For businesses today, e-commerce is a primary channel, rapidly increasing in importance. As a result, companies must be able to understand shifts in buying behaviors and quickly adapt their strategies to meet their customers’ needs. Managing a multichannel strategy that connects best-in-class e-commerce capabilities is critical for companies to remain competitive and in touch with future customers.

 

In early 2021, ZS and Vorys eControl surveyed more than 100 executives across industries to understand current e-commerce trends and challenges, as well as their plans to invest in developing e-commerce capabilities. The companies­­­­ that participated in the survey ranked key factors in the struggle to shift their go-to-market strategy and prioritize e-commerce. They prioritized the unforeseen challenges and conflicts as being what prevented them from meeting their aspirations to operate seamlessly across physical and digital channels.

Results show that e-commerce revenue has grown significantly across industries; more than 60% of respondents reported an increase in 2020. Best-in-class companies—those with demonstrated e-commerce sophistication and performance—not only had a higher percentage of revenue from e-commerce channels but were more likely to see a significant (greater than 30%) increase in e-commerce revenue.


The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend: More than 50% of respondents stated the pandemic caused most, or all, of the increase in e-commerce activity. Nearly half of our respondents said e-commerce revenue is expected to increase significantly (by greater than 30%) over the next two to three years. Winning companies are able to achieve higher levels of growth because they can navigate e-commerce channels better than their peers. These companies mitigate channel conflict and retain (or even increase) their customers, market share and margins.

Our survey shows that, despite the longtime presence of e-commerce, executives across industries felt the pressures of the COVID-19 crisis and increased desire for digital engagement options (e-commerce, virtual meetings, etc.) from customers. Most companies are still struggling to build or sustain profitable, high-quality e-commerce channels.

 

Even the best-in-class companies from our survey faced significant challenges.

Our research indicates three gaps companies must address to operate successfully in e-commerce channels:

  1. Insufficient legal foundation: Whether they were best-in-class or not, all respondents rated unauthorized sales and e-commerce transparency as a key challenge. Many companies overlooked critical legal policies and controls to avoid future unauthorized seller challenges, brand value pressures and channel conflicts. These failures ultimately lead to damaged brand equity, revenue leakage and diminished profitability.
  2. Suboptimal customer engagement: Companies lacking an integrated go-to-market strategy that reflects a multichannel approach faced difficulties engaging customers across digital and physical channels and struggled to meet their expectations for online customer experience. Companies that have a deep customer understanding create the seamless experience across physical and digital channels that customers value.
  3. Ineffective channel management: All companies faced difficulties managing channel conflict, inconsistent partner experiences and increasingly competitive markets. As a net effect, existing routes-to-market experienced margin compression and lost business. Companies fail to define the roles and responsibilities clearly across their routes-to-market (physical and digital), creating ambiguity and conflict across channels for customers and lost growth opportunities.

Looking ahead to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked survey respondents to share where they plan to invest to address the gaps in their e-commerce strategy and execution capabilities in the coming year.

At a high level, best-in-class companies plan to invest in preventing unauthorized activity and driving increased brand value, while all others plan to invest heavily in improving customer engagement.

 

In order to develop best-in-class e-commerce capabilities, it’s critical for companies to have a holistic view of their go-to-market approach and channel strategy. We’ve identified several efforts all companies should undertake to strengthen their online sales channels and avoid those three critical e-commerce gaps. 

Identify and define “authorized sellers.” Implement policies that define each seller’s authorized sales channels (which e-commerce platforms or traditional channels), set the brand’s quality control expectations and prohibit online marketplace sales without the company’s permission.

 

Identify and eliminate “unauthorized sellers.” Establish the requisite legal foundation against unauthorized sales to overcome the “first sale doctrine” and support effective enforcement against these sellers. With the right monitoring and data analytics, companies can be very precise with their enforcement activities—prioritizing and focusing resources against those sellers that are commercially disruptive.

Gather deep customer insights. Understand their needs and purchasing preferences to inform your go-to-market strategy. Then you can build a market opportunity map that identifies sources of profitable growth and segment target customers based on their needs, value and channel preferences.

 

Define a comprehensive market coverage strategy. This will help you align routes-to-market to customer engagement preferences and segment value or attractiveness. Designing a market coverage model that reflects customer preferences and value requires you to develop a clear understanding of the role e-commerce channels play in your go-to-market strategy.

Define clear roles and responsibilities. Customers expect seamless experiences across channels. Companies must clearly define roles and responsibilities for each route-to-market (both physical and e-commerce channels) and outline specific requirements to sell within each.

 

Design channel programs and incentives. Align investments to value and behavior changes through programs that allow you to segment partners based on capabilities, performance and loyalty. You should then reward your partners for demonstrating desired behaviors (not for simply moving volume).

 

Ensure you have a comprehensive pricing and promotional strategy. A company’s pricing and promotional activity must reflect a multichannel go-to-market approach that enables value capture across physical and digital sales channels.

 

Create a data-driven commercial organization. Companies need information and insights readily available to inform their decision-making. You must establish a comprehensive database that serves as a single source of truth for the commercial organization. This can then become a foundation to build machine learning and AI tools that drive proactive data-driven decisions and interventions. These will be key to mitigating channel conflict and margin compression.

Over the next several years, revenue from e-commerce is expected to increase significantly. The future of the commercial evolution is through these digitized sales channels, processes and touchpoints; they represent the highest-value path forward and must be fit to serve the customer.

 

Companies must take a comprehensive, customer-centric approach not only to their e-commerce strategy and capabilities, but to their broader go-to-market approach to keep customers satisfied and engaged while simultaneously protecting themselves and their channel partners from external market risks and conflicts of interest. If you keep these steps in mind as you continue to invest in and adapt your e-commerce strategies, you will be in a better position to grow as the market continues to expand.

 

Take our short assessment to see if your company’s e-commerce strategy is positioned for growth.