In the “Before Times,” as some now call it, e-commerce was already on the rise. Online shopping became standard practice in the mid- to late-2010s thanks to its ease of use and the growing popularity of social media.
Over the last year, however, the e-commerce industry has boomed once again thanks to COVID-19.
While Amazon has only strengthened its grip on the entire industry, 17 U.S. retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2020, including JCPenney, J.Crew, Lord & Taylor and Pier 1 Imports. U.S. Commerce Department data from December 2020 showed consumer spending through non-store channels grew 31 percent compared to November 2019. Furthermore, online sales accounted for 21 percent of total retail sales in 2020, up from 15.8 percent in 2019 and 14.3 percent in 2018.
Unlike e-commerce, virtual business events weren’t quite becoming mainstream for companies and executives prior to March 2020. But COVID-19 forced all of us to rapidly adapt our daily routines, and for businesses, that meant pivoting to the online arena. According to a Wild Apricot survey, the number of organizations planning a virtual event doubled in 2020. The survey also found that organizations that did not try to engage virtual event attendees were 150% more likely to be unsuccessful.
So, after more than 365 days of Zoom conference calls, working from home, curbside pickup and contactless delivery, is it too late to put the genie back in the bottle? Are core pillars of the face-to-face business era permanently in the rearview mirror?
There isn’t a black-and-white answer, but some of our own discoveries here at Pipitone could serve as a bellwether of where things are headed. Over the past year, Pipitone has helped several of our clients – including Axiall, Mission Critical Partners, Presbyterian SeniorCare Network, Vitro Architectural Glass, Bobrick and Envisage – establish and promote virtual conferences and Continuing Education webinars for their various audiences, including employees, during the pandemic. At Vitro alone, their national architectural managers have been offering monthly continuing education webinars that have enabled them to reach and serve hundreds more architects than they ever did when they presented the same courses in person. While some clients will cut back the number of virtual events they offer this year, all of them have plans to continue hosting virtual conferences and webinars through 2021.
And with COVID-19 making in-person sales meetings challenging, both Bobrick and Vitro pivoted to add live chat functions on their websites, allowing for instantaneous, effective communication with current and prospective customers. Through live chats, both building product manufacturers have been able to serve their customers when they need help most – at the exact moment they have questions or problems they can’t solve themselves. Live chat has enabled hundreds more personal connections between customer service staff and web visitors each month, enabling staff to share expert product knowledge, establish rapport with customers, and build brand trust. Both Bobrick and Vitro have plans to keep their live chat functionality through 2021 and beyond.
Bottom line: While the pivot to e-commerce and virtual events was quick and unexpected, each of our clients has enjoyed positive outcomes and feedback from their virtual efforts. While online meetings and events offer many perks (more cost-effective, no travel required, wider reach), they also present challenges (audience engagement, technical difficulties).
As more people become vaccinated and life slowly returns to a relative normal, we expect that e-commerce and virtual events will not take the place of in-person meetings, but rather serve as a supplemental option, resulting in a “hybrid model.” In other words, even if we soon return to movie theaters and concert halls, it seems that the public’s appetite for online shopping and business meetings is not subsiding anytime soon.
At Pipitone Group, we’re proud to share our experiences and expertise with you. Explore more Pipitone Group blogs and podcasts—and if you want to connect about any of these insights, please contact us.