Ecommerce in COVID-19: Local businesses rise to meet these new challenges
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
The way we do business has changed. Ecommerce has been a growing trend for years — COVID-19 didn’t start the fire, but the sudden (and complete, in some cases) drop in walk-in customers could either spell the end of a large number of companies or the beginning of a new approach to service and product delivery.
We sat down with Aaron Whitman, the President and Chief Strategist of Able Sense, a small Halifax ecommerce agency with big talent, that has been providing ecommerce design, development and strategy expertise to merchants for the past decade.
Local businesses with global reachAble Sense has built an impressive portfolio of their award-winning work with local and international businesses — and local businesses that have become global businesses due to ecommerce.
The company launched in 2010 as a website design and development studio. They have transformed into a full-service ecommerce website development studio, helping Nova Scotia Business Inc. client companies like Dormie Workshop and Faire Child build and renew their ecommerce sites to allow them to grow and become thriving global exporters.
To stay competitive — or even viable — right now, merchants around the world are realizing how important it is to have a way to sell their products and services online. Able Sense works exclusively with Canadian ecommerce superplatform Shopify and Shopify Plus. Whitman stands behind this choice completely. “I love Shopify. Why would anyone not choose it? It’s continuously identified and removed barriers to success for entrepreneurs.”
When it’s business-as-usual, the benefits of ecommerce are many: from letting your customers ship larger items to their homes, to encouraging tourists to be repeat customers when they return home, to fully reaping the benefits of word-of-mouth and social media sharing when your customers talk about your products and services to their friends, family and followers, ecommerce is one of the best ways to be able to say “yes” to customers, anywhere on the globe.
Thinking outside the brick-and-mortar
However, during restrictions to walk-in traffic, it’s the best way to still reach and sell to — and even expand — your customer base. From ordering products with curbside pickup or home delivery to offering gift cards so that loyal customers can support you until they can come back for a visit, there are unlimited ways (within provincial regulations of course) to harness ecommerce for local businesses. Popular restaurants and Nova Scotian craft breweries alike have set up online ordering for delivery to customers’ homes.
I am hearing from so many people, “I wish I had done this three years ago.”
It seems that it’s not just ecommerce, though. Creativity is key. Whitman cites two local businesses at opposite ends of the scale that are thriving during the pandemic. Le French Fix, a small local bakery, was facing closure when they lost their walk-in customers. The owner pivoted and turned his little bakery into a one-man pastry kit shop. He now accepts online orders up to a cut-off and has a set window for pickup every weekend. Big companies like 160-year-old Stanfields are hiring 108 extra staff to make PPE.
Hiring in a pandemic
New business models can mean new opportunities. Able Sense is just one of the companies that are actively hiring to meet the influx of new business in this new reality, moving as quickly as they can to meet their clients’ needs.
Their biggest export is Exportify, a Shopify App that integrates with complementary technology like tech partner Zapiet’s Store Pickup and Delivery app, which really hits the nail on the head for the current needs of curbside pickup and home delivery. Due to the pandemic, sales of their app have increased 600% around the world. They have seen massive growth in perishables (farmers’ meat, milk and eggs; food and restaurants; florists) and sellers of alcohol (breweries, wineries, cideries, distilleries).
What could be seen as a great problem to have also means an increase in work, and Whitman admits that he can’t expect his staff to work overtime every day. “But there’s definitely enough work for it. Due to the explosive growth, we need a plan to shift to 24/7 support just to keep up with Exportify.” And that means they need more staff.
With many companies hit hard because their client base shut down, there are skilled people available — but how to find them? They have to think differently, change the way they reach out, says Whitman. Hiring without meeting people in person may feel scary and counterintuitive, but it’s necessary right now; the old expectation that a prospective hire would come to the office for an interview doesn’t work in COVID-19. They manage with what’s available: virtual meetings and discussions by phone.
Tech tools and managing mindsets
Able Sense’s office on Duke Street, which they moved into just a year ago, sits empty, but there is still rent to pay. Luckily, business has been especially booming since isolation measures were mandated. Whitman and his staff quickly transitioned into a work-at-home model, and it’s been working well. “We’ve always been ‘office-centric’,” he says. “We’ve never been a remote company. We’re used to working remotely with global clients, but together.”
“I trust my team. I like my team,” Whitman says. He misses the daily discussions in the office but relies on Google Meet, Slack and BaseCamp to keep the conversation going, using Zoom and Microsoft Teams if clients wish. “We’re lucky that communication between the team and our clients is easily accessible. We are able to adapt and continue to support merchants and business owners through these times.”
Tons of new work and the same amount of people means that, until they can hire and train enough staff, there will be stress. Aaron knows that he is definitely working too much. He worries about clients’ unrealistic expectations right now, as well. “Everyone wants things sooner, but we have other clients; we are experts and professionals, and are spread thin.”
Erin Lee, Able Sense’s Lead Designer said, “The biggest challenge in transitioning [to working from home] was separating work from home. Of course, scheduling will be different for everyone, but keeping that separation is key to avoiding burnout.”
The rest of the staff agrees. Timelines may shift, but the work will get done, and well. The team are all self-professed perfectionists, which makes working at this pace a challenge. As for responsiveness, they’re doing their best. “Some of the enquiries are, frankly, pretty angry, from stressed merchants. We know they’re not really like this; they’re frustrated and scared about the situation.” They try to respond quickly, professionally and with empathy.
Able Sense team members including Erin Lee, Lead Designer, during less-complicated, Jenga-friendly times.
Bringing ecommerce to everyone
“I’ve worked more hours in the past month than any month of my career.” On top of the uptick in business, Whitman has also recently been interviewed on the Isolation Tapes podcast and presented a webinar for Tourism Nova Scotia with partners DigitalNS, on Shopify for Tourism, to explain to tourism-driven businesses ways to harness ecommerce in smart and innovative ways that grow their customer relationships and reach new audiences. He’s booked to present another webinar with NSCC, and Able Sense runs quarterly Halifax Shopify Meetups. “We’re helping make ecommerce less intimidating. I am hearing from so many people, ‘I wish I had done this three years ago.’”
The bottom line
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that we do business, for better or worse, but overall, has it been a challenge or an opportunity? “Both,” declares Whitman. “But businesses that can pivot and react will make a lot of money. Everyone is now buying online, which really opens up the markets for global exports.”
Ecommerce will transform business, Whitman promises. From small businesses like Le French Fix, to giants like Stanfields, “Nothing works the same way now. Those that embrace the new normal and figure out their new place in it will thrive.”
Dormie Workshop is a Nova Scotia golf head company with lots of export to the US. With the goal of bringing fellow golfers really cool headcovers and allowing the customer to be involved in the process, Dormie Workshop is all about a high-end product that represents their passion for design and individuality combined with functionality and practicality.
Faire Child’s vision of creating sustainable clothing for children resonated with their customers, and after a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign, they shipped their first products in March 2018. Faire Child Makewear's mission is to create clothes that encourage kids to play outside and to make the smallest possible impact on the environment throughout the entire product lifecycle. Their unique fabric is water-resistant, breathable and can be recycled indefinitely.