered the most from lockdowns, travel restrictions and the drop in demand for flights, cruises and hotels as consumers around the world are encouraged not to take unnecessary risks. And their share prices have become something of a bellwether for investor sentiment toward the pandemic.

Royal Caribbean Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line were down 9.7 percent and 8.5 percent, putting them among the worst-performing stocks in the S&P 500. United Airlines fell about 7 percent, while Marriott International dropped 5.6 percent.

Worry spread to other markets as well, with crude oil futures down more than 3 percent.

Coronavirus case numbers have risen to new highs in the United States in recent days. At the same time, the prospects of more assistance for shuttered businesses and laid-off workers have dimmed considerably with the presidential election just eight days away.

Over the last couple of weeks, the outside chance that a last-minute stimulus package could be cobbled together by congressional Democrats and the White House has helped to offset concerns about the pandemic and fueled gains in stocks. But that optimism began to fade late last week as talks failed to advance, and, combined with the worsening virus, set off the sell-off Monday, analysts said.

“It’s a perfect recipe for a market pullback,” said Doug Rivelli, president of the institutional brokerage firm Abel Noser in New York.

Economists have warned that government spending is crucial to ensuring that the American economy is able to bounce back from the coronavirus crisis.

The political climate, with things as diverse as concern about a contested election and the potential vacuum of information that could follow Election Day as votes are still counted, has also increased turbulence on Wall Street lately.

Stocks rallied earlier this month on the expectation that a clean sweep by Democrats could lead to a more clear-cut outcome and a wave of government spending to prop up the economy.

But with the losses on Monday factored in, most of those gains have been erased, and the S&P 500 is now about 5 percent below a high it reached in early September.

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CDC Says Nurses Are at High Risk for Covid-19

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Among health care workers, nurses in particular have been at significant risk of contracting Covid-19, according to a new analysis of hospitalized patients by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings were released Monday as a surge of new hospitalizations swept the country, with several states hitting record levels of cases.

About 6 percent of adults hospitalized from March through May were health care workers, according to the researchers, with more than a third either nurses or nursing assistants. Roughly a quarter, or 27 percent, of those hospitalized workers were admitted to the intensive care unit, and 4 percent died during their hospital stay.

The study looked at 6,760 hospitalizations across 13 states, including California, New York, Ohio and Tennessee.

Health care workers “can have severe Covid-19-associated illness, highlighting the need for continued infection prevention and control in health care settings as well community mitigation efforts to reduce transmission,” the researchers said.

From the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, front-line medical personnel have complained of shortages of personal protective equipment. Some of the shortages abated for a while, but supplies have become strained in certain areas of the country as a surge of coronavirus outbreaks has reached daily records.

“We need more testing,” said Michelle Mahon, assistant director of nursing practice at National Nurses United, a union whose members have been vocal from the beginning of the pandemic about the dangers they faced without adequate supplies and protection.

Calling the findings no surprise, Ms. Mahon criticized federal officials for not having more robust guidelines in place. Her organization, which issued a report on workers’ deaths last month, says about 2,000 health care workers have so far died from the virus.

She says that workers should be tested more frequently so they can be identified and isolated so the infection does not spread, and that supplies of protective gear remain uneven, with some facilities unprepared for an increase in cases.

Even though workers may be taking more precautions and treatments have improved in recent months, the analysis underscored how vulnerable many individuals are because of underlying health conditions, which include diabetes and high blood pressure. Almost three-quarters of those hospitalized were obese, a high-risk category for death, the study showed.

The majority had cared directly for patients, whether in a hospital, home or school setting. It could not be determined whether the individuals contracted the virus at work or in the community, but the study highlighted the potential risk faced by nurses who serve as front-line workers “because of their frequent and close patient contact, leading to extended cumulative exposure time.”

Most of the hospitalized workers in the analysis were female. They also tended to be older, and more were Black employees than the overall group of health care workers who contracted the virus.

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