5 E-commerce Lessons Brands Can Learn from the Coronavirus Outbreak

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about an extraordinary level of uncertainty in the CPG industry. During this challenging time, leaders cannot allow themselves to be consumed with stress, but should instead embrace the fact that the only certainty in life is uncertainty. With that mindset, it becomes vital to focus on the valuable lessons that we can learn in these trying times.

There are a number of social, economic, political, humanitarian and moral lessons that we can learn from the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19. There are also several business lessons that we can learn, particularly in relation to e-commerce. In this article, I will highlight five of the lessons that I believe are most relevant to e-commerce executives at major CPG brands.

Inventory Redundancy Is Key

Arguably the most hallowed “Golden Rule” within the CPG industry is to always be in stock. It’s doubtful that any brand was fully prepared for how fast Americans transitioned from normal consumer behavior to stockpiling for restricted living during COVID-19. Because of that, retailers were left with bare shelves that created a perpetual cycle of increased panic as photos of empty stores went viral online. As shopping behavior quickly adjusted to the digital channel, online retailers saw their inventory bought up in virtually seconds, and third-party fulfillment partners such as Instacart struggled to find enough labor to meet the increased demand of shoppers.

While there will be many huge lessons CPG brands can learn from the coronavirus outbreak, it’s hard to imagine an area that will see more improvements than the supply chain. As the clouds begin to clear from the COVID-19 storm, you will start to hear a lot about the technology being implemented into the supply chain, from 5G to robotics to machine learning. That being said, the easiest fix could be for brands to own at least a single retail distribution point. I often tell clients that if you control your distribution, you control your future. While retail partners will still own the majority share of total CPG revenue, COVID-19 should provide a perfect excuse to create direct-to-consumer strategies that create inventory redundancy when your customers need it the most.

Monitor Rogue 3P Sellers

“I can’t believe Brand XYZ would take advantage of us by selling that toilet paper for $30 when it usually costs $10.” As shoppers rushed online to buy much-needed CPG items on Amazon, some witnessed unfair pricing practices from opportunistic third-party sellers taking advantage of extreme national supply constraints. While Amazon has removed hundreds of thousands of these listings, brands still face public backlash around the perception that they are “pandemic profiteering.” Reality is, even the savviest online shoppers don’t necessarily understand whether a first- or third-party seller owns the buy box on marketplaces.

Because of that, CPG brands need to be extremely diligent with monitoring their listings’ third-party sellers. To combat future issues, brands should consider adding a price tracking tool that catches unusual activity and assigning a team member to manually keep an eye out for rouge activity like new unauthorized listings.

Communication Is the Ultimate Equalizer

While it might seem easier to bury your head in the sand, strong communication should be at the core of every risk management plan. Every stakeholder in your business is inundated with an onslaught of information, and the uncertainty of that information creates a stronger need to separate facts from fiction. Without a continuous flow of accurate communication, CPG brands risk their stakeholders filling in the gaps with worst-case scenarios. Here are four areas to consider when bolstering your communication:

  • Front-end customer transparency: Utilize corporate social media accounts, blogs, and press releases to provide information to the consumer market on impactful areas of your business, so you can set expectations at the appropriate level.
  • Retail partners: Encourage communication with decision-makers at your B2B customers that is both concise and packed with relevant information, so they can make decisions that best serve their customer bases.
  • Back-end customer service: Even with front-end customer transparency, there will be feedback loops that will likely get more use during this period of time, so make sure you have extra coverage for combing website reviews and fielding inquiries through social media.

Customer Retention Matters

Unless you are selling the most in-demand CPG products, it is time to shift your mindset from customer acquisition to customer retention. As consumer budgets tighten from the effects of restricted living and increased unemployment, the business environment doesn’t look positive for gaining tons of new customers — but it sure has the potential for you to lose some. With that being said, Gallup research shows that supporting your loyal brand advocates could “return a 23% premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue and relationship growth over the average customer.” Instead of thinking about digital marketing as a way to create more short-term revenue, it would be prudent for CPG brands to focus on adding valuable brand equity by:

  • Utilizing brand partnerships to boost exposure within complementary or ancillary audiences
  • Working with social media influencers to add expertise in areas that solve your customers’ new pain points
  • Reaching out directly to every customer, especially your top tier, to ensure they feel valued in uneasy times

Continuously Optimize Product Content

The consumer landscape has changed drastically in the last month, so it’s important to understand how events like COVID-19 affect search behavior. While it might not be appropriate to completely overhaul your high-performing product listings, popular uses of your product may change during these events, providing opportunities to rank for new trending keywords. During a global health crisis like COVID-19, brands that offer products that fulfill ongoing market needs should strategically optimize their listings to ensure products have maximum visibility in search results.

Additionally, if your products have alternative use cases that would be relevant to quarantined shoppers during this unprecedented time, consider showcasing these in your copy and images. Tailoring the features and benefits in your content to the unique seasonal needs of your customers is a great way to boost your conversion rates.


Within a few weeks’ time, millions of American shoppers who were slow to adopt online grocery have started scrolling the digital shelves. Most of these shoppers would have eventually transitioned online anyways, but the coronavirus accelerated that transition at such a rapid pace that it created cracks in the system. Cracks are ugly and even the smallest ones can grow to create compounding effects, so it’s critical that CPG brands analyze why they happened and fix them to safeguard from similar future events.

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