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The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a massive shift in consumer behavior — not just what people are buying, but how, when and where they’re buying it. Stay-at-home orders, closure of “non-essential” businesses and a dramatic upturn in remote work are some of the factors behind the shift, and as a result, some industries have unexpectedly rebounded or taken off while others have gone almost completely dark.
As far as e-commerce, it’s not too difficult to find out what’s doing well and what isn’t. But in all that data, are there any clear takeaways for online sellers? While bearing in mind the possibility of additional, unexpected catastrophes, there are a few bets that seem pretty darn safe. Here they are, along with the data to back them up:
Online grocery will keep growing
Groceries now account for 12% of ecommerce sales. Even though only 44% of baby boomers say they’re fine with grocery shopping online, that number rises to 77% in the younger generations, and nearly 60% of all consumers are using digital tools to get their groceries.
The sector will undergo a projected 17.8% growth in 2021, and maybe most tellingly of all, 73% of shoppers say they’ll continue to use direct-to-consumer methods for purchasing essentials even after the pandemic is completely over.
A look at trending e-commerce categories further confirms it: online grocery shopping is here to stay. Out of the top 10 fastest growing categories, six consist of items you’d normally get at your local supermarket: soup, grains and rice, packaged foods, fruit cups, milk and cream and dishwashing supplies. In fact, a full 66 out of the top 100 are all categories you’d find in most grocery stores, and you could probably get many items from the remaining 34 categories at some supermarkets as well (nail care, hair coloring, potty training supplies, allergy medications, bread machines, smoking cessation products, etc.).
Social distancing dominates the downward trends
GlobalWebIndex reports that 39% of millennials have cut back on non-essential spending because of Covid, but that statistic leans heavily on a specific definition of “non-essential.” The reality is that plenty of non-essential spending is still happening, even if it’s down in general. Bread-making machines, hair dye, ping pong equipment and Play-Doh are all items you’ll find within the top 100 fastest growing e-commerce categories, but you’d have a tough time arguing that any of those are truly “essential.”
What’s obvious in combing through the fastest declining categories, though, is that most relate to activities you’d normally (or at least frequently) be doing outside the home in a social setting. Travel tops the list, with luggage, briefcases, cameras, gym bags and swimwear for men and women making up six of the top 10 categories. The others in the top 10 tell a similar story — bridal clothing, men’s formal wear, women’s formal wear, rash guards (athletic tops) and boy’s athletic shoes.
Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Building a Profitable Ecommerce Business
People are still exercising (home gym equipment is up over 300%), but not playing sports (active clothing, track & field equipment, sneakers, swimming equipment, camping gear — all down by at least 39%). They’re still working hard (office desks up 89%, computer monitors up 172%), but they’re going to work less (briefcases down 77%, automotive parts down 40-50%). The old “second workplace” is being ghosted, too (golf clubs down 33%).
E-commerce in general will continue to strengthen
Barring a giant solar flare or some other catastrophe that destroys our global network of online services (and potentially the human race), this one seems less like an educated guess and more like a sure thing. Not only has online shopping skyrocketed, but fewer new brick-and-mortar business locations opened in 2020 than in the previous three years.
Global e-commerce sales are expected to increase by around 14% in 2021, and worldwide sales aren’t too far away from $5 trillion. Considering that consumers spent a whole extra hour per day online in 2020, that milestone will most likely come sooner than later.
Leveraging the data
All of this means that it’s a good time to be in the online retail game — and if you’re not, to jump on the bandwagon. Of course, just because the overall trend has been an upward one, not all online sellers have fared so well. Ups and downs, dark clouds and silver linings, it’s all been said and it’s all still true. So what can entrepreneurs do to keep themselves profitable?
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If things are going nicely already, maybe now is the time to double your investment in your business as a whole, focusing on marketing and producing the most relevant products and services. Realign your emphasis on these products and reevaluate the ones who aren’t performing as well. If you can round up some additional cash to throw down or have faith in your credit line, let the data be your guide to getting while the getting’s good.
On the other hand, if you’re treading water, it could be time to reevaluate what you’re selling, given known shifts in consumer behavior. It doesn’t have to mean redesigning your whole business, though. It may be possible to turn the tide by just changing your product lineup, packaging it differently, or trying a new marketing technique. It could be as simple as looking through your product listings and updating them with relevant terms. If you notice your products have features and benefits that could be relevant to today’s market, be sure to highlight that in your product description. Funnel money into marketing this product in this way. Pivoting is the name of the game. If you’re in this bucket, make it a point to work with your suppliers to help you pivot — they’re probably hurting, too.
Regardless, if you’re in a tough spot as an online retailer, this would be the worst time to give up. The gravy train is speeding up and has plenty of room for more passengers. A few minor, strategic adjustments will probably be enough to validate your ticket for another few stops.