Crystal-balling the Next Wave in Retail with Sharon Gai,Global Director Market Places of Alibaba Group

By: Laura Anne Danaraj

In the wake of COVID-19, non-essential brick and mortar retail have been forced to shut their doors and those in operation are to adhere to mandatory social distancing measures and various health and safety guideline. As a result, the eCommerce business has been soaring with online orders surging by 108% year-over-year, according to Quantum Metric.

Well firstly, in all my years of online shopping, I have never bought perishable items, but in light of the pandemic, I just built my online cart filled with craft beers and snacks to binge watch Netflix the past half hour. Despite the nearest supermarket being a 10-minute stroll away, for now, I would rather keep away from public places and crowds. I’m sure many others are starting to adapt to this “new normal”, stocking up on necessities and discovering many unknown offerings bestowed by eCommerce.

Secondly, I’ve been looking out for inspirations to keep myself busy since I’m stuck at home- re-decorating my living and working space, indulging in cooking cuisines I’ve never dreamt of and reassigning the dollars I used to keep aside for weekend leisure into some more feasible. This redirecting of purchasing power is has turned into an investment of a new lifestyle I’ve adopted to or make something mundane feel exciting, like a treat to myself.

I do believe retail is slowly but surely finding its footing as we move along mid-May compared to where we were in February. Business seem to have adapted their operations and capabilities round the purchasing behavior of consumers via online platforms.

This week, I got a chance to have a chat with Sharon Gai, Global Director Market Places, Alibaba Group who shares the current eCommerce landscape, some trends and guidelines that might help our readers to make some decisions moving forward as well as the changing consumer behavior we are witnessing.

“The Covid situation has normalized eCommerce even further in various countries around the world. We have seen a significant spike in user demand not only in China in the months of January and February when China was hit with Covid, but also in the other countries we operate in,” she said.

“As offline stores close, we offer an alternative solution to brands to have an ecommerce sales channel for brands who had not considered this route before. In this ecommerce space, brands can have an even clearer picture of their consumers. Every purchase is digitized; every click, visit, “follow” button is recorded which provides a more thorough picture of the customer. In the long run, brands will be able to then develop more accurate products that can fulfill customer needs versus a traditional offline model.”

Businesses that are aggressively moving into an online platform like Alibaba are given access to a much larger base of buyers, unlimited product listings, greater exposure and analytical tools.

Knowing that the path to purchase is hardly a straight shot- businesses will need to measure and track what triggers buyers online via purchasing patterns, contact points (desktop, mobile, tablet) etc. Collecting and using these findings intelligently is your best bet to make sure you are uniquely positioned to stand out from the competition. COVID-19 has prompted many businesses to increase their digital footprint, so they become more resilient and dynamic and have a deeper understanding of their buyers.

What about the consumers- What are some new behaviors and habits formed during this pandemic?

“Consumers now are not just shopping for convenience but shopping for entertainment,” said Sharon. This in turn has created more opportunities for brands to engage with customers online, including a shift in focus towards what matters most: customer engagement and providing relevant experiences that feel tailor-made.

As is important for businesses to note where and how customers are spending in this period, I personally feel they also need to communicate a clear message to inform customers how they can help them in their situation and newly adopted lifestyle. Secondly, how they are helping their communities and broader society during their period with people generally going online to talk about it and finding out more information.

Another interesting topic that popped up in my conversation with Sharon was on livestreaming. According to a recent Baidu report, during COVID-19, the total number of “livestreaming” searches increased by 120% pre-outbreak compared to post-outbreak.

She noted, “In ecommerce, the natural progression of displaying products evolved from a still photo, to a short video, to reviews. It is only natural that in a livestream, when the host is directly talking about a product and interacting with his or her fans, that the product would incur a higher conversion rate than plainer methods of product display. Since the livestreams are also at the same times per day, they have become similar to entertaining TV shows that consumers like to watch.”

More than a tool to compensate in a way that browsing web pages does not, livestreaming has advantages compared to other channels. It is easier to fully display the characteristics of a product, viewers are able to ask real-time questions and get instantaneous feedback and enhances the trust of buyers, which will shorten the purchasing decision time. Whether this trend will carry on post pandemic, but for now, it is giving businesses a growth opportunities and a way to build a connection with customers.

In light of a refreshed approach to online shopping, does consumer brand preferences change easily?

Sharon believes, “Brand preference is now more important than ever. Brands who already have a pool of interested consumers can now utilize this group for efficient targeting during this season, where their consumers are spending a longer time online. Brands that have established a formidable presence online have a larger chance of being searched by their consumers.”

How can brands stay at the forefront of winning consumers when there are other merchants and brands scaling up their efforts to promote their offerings?

“What becomes a test for brands today is how nimble they can react to the changed situation. Is their supply chain hampered? Does their sales channel need to be adjusted? Are they adjusting marketing and PR messages? Are their customer service responsive? Major events like COVID-19 is a test for brands to see how quickly they can adapt,” she feels.

Apart from adapting, brands should focus on the importance of human touch. As human contact becomes increasingly restricted, they should find alternative ways to bring more warmth by their words and actions. After all, we always remember the relationships that bring about a positive emotional connection.

Quick Fire Q&A

  • 1. What are you searching for online in isolation?
    Reports on the new way life we will adjust to post-virus season.

  • 2. Which food would you ‘deliver/takeaway’ most often in this period?
    Dessert and sweets, need the shots of dopamine from somewhere!

  • 3. First thing you would want to do immediately once the circuit breaker/lockdown is lifted?
    Go for an elaborate sushi dinner

  • 4. Lesson learnt/quote to get you through this period?
    Adaptation is a needed skill in 2020

Return to Blog