When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, businesses and entire industries that had never emphasized e-commerce suddenly began selling primarily (or exclusively) online. Online food and beverage sales have jumped by almost 60% this year, and health and beauty products are up over 30% — two product categories that people primarily bought in-person before the pandemic.
Now that proximity is a public health hazard, e-commerce is a huge asset in any industry. Companies that would have never considered selling through a B2C website — in agriculture or alcohol and tobacco, for example — are enjoying huge online sales right now. In some cases, online and mobile sales have been a lifeline for companies that saw COVID-19 obliterate their traditional business models.
But not for everyone. The pandemic sent huge amounts of commerce online, but that doesn’t mean every company or industry was equipped to meet customers there. After all, success in e-commerce takes more than a website. Retailers also need complex transportation and delivery networks to handle fulfillment, plus an infrastructure of staff, technology, and leadership to make e-commerce truly work. No wonder early adopters have been more successful; Target, which has invested heavily in e-commerce for years, is seeing earnings up 80% over last year, while retailers with less digital experience are struggling to attract customers online.
It’s a tale of two pandemics: the best of times for some and the worst of times for others. The difference reveals the importance of digital transformation before the pandemic — and especially after.
Technological Change in a Post-COVID World
The economy was booming at the start of 2020, yet the unemployment rate was above 14% by April. Rarely in modern history have national fortunes taken such a swift and severe turn for the worse. No one could have seen these events of 2020 coming, but even with early warning, the speed of the effects would have caught anyone off-guard.
How quickly and capably a company managed to pivot was largely determined by their progress towards digital business transformation. Frito-Lay offers a good example. Before 2020, no one bought chips online. Once it became riskier to buy them in person, Frito-Lay launched Snacks.com, a B2C e-commerce site that makes it both easy and engaging to shop for Cheetos via the web. Not every snack retailer has had the foresight or the resources to create an attractive (and fully supported) online presence in a matter of weeks or months, which gives Frito-Lay a distinct advantage.
Online snack shopping is just one instance of companies leveraging a digital transformation strategy to make the most of an unprecedented situation. Nike is using apps to help people track their fitness during the pandemic and purchase the gear they need for new workouts. Best Buy is using a compelling website and curbside pickup to entice customers leery of venturing into the store. Thanks to existing progress made on a digital transformation road map, these and other brands have managed to adapt to the pandemic rather than be blindsided by it.
What We’ve Learned About Digital Transformation
The COVID-19 pandemic has proved that digital transformation isn’t just nice to have; it’s essential. And it’s not only a CIO priority, either. The imperative belongs to the CEO, spreads across the C-suite, and applies to every aspect of the enterprise. For example:
- Business development: Things like AI and machine learning have huge implications for business development. Imagine a neural network that could accurately project revenue. If those projections were larger than a company’s current targets, sales could adjust business development activities knowing that big, better numbers are possible.
- Human resources: The apps we use to manage our daily lives have yet to appear in the office (in most cases). Extending employee access to information, data, and communication tools through an app (or multiple apps) streamlines delivery and helps to keep everyone informed, especially when many are working remotely.
- Supply chains: Digital transformation services can and should have an impact on the physical space of the supply chain. Whatever a company promises on the front end, the supply chain must be able to deliver. Digitization makes it easier to fulfill that promise by keeping supply chains integrated and visible.
- Engagement: Staying connected to customers (both new and potential) along with employees in far-flung locations is critical at a time when in-person engagement is difficult. Everything from a high-quality website to company app can help preserve that link. Use surveys, notifications, loyalty points, and other tools to keep people engaged.
No matter how the COVID-19 pandemic concludes, it’s clear that things will never be the same. The digital behaviors people are adopting — buying groceries online, connecting via Zoom calls, working remotely — will become permanent features of the tech-driven future. There has never been a better time to pursue digital transformation — or a worse time to delay it any longer.