Here's what to do when your retail website becomes your primary storefront

In mid-March, when the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic began to become clear, I talked to more than 40 of our retail customers about their concerns and asked how Google could help. Weeks later, I’m continuing to hear from these customers about the challenges they’re facing, especially with the ongoing closures or restrictions on their physical stores.

Consumers are facing uncertainty too. More than 50% of U.S. shoppers searched for what is open or closed near them last week. So the pressure is now on retailers’ new primary stores — their e-commerce sites —  to not only sell inventory and generate revenue, but also to support, inform, and reassure customers along the way. It’s a delicate balancing act, but not an impossible one, and I’ve worked with my team to identify eight strategies that retailers can apply to provide their customers with relevant, frictionless, and helpful shopping experiences right now.

1. Prioritize business challenges

Your team is likely being inundated with requests and new ideas. But you can’t tackle them all at once. Prioritization is key. Evaluate whether there are aspects of your site’s messaging or design that are hurting the brand or having a negative impact on customers’ experience. Adjust that first. Then dig into optimizations that can either improve the experience or improve performance.

Things to consider include site performance and matching the messaging on your marketing channels to your site. You may also want to look at ways to optimize customer support and promotions, as well as ways to manage volatility in site traffic and transaction volume. Focus on those projects that will drive the most impact, then define how you will measure their success.

2. Optimize site speed

With ongoing store closures, more and more people are shopping online. And as online traffic spikes, it’s critical that your retail website can handle increased volume. These tips will ensure you’re ready.

  • Check your content delivery network (CDN) providers (for example., Akamai, Cloudflare, Google Cloud CDN) for settings that can enable faster requests.
  • Many site resources don’t require updates on subsequent visits. Adopt simple HTTP-caching methods that improve load times for returning users and reduce server load with minimal code changes.
  • Make your site load faster by compressing your images and text, without compromising visual quality.
  • Implement font-display swap so customers can read your site’s text, even if the primary font doesn’t load fast enough.
  • Delete unused tags from your tag managers, clean up bloated CSS and JS code, and remove other deprecated features.
  • Regularly check your site’s speed using tools like Test My Site and PageSpeed Insights. You’ll find more tips on how to speed up your website here.

3. Provide a seamless checkout experience

Seventy-six percent of smartphone users are more likely to purchase from companies whose mobile sites or apps allow them to make purchases quickly.1 Ensure your payment processing system is fast and effortless. Also identify ways to incorporate personalization enhancements, such as storing shopping information or recently explored items. In short, your front- and back-end framework and technology need to deliver the best experience possible. Work with your tech teams to map the infrastructure and tech stack that support your site and make sure they interact seamlessly.

4. Leverage technology to alleviate customer support demand

More than 1 in 4 U.S. shoppers say brands could be most helpful to them by training their customer service teams on how to best handle their needs in the moment.2 With that in mind, are you giving customers the kind of support they need in today’s environment? Use your teams and chatbots to clarify customer service updates, be transparent about expectations, and signpost handy resources. Enable and check any customer messages on your Google My Business profile too, so customers get answers quickly and easily.

A grocery store shopping cart with a message bubble hovering over it. Over 50% of U.S. shoppers want to hear how brands and companies are responding to the crisis.

5. Use prime real estate for critical information alerts

We know that over 50% of U.S. shoppers want to hear how brands and companies are responding to the crisis.3 Use your site’s homepage to share information about how you’re supporting customers. Remain authentic, avoid corporate-speak, and ensure your banners and other site notifications are simple, yet distinct, with calm colors and fonts. Also remember to allow users to easily “X” close any banners so they can continue navigating.

6. Make your product offerings and promotions relevant

The closure of nonessential stores and continued shelter-in-place orders have disrupted consumers’ routines and changed their priorities. Is what you’re featuring on your site relevant to this new normal? Are you promoting the products that can help your customers most? Nearly 40% of U.S. shoppers say they can’t find the products they need or want to buy and have bought brands they wouldn’t normally buy during this time.4 The new rising retail categories tool on Think with Google can help businesses keep pace with rapidly changing consumer needs during COVID-19.

A smartphone showing a tank dress with a price tag on a hanger. 1 in 2 U.S. consumers reported they’re buying the majority of their items online.

7. Adapt your creative and media campaign strategy

As routines and schedules change to meet the demands of social isolation and shelter-in-place orders, so are shopping behaviors. Make sure your brand campaigns and creative assets reflect that.

  • Update your content to drive shoppers to your site instead of physical locations that may be closed.
  • Discontinue campaigns in regions where you can’t operate or where the content may seem insensitive, such as areas where your supply chain is disrupted or stores are closed.
  • Make any brand message or creative relevant and empathetic. Refer to these 5 guiding principles for media teams.
  • Use automated solutions that respond to real-time signals to keep up with customer demand and optimize within your digital budget.

8. Be consistent across channels

In this turbulent environment, people are struggling to find information they can trust, and they’re going online to find it. Nearly 60% of U.S. shoppers searched online for what’s open or closed near them last week.5 Whether you’re communicating product availability, shipping times, or brand messaging, make sure the messages reflect what’s on your site.

Rising retail categories: What people are searching on Google right now