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While the world may look radically different in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, many of the commerce disruptions were already expected, just not on such a rapid timeline. The next few years were predicted to bring a shift toward more online buying, but that shift happened virtually overnight, spurred on by a global pandemic.

Instead of retailers determining which locations to close, they’ve been forced to strategize on which stores to even re-open. And the new landscape isn’t only affecting retailers. Manufacturers and distributors must deal with a marketplace that has trained buyers (even in the B2B space) to expect a more personalized experience.


The Direct-to-Consumer Shift

One of the biggest disruptions is the rapid ascent of direct-to-consumer (DTC). Consumers are increasingly looking to buy straight from the source. In fact, 64% of shoppers are looking to buy direct, and 88% intend to increase their direct purchases.  Since 48% of manufacturers also expect to sell directly to customers, it’s imperative they have a sound strategy to reach this new type of buyer in order to remain competitive.

So how can manufacturers and distributors tap into this growing market? They must adopt new channels, such as e-commerce, online marketplaces, and web apps, as well as be able to leverage their data. This change cannot be a one-time event. Enterprises must find continual ways to differentiate themselves in a commerce landscape that never stops changing.


Disruption at All Levels

Many organizations not only face disruptions in their selling channels but their buying channels are also thrown into disarray. As it turns out, global supply chains are susceptible to interruptions from a global pandemic (crazy, huh?). Scrambling businesses have been forced to make difficult supply chain choices with limited preparation, such as:

  • Onboarding new types of suppliers
  • Managing overseas supply chain issues
  • Dealing with inventory issues (shortages and surpluses)
  • Finding new methods for the product delivery (ship-to-store, dropshipping, substituting with relevant products for unavailable ones)

These challenges have pushed companies to prioritize online commerce channels at a frenzied pace. Organizations across the globe went from saying, “I know we need online selling capability eventually,” in Q4 of 2019 to, “We have to find a way to sell online, or we’re out of business,” in Q2 of 2020.


What to Expect with Agility

We’ve talked about the challenges of disruption, but what about the benefits of digital agility?

One of the best benefits of digital agility is the connection you’ll have with your customers. When COVID began to spread, and distribution channels shut down, many manufacturers couldn’t reach their customers because they didn’t know who their customers were.  Digitally agile enterprises, on the other hand, were armed with an invaluable tool – customer data.

In addition to providing supply chain and channel flexibility, digitally agile companies can create deeper connections with customers because they have data that helps unlock who they are and what they want. These companies can stand out from the competition with personalized and contextual experiences that meet customers’ needs moment-by-moment. Agility also helps mitigate business disruption, with the ability to pivot and take quick action with a lower overall risk.


Five Core Capabilities for Digital Agility and Channel Readiness

Digitally-savvy enterprises know that e-commerce isn’t just about having a website. It’s made up of all the transactions that help sellers deliver products to customers. So, what are the core capabilities enterprises need to maximize digital agility?

  1. Transact Online – An organization must start from a foundation of online transaction capabilities. Fortunately, companies (including retailers, manufacturers, and distributors) can launch a fully functional e-commerce store in just one to two months with the right approach.
  2. Fulfill – Agile companies can get their products into their customers’ hands, no matter the circumstances. In the modern commerce landscape, this capability doesn’t necessarily mean shipping from your own warehouse. It could mean working through partners, offering curbside, or dropshipping.
  3. Manage Customer Relationships – As mentioned before, you can’t have a meaningful relationship with your customer without really knowing who they are. When accurate, customer data can be leveraged to create experiences that strengthen satisfaction and loyalty for the long term.
  4. Rapidly Syndicate to New Channels – The ability to rapidly expand to new channels doesn’t just aid enterprises in times of crisis, it keeps them agile for what comes next. Being able to quickly adopt and onboard new channels open up the capacity to capitalize on new marketplaces (online or retail) and geographical territories – even during “normal” times.
  5. Quickly Change Supply Chain Sources – This wasn’t the first disruption, and it won’t be the last. If your company is nimble enough to quickly onboard new suppliers and products, you’ll have a firm foundation for the next inevitable disruption.

With these five core capabilities, businesses can maximize their digital dexterity and more easily pivot when unexpected challenges pop up.


Common Barriers to Commerce Agility

It’s important to know the common issues that hinder a company’s potential agility: typically, it boils down to a lack of readily available data and technical debt.

When an organization’s data is a mess (incomplete, inconsistent, dispersed, etc.), it can be difficult to accurately assess a situation and make quick and informed business decisions. It’s also extremely difficult to get digital initiatives off the ground without accurate data, particularly in commerce where product, customer, and supplier data are crucial.

Technical debt occurs when systems that should serve a company actually create a barrier to progress. For instance, if an existing catch-all ERP or monolith commerce system is not well integrated into all business aspects, data is disparate and data models won’t match up. Most of these large systems are designed to perform very specific tasks, so when a company wants or needs to pivot, it’s like trying to steer an aircraft carrier.


Keys to Unlocking Agility

Thankfully, companies looking for digital agility can use some proven strategies to break through those barriers and adopt a more agile business.

  • Consider a Cloud-First Strategy – Most companies aren’t experts at managing an infrastructure of servers and databases. Organizations can reduce technical debt by utilizing a more agile cloud-first approach and hands-off hosting.
  • Leverage Microservices as Opposed to Monoliths – Systems built around large, all-encompassing software packages can’t shift rapidly. Conversely, technology packages utilized for a particular purpose or service take less effort to alter.
  • Create a Common Data Foundation for Functions to Leverage – Agile companies realize that data is a business function in and of itself. When that data foundation is set, other functions can leverage it for business decisions.
  • Focus on Outcomes, not Features – It’s not about how many features a software platform has. Forward-thinking enterprises look at what problem a system actually solves.
  • Start Small and Scale – Many organizations new to selling online think they need to spend a year or more implementing a robust commerce package. Agile companies start small, implement, learn, and then iterate over time.

COVID-19 showed the market that when circumstances change, there’s not always a lot of warning. Those with the ability to adapt and change with the selling environment have a sizable advantage over those lacking agility. Fortunately, digital agility can be acquired with a focus on data and a keen eye toward adaptability.


If you’d like to learn more, download our Guide to Selling Online Fast for:

  • Ideas to stay relevant with shoppers during the pandemic
  • How to determine your minimum viable product (MVP)
  • Insider tips and tricks for a rapid online launch

Download the complimentary guide here.