Canadian Music Trade - In Depth

Selling Online in the COVID Era

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of Canadian Music Trade.

By Michael Raine

Possibly never has shopping behaviour shifted as suddenly as it has in the last seven months. In the U.S., online sales increased 42% year-over-year in August 2020, which was actually a slowdown from the previous month. Even more dramatically, in August, BOPIS (buy online, pickup in-store) sales shot up 259% year-over-year, according to Adobe Analytics. E-commerce has, of course, been a larger and larger part of the retail equation for many years, but in March 2020, it suddenly became the only option for any non-essential products, including MI.

“Some businesses were ahead of the game and were already running online, but a lot of them had to make that shift. With challenges like that, it forces innovation and it forces change in how this retail market works [and] with that type of evolution and progress, very rarely does it backtrack,” says Madison Revell, lead designer at Inbound AV, who has worked with a number of MI retail and pro audio companies on their websites and presented at NAMM U multiple times. “Whereas [six months ago] you had, ‘Okay, we’re shifting everything online and trying to get that rolling,’ now you’re starting to see a little more balance. Business owners are able to open their brick-and-mortar stores again, yet they’ve spent months working on these online platforms and now they’re seeing the benefits of having a wider reach, a wider audience, and being able to do business online. You see them doing more of this juggling and balancing between, ‘Okay, let’s have this physical store, but now that we’ve seen the benefits and now that customers are used to online orders, let’s try to do both.’”

For customers, this involuntary mass shift towards e-commerce has removed any lingering fear or mistrust of online shopping. Those who rarely or never shopped online now have, and those who did but wouldn’t previously, say, by large-ticket items online now are. And with this increase in online shopping, Revell says ecommerce platforms have had to adapt. Many of the old best practices still apply, of course, but some strategies have gone from “recommended” to “required,” and other elements are new and unique to the current circumstances.

To begin with something that’s clearly the result of the times, it’s important to acknowledge the situation. Meaning, an announcement bar, pop-up, or some other element on the homepage that acknowledges the pandemic and includes up-to-date information on how you’re responding.

“What it shows is that you acknowledge what’s going on and your website and business are up-to-date and with the times. If you go on a retail business’s website right now and there’s just nothing about it, it’s almost like, one, are they still there? And two, are they living in the same world as the rest of us? That goes to a main point that that I think is just as important, and that’s being open and honest with your customers,” says Revell. “Transparency and authenticity are everything right now… So, making sure that businesses are realistically acknowledging what’s happening in the world. Sometimes I’ll go onto a website that doesn’t have anything [regarding the pandemic] and it makes me feel like, ‘Well, they haven’t updated this thing in six months, so how do I know the products that are here are what accurately reflects their inventory?’”

(To intrude with my own anecdotal experience regarding this point: in compiling
the 2021 Directory of Suppliers for this issue of CMT, I visited dozens of small suppliers’ websites to verify information, and when there was no acknowledgement of the pandemic or at least some other signal that the website had been recently updated, it left me wondering if the business was still operating.)

Related to the above point about transparency and authenticity, it’s also important to be upfront and honest about any issues or inconveniences. Luckily, customers are currently more understanding than usual about such things because we’re all living through it.

“It’s also acknowledging the consequences of what’s happening. So, for instance, if you have an online store, everything has been affected. If you have limited stock or inventory because the supply chain has been affected, let your customers know. If you’re taking a little bit longer for order fulfillment because of an influx of orders coming in, let people know. It’s okay. You don’t have to cover it up, and if you are upfront with customers, people really appreciate that right now,” Revell adds. “They’re a bit more understanding because of everything that’s going on. But if you don’t say anything and I order something that was supposed to be here in five days and it’s taking three weeks, I’m going to be pretty upset. But if I am buying it and you have a little note that says, ‘Hey, due to the pandemic and delays in order fulfillment, it may take a little longer than normal,’ I’m like, ‘Okay, that’s not ideal but I get it.’”

As well, providing upfront and timely information extends to return policies. One of the barriers to getting customers comfortable with buying big-ticket items has long been concerns over how to return the product if, say, it arrives damaged. It’s also likely that retailers’ return policies have been updated because of the current situation. They may, for example, have extended the number of days customers have to return a product. “If they know what your stance is before they buy and how they can deal with that, it reassures customers and shows them that you’re thinking about their experience and making sure that this is as convenient for them as possible so that they are happy in the end.”

In the category of “previously recommended, now needed” is a chat function on the website. “Online chat, or just in general being accessible to your online customers, whether that’s through email or automation or even a phone number, that’s how you make up for the fact that you can’t have that in-person experience,” says Revell.

After all, being able to answer questions promptly and provide some actual interaction goes a long way towards building trust in any scenario. “You don’t have employees who are able to ask, ‘Hey, can I help you with anything?’ or, ‘Can I answer any of your questions?’ So, that really makes up for it and can create a friendlier and more positive user experience for your customer.”

Another business feature that’s become more advisable in the age of ubiquitous online shopping is the ability for someone to buy a large-ticket item on your e-commerce store and get it financed. Thankfully, for stores with an e-commerce site, access to online credit has become a lot easier.

“As far as online credit goes, any of those enticing ‘take advantage of this opportunity’ and those types of features that you can promote and push to customers that encourages online behaviour that they’re already warming up to just makes the experience that much better,” adds Revell.

Lastly, as more and more of your business shifts online and is not done face-to-face, it’s increasingly important to stay in touch with customers. It can be through the chat function, email, SMS messaging, or new personalized messaging tools (though, of course, make sure you’re getting proper permissions).

“Staying in touch with customers is super critical, especially right now, because so much of it is online,” Revell says. “You have this customer behaviour where people are becoming more physically isolated and more digitally integrated at the same time. So, with that, whether it’s getting someone to sign up for a mailing list and doing email automations or having that onsite chat that we talked about, personalized messaging, there are a lot of tools available to keep in touch with people visiting your site to get feedback, or request they leave a review once they have the product – just creating that engagement so that you’re not left in the dark. By doing that and staying in touch, you know what your customers are wanting and needing.”

What much of this comes down to is honest, authentic, and personable communication. Through your website, make it crystal clear that you’re still going, you’re there to serve, and you care. Now more than ever, customers will appreciate it.

Watch the NAMM U online sessin, "Website Strategies in the New Normal," with Inbound AV's Peter Malick and Madison Revell: