The Epic eCommerce Excuses of 2020

For brands who have long diminished eCommerce as meaningful to their strategy, the coronavirus is a train full of chickens coming home to roost. And ooooh the excuses.

In the direct to consumer space especially, there is no greater example of companies being caught with their pants down than in eCommerce. There are some commentators who are much kinder than me, more forgiving. If you know a little about the field though, then you know that there is really no excuse for what we have seen from the likes of some in, “big retail”.

Not in 2020.

Commerce technologies and methods are well advanced and have been for donkeys. I’m not talking about the leading and bleeding edge stuff, like for instance, the AI driven frontier of autonomous orchestration et al. My commerce friends can geek out over that some other time.

Nope. I’m talking about the stock standard plumbing of eCommerce.

Front end design linked to a business logic layer with automation to systems of record, at scale. The benefit to both customer and brand has been undisputed, for years. And companies have been doing it, for years.

So, do I have any sympathy for the major retailer who had to create a holding page on their website, where visitors were asked to wait, while others finished shopping?


I’ve actually seen an email from an executive of that business stating, “this is not a technology issue”.

Yeah, and Pluto is neither a lovable cartoon doggy, nor a gigantic floating mass in outer space.

Now, I wouldn’t name them or that executive, ever. Their customers already know who they are… and besides they’re not alone in the swamp. All over the world, a bunch of very big brands with the very big budgets are right there with them.

“Oh but you don’t understand Aarron. You see, demand went through the roof. We had no way of managing our inventory under that pressure. We didn’t have visibility. The traffic on our website was too high. It is a pandemic Aarron. Be reasonable! This is a black swan!”

Sound familiar?

Now let’s be fair. Issues in the supply chain are real.

Everywhere in the world, the slow movement of raw materials and inability to congregate humans is affecting production of goods, and the massive flight reductions have delayed deliveries. Even that greatest of all eCommerce beasts, Amazon, have been throttling back up-sell techniques like product recommendations.

They are trying to sell less, and thus avoid customer disappointment. They value their long-term brand, over short-term transactions. Bravo. I’ll write about that some other time.

According to data from Shippit, overall online sales volume in Australia for instance, is 20 per cent higher than the iconic Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales of 2019, a trend we are seeing globally.

So yeah, demand explosion is real and supply chain pressure is real. But that has nothing to do with core eCommerce competence which enables brands to serve customers, and to manage their expectations. None of that is new.

What else is not new? Cloud “elasticity”, that’s what.

For those not versed, this simply means that the environments that host transactional applications like eCommerce engines are able to intelligently scale up computing power as demand increases and then drop away when that subsides. Ergo, it’s elastic.

Wala! No “waiting rooms” or “page timed out” amateur hour.

I was doing projects with this technology for government organizations — hardly early adopters! — back in 2014 for goodness sake. So the next time the violins start playing to the pangs of execs crying about the totally unexpected demand on their poor old eCommerce sites, do me favor:

Put a meat mullet through that violin.

These companies had the added cost benefit of trading in consumer markets of true scale. They have no excuse for their laggard status in the stone-cold obvious. And no, it’s not “transformation” just because you have a functioning commerce platform in 2020.

The truth is that any company that applied standard tech and practices from circa 2015, would be riding out this crisis in 2020 without an eCommerce hiccup in sight. You simply can’t fall so far behind because if the chickens come home to roost, you’re in trouble — especially in customer land.

Well, COVID19 is a train full of chickens.

Gartner’s Thomas O’Connor put it waaay more politely when he said that this will cause retailers to “rethink structural cost bases”. He is both eloquent, and right. But doing that now is like fixing the fence as the horse disappears into the distance.

Send a postcard Tonto!

So why did these companies systemically under-invest for so long? Well, many big retailers still live their life by the mantra: “gotta sweat the physical asset”.

If you have stink in your think, you’ll have a stragedy.

As the world has moved online and into our pockets, some look for ways to reconfirm a tunnel vision bias to bricks and mortar. Now, I don’t disagree that for many of them, these are key assets to leverage, but where we diverge is, how you do that. Brands need to re-imagine in-store experience to match today’s world, which is now channel-less and digital infused.

Very few get that. Their worldview doesn’t allow it. They have very limited understanding of digital (and phygital). So they marginalize it, and run a strategy borrowed from 1992.

For instance, in March 2020 Burlington announced plans to close down their webstore entirely (yep, you read that right), citing their low percentage online sales and restating their commitment to stores. As if they are mutually exclusive. And without a review of the strategy behind the numbers.

Even as a global pandemic took hold, they doubled down on this, ahem, stragedy.

Staggering isn’t it.

Elsewhere in my network, the CEO of another major retailer knew (much) better, but he too had a company board that didn’t. He battled away in 2019 to move seriously into eCommerce, knowing that even his company’s seriously-big-store format could not withstand society’s rapid evolution. He knew he needed to position his traditional brand to non-traditional consumers, and to non-traditional consumption habits.

To that boards’ credit, they did eventually back their CEO, but not without a fight. And all they have allowed him to do, is start… in 2020.

Hardly a growth mindset, and many of them will want it to fail. That’s just the way worldview’s work. Ironically, backing him on an eCommerce strategy right before COVID19 hit, does make them look like a flock of genius’. Some folks get lucky, despite themselves.

But for the most part, the companies that are meeting their customers with robust eCommerce capability, did NOT get lucky. They simply managed their business in the times within which they are called to manage their business.

Nothing more, nothing less. No genius moves. No crystal balls.

Perhaps one thing COVID19 has really bought home to us, is that generational change at boardroom and perhaps executive level is very overdue for some industries and organizations. If you are trying to figure out which ones, start with a visit to their webstore…

And by the way, that change not an age thing, but it sure is a think thing.

While you’re pondering all this, go out and spend some money with brands that are getting it right. Reward them for doing a good job. Make sure you share your appreciation with them and better yet, do it socially, do it publicly.

Be equal parts punisher and rewarder! That’s how a free market works, and thank goodness.

I BEG TO DIFFER! Growth & brand theory from a top 10 global thought leader (Thinkers360). SPINLEY.CO

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