As of Wednesday, the 26th of February, the number of Coronavirus cases globally is greater than those in China alone. As the virus continues to spread across continents, new ramifications of the deadly outbreak are being revealed daily. How is this impacting eCommerce operations and what can retailers do in response to those challenges?
Supply chain disruption
With the quarantine of Wuhan, China, and more than a dozen other cities in a region known as a manufacturing hub, more than 45 days of manufacturing have been lost to date. The ripple effect this has across the global supply chain is becoming more apparent as companies are being forced to halt production of finished goods due to lack of necessary parts provided by the quarantined region. This supply scarcity is resulting in product availability challenges for retailers across industries (from auto manufacturers to apparel brands) that could continue to worsen in the latter half of 2020.
For example, if the quarantines continue, US fashion brands dependent on materials from China are anticipating negative impacts on inventory levels for summer and fall product lines. This shortage would likely result in a just-in-time inventory approach leveraging multiple inventory piles across the country and fulfilling orders through split shipments. This means doubled freight and labor costs and a less than ideal customer experience. Split shipments also require omnichannel systems capable of optimizing inventory across channels and equipping stores to fulfill online orders where possible.
Online shopping preferred
According to UBS Global Wealth Management Chief Economist Donovan, the fact that the market share of eCommerce is significantly higher today than it was during the last major outbreak in 2002 (SARS) could reduce the economic impact of coronavirus. Fear is a leading cause of economic disruption though, and consumers could still potentially get scared into tightening their spending should conditions worsen.
That said, consumers are more likely to turn to online shopping as they seek to avoid risking infection in crowded spaces such as grocery stores. For instance, JD.com, China’s largest online retailer, has seen sales of household staples such as rice and flour quadruple since the same period the previous year. There have also been more than 222 million downloads from Apple’s online store in China since the beginning of February, a surge of 40% compared to the 2019 average.
Focus on the customer experience
With so much chaos around this outbreak, it is important that retailers not lose sight of the customer. Brands who go the extra mile to address customer frustrations due to the impacts of Coronavirus will make a positive impression on consumers that can only encourage brand loyalty in the end.
The current situation in quarantined Italy is a great example of how brands can choose to proactively address issues to appease consumers. Carriers are not able to deliver shipments to households within quarantined cities in Italy, so orders shipped to these areas are being returned to distribution centers. To avoid additional shipping charges, eCommerce distribution centers should implement system alerts to hold orders for these locations until the quarantine is lifted. At the same time, retailers should prepare to account for increased volumes in contact centers from customers in quarantined regions looking for an explanation. Training agents to handle these inquiries with appropriate sensitivity to the frustrating circumstance can help ensure a positive brand representation.
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