Crisis and Change: Digital Commerce in a Time of COVID-19

Times of crisis are times of change for individuals, for businesses and for society itself

The World War II era paved the way for more women to work outside the home, while the Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in a generation that prioritised savings and resourcefulness. In both cases, individual and collective experiences led to long-term change. Similarly, during the time of COVID-19, people have developed new daily habits, behaviours and ways of working, bringing about significant ramifications for businesses in a wide range of industries.

At a time when operations at physical locations are limited due to social distancing requirements, commerce has seen significant shifts. Consumers are looking for new ways to transact, whether at a supermarket, department store or fuel pump.

It’s essential for businesses to understand how the pandemic is changing how people pay, especially in terms of digital commerce adoption.

The good news is that current technologies enable us to practice social distancing with greater ease. Imagine if this pandemic had occurred just 20 years ago – a time of nascent internet, no smartphones and fledgling e-commerce. Social isolation would have likely had an even greater economic effect.

Digital commerce as the new norm

As a result of COVID-19, shifts in consumer spending patterns have accelerated the growth of digital commerce. Unsurprisingly, there has been a surge in online sales, with grocers and supermarkets in particular seeing higher growth than any other type of retailer in the U.K. And for the first time, many customers, including those from older generations, are paying for goods and services online, including curbside pickup at restaurants and stores.

In the near future, paying digitally will become even easier thanks to more accurate voice-recognition technology and a host of app-based technologies that will speed online commerce transactions. Automated systems that were once eschewed for removing the human touch may now be embraced for the same reasons.

Plenty of alternative payment options

Over the past few years, alternatives to cards and cash have been gaining significant traction globally. However, due to COVID-19 and the subsequent need to limit physical contact with customers, research has shown that the use of contactless and digital payments has soared, and will likely continue to do so in the future.

As consumers become more familiar with different payment methods, new digital forms will become a reality. For example, many will be smartphone-based, with voice assistants and dashboard displays in smart cars introducing an exciting new direction for digital commerce.

The shift to digital payments could also accelerate the rise of local or regional payment platforms, which boast large user bases in individual markets, but aren’t globally ubiquitous. Examples include Paytm in India and Brazil’s Boleto voucher system. Businesses looking to re-engage with global customers post-lockdown will be looking to ensure they are able to respond to local payment preferences. Supporting the large-scale card schemes on their own won’t be enough.

Bring the digital and physical together

What will the physical location look like as many retailers continue to move their operations online? Large, high-rent locations may no longer be necessary in this post-lockdown environment. According to research, only 14% of consumers in the U.K. plan to shop at brick-and-mortar locations immediately after the lockdown eases. A key consideration for retailers will be how to combine digital and physical retail experiences to ensure a seamless and safe consumer experience.

As retailers gradually contemplate re-opening after months of lockdown, we may see greater use of appointment systems, virtual queueing, as well as increased click and collect, and online delivery. Other retailers, particularly fashion brands, could help limit visits to physical shops with augmented reality capabilities in their apps and websites, giving consumers the chance to “try on” clothes or view goods in their homes before they pay.

Leveraging Digital to Expand Globally

Just as manufacturers are realising they can no longer depend on one country as a source for the parts and finished products they need, retailers will be compelled to expand their geographic horizons as they continually search for profitability in what is likely to remain a slow global economy.

As we emerge from lockdown, retailers and merchants will be looking to rekindle their businesses, targeting new avenues for growth, while at the same time ramping up existing ones. We are likely to see businesses globally undergo profound change in this new normal as they embrace all that has been upended in consumer and enterprise commerce.

About the Author

Nandan Sheth is the Head of Global Digital Commerce at Fiserv. Fiserv, Inc. (NASDAQ: FISV) is a leading global technology provider serving the financial services industry, driving innovation in payments, processing services, risk and compliance, customer and channel management, and business insights and optimization. For more information, visit



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