The coronavirus pandemic has been one of the biggest disruptors to business and the economy in recent memory. Some businesses have been devastated and jobs have been lost, but others have been fortunate enough to innovate their way through these trying times.
Here, four eBusiness UK customers share their experiences of the lockdown, and how ecommerce helped them to thrive.
Ecommerce and online sales helped Buckley Brothers continue to trade even when social distancing regulations were forcing competitors to close their doors.
Sales did slow down when the prime minister put MOTs on a six-month hiatus, which meant less demand for its Land Rover spares from garages. But then online sales began to rise, especially from hobbyists with extra free time and projects they could finally commit to. Demand grew further as the company’s competitors, who don’t sell online, shut down operations entirely.
Owners John and Peter were mindful of the possible health implications of the virus and worked alternate schedules to avoid crossing paths. They took remote card payments for goods, allowing customers to come and collect their purchases.
“We worked from upstairs and let customers pick up their parts from downstairs. We completed the whole transaction without even seeing anybody,” said John. “I think there are a lot of businesses out there who hadn’t bothered to set up ecommerce and are right now wishing that they had. It just goes to show what you can do: you can even run a business without handling cash. Cards are all you need.”
The business was also well-served by its couriers who shipped goods around the UK and into Europe.
John added: “We’ve got good relationships with DPD, FedEx and TNT and they have served us well. They battled through, which allowed us to carry on selling.
“We didn’t miss a single delivery. In fact, our couriers have had something to collect every single day.”
John added: “I think there will be a lot of businesses who are struggling because they just sat at home and waited for this to pass. You have to make it work for you. We found a way to plough on, and it served us well.”
Another company which answered the call when social distancing guidelines began to hamper everyday life was Blackburn-based technology firm Time2.
Its products include an advanced range of smart security cameras for the home which can be accessed and viewed remotely on a smartphone. The indoor security cameras are popular for keeping an eye on children and pets, but became especially useful to people caring for older or vulnerable relatives that they were no longer able to visit in person.
CEO Kam Kothia said that demand increased as soon as lockdown restrictions were made official, and the company has seen a 20% increase in sales across the board so far.
“Everything we sell is through ecommerce, so even though the whole process was made more difficult by the lockdown, we were able to keep on taking new orders, and keep our customer services up and running,” says Kam.
A potential stumbling block emerged when the Amazon warehouses, which hold some of Time2’s stock, grinded to a halt and stopped despatching orders. Fortunately, Time2 is a multi-channel operation and also operates its own warehouse. This enabled the company to continue fulfilling orders received through all its online channels, including its own website.
Kam said: “We have been very fortunate that many factors went in our favour. If we had been a bricks-and-mortar business instead of an online retailer, or if all our goods had been tied up in a single third-party warehouse, we would have been seriously impacted.
“Instead, we have been able to navigate the many challenges so far while fulfilling a significantly increased level of sales.”
Shahid Farooq, who runs three shops specialising in mobile phone accessories, didn’t sell online before the coronavirus pandemic – but now he does, and ecommerce is now a permanent part of his business.
Shahid says his business was doing plenty of trade without needing to sell online, but when the coronavirus pandemic suddenly became a national story he knew what was coming. He says: “I was selling goods wholesale when the 2008 recession hit, I remembered how bad that was and knew this was going to be worse.”
The first move was to set up an eBay store. The brand recognition of the site and its payment processor PayPal enabled new and existing customers to trust that this new operation was genuine.
However, the significant selling fees meant reduced margins in order to remain competitive. Shahid then began setting up his own ecommerce operation. He registered for free online courses provided by Chorley Council, which taught him all he needed to know about online marketing, and he has now enlisted eBusiness UK to build an online shop for him, with the new website currently in development.
“Ecommerce definitely got me through what has been a very difficult time,” says Shahid. “I’m a positive thinker and believe you have to make the most of the opportunities in front of you. For me, at this time, it was selling online, and it has been fantastic. It’s definitely the future for all shops, I would encourage anybody who isn’t online yet to do it.”
Altham-based First Tunnels sells a wide range of polytunnels, which can be used to grow fruit, vegetables and other plants in temperate regions or out of season.
Though it’s not new to ecommerce, the volume of orders reached unprecedented levels as soon as the prime minister announced new social distancing measures.
Sean Barker, the company’s managing director, said that there was an influx virtually overnight due to a ‘perfect storm’ of factors.
First, people panicked about the availability of food in supermarkets so, just as when Brexit scare stories reached fever pitch, many began looking into becoming self-sufficient and growing their own sustenance.
Then people began to realise they would be stuck at home for six weeks – or longer – and needed a hobby that could be pursued during the lockdown. Gardening and growing your own food is a great solution.
Then, for a variety of reasons, First Tunnels’ competitors began to shut down.
“It was like the floodgates opened, we were inundated with orders,” says Sean. March, which is the start of the growing season, is already the busiest month for the company. Sales were suddenly triple the volume compared with the same period last March.
Handling the orders proved difficult, with many suppliers themselves shutting down operations. However, a few crucial companies kept First Tunnels in ready supplies, though the company had to bring some of the manufacturing processes back in-house for the first time in years. Sean himself had to roll up his sleeves and get back on the shop floor.
“At first we struggled with the moral question of whether we should remain open, but after discussions with our local MP we realised that our service would be vital to many people,” says Sean.
“It’s been difficult to service so many orders, but it has proven that we are a resilient business and it has given me a fresh perspective into the way we do things which will help us in the future. And, hopefully, these new customers translate into longer-term, sustained growth.
“One thing that kept us going was our ecommerce website, which kept working away merrily throughout all of this, keeping the orders coming.”
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