How to prepare your digital business for the next pandemic

Agility, adaptability and resilience. Three words which have become synonymous with digital retail and business over the past few years.

While COVID-19 caught the world by surprise, the businesses and brands that came out the other side in the best shape – and in some cases flourished – were the ones that had strategies in place to deal with all eventualities.

Luxury heritage hamper brand Fortnum & Mason was able to cope with a massive surge in online users when the country was forced into another lockdown over the winter of 2020 – thanks in part, to a new commerce site and digital shopping experience SQLI had designed and implemented for it.

However, the world has now seemingly re-booted into a new era where uncertainty is around every corner and resilience even more essential.

Supply chain issues; food shortages; inflation rises; war; yo-yoing staff levels; an energy crisis; material cost increases; climate change; further pandemics - increasing volatility around the world causing further issues for businesses across all industries.

For retailers, having plans and strategies in place to enable them to cope better with a change in situation should be a priority. For those that haven’t, what should they be doing, and what should they be most concerned about in this post pandemic world?

Partners and experts share their thoughts

Jonty Sutton, SQLI UK CEO

The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation for businesses across many sectors. So, in terms of the next pandemic or major event, I think digital commerce is generally far better prepared.

The biggest thing in terms of preparedness for our industry is not forgetting what we saw and learned. Overnight, there was a change in consumer behaviour, demand and requirements. It could happen again.

It’s gone back to more normal volumes and demands now, but if something like this happens again, I’d like to think that retailers are better prepared, are able to pivot quickly, or understand what the best course of action is for their business. 

I saw an article about one of the supermarkets launching their Christmas delivery slots and it mentioned the concept of queuing on digital sites. It is not new, but it definitely became the norm and more acceptable through the pandemic. Having that technology available to control load and volume and update customers with relevant messaging is important to prevent crashes and to generate trust.

Having that technology in place - even if it's not needed today - is a good thing, if not just to be ready for the next ‘pandemic’ and handle those sudden increases in volume.

Jonty Sutton, SQLI UK CEO

James Barlow: Akeneo UKI Director

The pandemic brought on a slew of new issues for brands and retailers. From supply chain shortages to ever-changing staffing numbers and regulations, to managing a stampede of online shoppers, these organisations have had their work cut out for them. And one of the most pressing issues facing organisations today is keeping up with the ever-changing digital landscape.

There seems to be a new online channel popping up every single day and the only way for brands to stay afloat is to take full advantage of these new frontiers.

But pivoting at the last minute to try to keep up with the changing tide is exhausting, inefficient, and unscalable. Your organisation will never be able to keep up with the ever-shifting demands of consumers if you’re always scrambling to curate a brand-new customer experience from scratch for every new digital shopping channel. 

Many organisations are transitioning to composable architecture that provides the flexibility, agility, and omnichannel activation that they’re looking for. By using individual applications to handle each specific aspect of the overall shopping experience, your team can ensure that every channel is optimised to its fullest potential.

But the truth is, that this is truly only effective if your product data is well-structured, consistent, complete, accurate - and of course, compelling. Obviously, this is much easier said than done, but taking the steps necessary to centralise and organise your product information can set your team up for success.

If we’ve learned anything from the past two years, it’s that the future is unpredictable, but those who are poised to adapt to new channels at the drop of a hat are the ones who are able to keep up.

Alex Graf, Spryker Founder and CEO

I'm most concerned about the lifestyle industry and B2C companies especially, right now. Why? There are full warehouses everywhere. The years 2020 and 2021 were so successful for digital brands that they got on top of the extra online orders by building warehouses and ordering more stock so they wouldn’t run out or face backlogs.

Now, with things slowing down, brands need to try to sell all this extra inventory. The problem is, however, they can’t - especially those in fashion. No one wants to buy old trends, they want the new lines.

With the recession hitting, we are likely to get to a point where only financially strong players will survive, those with the best business models, better margins and less organic competition.

For me, it’s worrying. You’re losing money if you’re just offering huge discounts all the time. On top of this, costs are going up as logistics costs go up.

In their last quarterly report, ASOS said it was restructuring the company. Think how good that business model was just a few years ago. If this can happen to a company like ASOS, it can happen to anybody. I don’t believe this is due to the younger generations reacting to fast fashion, either, the sustainability discussion often involves people who can afford it.

Shein is now almost bigger than Zara and H&M, so people will buy clothes or items where it is cheapest or where the company is doing something to make life easier.

It all goes back to innovating. As a business, you can’t sit still, you have to keep re-inventing yourself and companies need to act fast or I can see very difficult times ahead.

Alex Graf, Spryker Founder and CEO

Ola Linder, Head of Marketing, SQLI Nordics

The pandemic has no doubt shown you how flexible and adaptable your organisation really is and highlighted the importance of having an agile business and tech stack that lets you adapt to changes, fast. If you haven’t already, now is the time to take action, before the next crisis comes and shakes your world.

We know how fragile the world is and continues to be. From a container ship (the length of four football pitches called The Ever Given) that became stranded in the Suez Canal and altered world-wide shipping prices to the escalating war in Ukraine driving up the costs of food and fuel.  It’s about putting “just in case” strategies in place to improve business resilience.

I think Digital media has turned into a giant megaphone and events have become highly magnified. Don’t get me wrong, the war in Ukraine is a real tragedy. But the world has always had tragedies and somehow business will find a way to work around them, given time, even if media make them sound unsurmountable at first.   

Today, businesses are highly optimised and streamlined. Every rough edge has been smoothed out to gain cost advantages and maximise revenues.  But this rigidity has also created great vulnerabilities.

As Mark Twain once famously said: “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble - it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

A few years ago, these vulnerabilities might have caused higher prices and annoying delays. Today it can easily double your shipping costs overnight or cause the assembly lines of car manufacturers all over the world to come to a standstill. Most businesses will find new ways, sure, but the vulnerabilities may be extremely hazardous in the short term.

The borderline between physical and digital has changed forever. The pandemic has underlined the childishness of pretending your local market exists in a vacuum.

Our number one recommendation is to set your information free. In calmer times, prepare for the unknown. And building a flexible tech stack that can easily connect with third party services via APIs and plugins is probably the best insurance you can take out. Consider investing in composable technology, PIMs and other systems that will simplify implementing third party services that perhaps you’re not even considering today.

You can’t predict what’s around the corner. The next ‘pandemic’ situation could be pretty much anything. But you can build your business and tech stack in a way that’s adaptable and scalable. The information you produce and rely on must be stored in systems that easily integrate with new ones.

These might just be the differences between success and being one of the brands that becomes obsolete next time the going gets tough.

Ola Linder, Head of Marketing, SQLI Nordics
Ola Linder, Head of Marketing, SQLI Nordics

It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble - it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so

Mark Twain

Fredrik Bergström, Lead Strategy and Business Development, SQLI Nordics

During COVID, a lot of businesses were paralysed by fear. They didn’t know what to do, or which direction they should take. 

Businesses need to be able to handle the fear around war, recession, cost of living, etc. much better. Digital businesses and brands need to be ready to scale up and down as necessary and be able to find business income in other ways. They need to be agile so that when the next crisis hits, they are ready.  

You need to build your organisation and infrastructure in a way that it can scale and cope no matter what is thrown at it. Perhaps recruit people who can manage the business through these occasions; change your tech stack so you’re more adaptable. Test your platform so it can cope in certain situations and do this when you’re in the best possible position. 

During the pandemic and for businesses like ours, it was about how we could work over Teams and video call. How we could stay relevant to our customers and help them through it. Now, it’s about helping businesses prepare for the future.  Brands cannot be paralysed by fear – they must be ready to adapt and change at the drop of a hat!