By Cas Paton, founder and CEO of OnBuy.com
There’s no doubt we’re in uncharted waters; the coronavirus pandemic has created a level of disruption that generations of people won’t have experienced before. As the prime minister said recently: “coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades”. It’s had an impact on almost every sector – healthcare, transport, communications, education – with almost none immune. Countless businesses face a challenging few months ahead.
Online retailers are no exception – and the e-commerce sector has felt the strain from both sides of the fence.
On the one side, people are minimising spending on non-essential products, which poses a serious challenge for smaller, more niche retailers. For the majority of the population, purchasing essential products – food, medical supplies, hygiene products and household items – is the primary focus. Toilet roll, handwash, pasta and painkillers are just some of the essential items to have frequently disappeared from shelves in recent weeks.
The furloughing of staff and strain on the self-employed is also having an impact; people are uncertain about their jobs and financial prospects following the lockdown and are potentially facing months with lower or basic pay. A recent YouGov poll has suggested that one in 20 people in the UK have lost a job due to the coronavirus pandemic, while 14% have already had their hours reduced.
Here at OnBuy.com, we saw a significant impact to our platform in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. We experienced an initial 60% drop in sales from sellers based in China alone, equivalent to a loss of around £1 million. However, after this initial downturn, we have seen sales increase once again, and like many larger marketplaces, are now facing an entirely different issue.
The coronavirus crisis is forcing people around the world to live their lives online – and that includes shopping. As supermarkets struggle to keep up with demand and with the high street closed for the foreseeable future, consumers are turning to marketplaces like OnBuy.com to purchase supplies.
For some, this has put a huge strain on resources. For example, last month online shopping delivery service Ocado announced that it had suspended its food delivery service after experiencing a higher demand that it could meet. More recently, the online grocer halted its ‘Ocado Reserved’ service, stating: “…the unprecedented demand we are experiencing has broken the system which had worked successfully for years.”
With the online marketplace sector facing challenges from both sides, it’s our ability to adapt which will ultimately help us weather this storm.
At OnBuy, we acted quickly – we have improvised and put measures in place to protect our staff, sellers and customers. We recognise that eCommerce is important as it allows the public to avoid leaving their houses, but workers in the sector also have to minimise the risk they take as well. Social distancing, PPE and coronavirus business policies have all been put in place to help keep staff protected while still enabling us to deliver essential supplies to our customers’ homes.
Our IT team is working around the clock to maintain our website’s infrastructure under the increased demand to ensure we remain available for customers who need to order online, and so that our sellers can keep trading. Our customer care team is helping to answer any and all questions from consumers. Our support team is doing whatever they can to help sellers manage their accounts. In addition, we have also waived our standard monthly subscription fee for any sellers who find themselves cut off from their usual revenue streams, for the next three months. Put simply, without sellers, marketplaces like OnBuy would not exist, so we are doing everything we can to protect our sellers and support small businesses through this turbulent time.
In addition, our product team is also taking the necessary action to protect our customers. This pandemic has sadly created an unsavoury marketplace for customers, where prices of high-demand items like hand soap are being drastically inflated, and product names are being inaccurately changed to entice buyers.
Over the past few weeks, we have experienced an influx of new sellers flooding the site, and have had to stop more than 200 of them profiting from people’s desperation during this pandemic, and will continue to monitor our platform to ensure customers are protected from price gouging.
The current situation is changing on a daily basis, and we are likely going to be facing these challenges for a number of months. It is vital that online marketplaces, no matter their size, have a strong crisis plan in place which is reviewed on a regular basis and adapted to fit the ongoing needs of employees, customers and the sellers that rely on us for their income.
Only time will tell the lasting impact of this virus – the e-commerce landscape may be a very different place when we come out the other side. However, by making quick decisions, strengthening our IT systems and protecting our people, this sector will become more agile, and will adapt to the increasing rate of change today and beyond.