How to Stand-Up a New E-Commerce Business in 8 Weeks or Less
COVID-19 has created a permanent shift in consumer behavior; companies can’t afford to be caught flatfooted. Fortunately, standing up a new e-commerce business is now faster and easier than ever.
By Mike Evans and Alex Baxter, BCG Digital Ventures
As we reach the one-year mark since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is certain: There has been a step-change in the way consumers and businesses purchase products across nearly every industry. During the third week of March 2020, for example, e-commerce sales in the US were 58% higher than during the same period in 2019. Additionally, digital commerce web traffic grew exponentially, first-time consumers ventured into online storefronts in large numbers, and consumer sales in categories as diverse as food and beverage to baby products to essential medical and health products skyrocketed.
As the vaccine rollout starts and we begin to get a glimpse of a future in which in-person retail will again be possible, it remains extremely unlikely that customer behavior will revert back to pre-pandemic norms. In the early stages of the pandemic, we saw companies rushing to rapidly stand-up new e-commerce channels (if they didn’t have them already), or attempt to improve the quality and performance of their existing online business. But many companies have not built effective solutions or have fallen into a “set it and forget it” mindset. Fewer still have accepted that e-commerce is likely to be a priority channel going forward.
Recent research by BCG suggests that more than $5 trillion in global retail industry spend — about 30% — is up for grabs, mostly due to purchasing shifts from physical stores to online commerce. Needless to say, the stakes are huge and building a robust e-commerce business is now more important than ever. With this in mind, we wanted to share our learnings from working with both B2C and B2B companies — large and small — on how to rapidly and effectively build and boost the performance of your e-commerce business.
Step 1: Perform a Diagnostic
Start by rapidly diagnosing your current business. Specifically, assess the competitive landscape, your existing assets, the tools required for launch, and both the capabilities and the resources needed to execute. Here are a few tactical recommendations for what to do during the diagnostic phase.
Review your existing digital properties and assess e-commerce storefront platforms before selecting a solution or identifying a partner to deliver a minimum viable product (MVP). Establish the baseline metrics of the current offering and compare these with what competitors and peers are offering. If you are using a monolithic platform that has not been built using modern microservices standards, consider if it is time to migrate to a new platform to allow you to run your business with more agility in the future.
Perform a rapid review of inventory and stock keeping units (SKUs) to identify the options for your MVP product assortment and suitable distribution or store locations for the pick-pack and ship operations. Estimate demand levels to evaluate your potential need for 3PL fulfillment partners (e.g. to enable faster shipping times to your customers).
Marketing and Support
Audit your back office; assess your current supply chain, analytics, and customer service capabilities and how they compare to the minimum required level. Analyze your digital media strategy, looking at allocated funding for customer acquisition, the data you have available for audience targeting and the staff who will execute your go-to-market (GTM).
During the rapid diagnostic process and ahead of the MVP build, it is more important to be quick than to be perfect. In order to move fast and effectively, keep in mind a few pragmatic principles that allow you to move with speed and avoid perfect becoming the enemy of great (or good-enough-for-launch).
Focus on speed
Prioritize time to market, minimal offering and, if necessary, limit geographies. Develop traction and build quickly.
Get clear on work stream responsibilities
These should include:
- Technology and design: Customer journey ownership, design and build out of the storefront.
- Logistics: Fulfillment operations and warehouse management, MVP and scale-up approach.
- Merchandising: Limited SKU selection, product catalogue updates/creation
- Marketing: GTM and media plan development to drive acquisition of new consumers and awareness amongst existing customers.
Test, Learn, Iterate
This means working in an agile environment. Implement analytics tools and identify measurable KPIs to continually improve, capturing new customers and optimizing the customer journey.
Train and upskill staff
Your existing team will need to learn and take on new functional responsibilities, from in-store and distribution center (DC) product picking to online customer service.
Use existing tools where possible
Build and deliver an e-commerce platform using off-the-shelf tools, infrastructure, and partners.
Step 2: Stand-Up the E-Commerce Business
An end-to-end e-commerce business needs to encompass not only digital storefront and 3PL fulfillment solutions, but also digital marketing, user experience, ecosystems and partnerships, and omnichannel capabilities. It is now easier than ever to overcome this complexity and build an effective end-to-end business using a series of building blocks, across every step of the value chain. With new e-commerce solutions, digital marketing platforms, and backend tools, a fully integrated solution can be built allowing DTC brands to take active ownership of the customer journey. Five key levers to keep in mind when standing up e-commerce businesses include:
Development of a brand’s owned and operated e-commerce website can be quickly built using platforms like Shopify, Big Commerce, Magento, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and others, oftentimes with little need for internal technical talent to launch.
Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Google Shopping and many other marketplaces can provide a quick boost to sales for a new digital commerce offering with a built-in audience and demand.
Third-Party Logistics (3PL)
There are new direct-to-consumer (DTC) 3PL offerings that offer pick, pack, and ship capabilities and connect easily to storefront and marketplace platforms. Shipbob, Shipmonk, Red Stag, UPS eFulfillment, and others offer storage and fulfillment for a wide range of SKU-types sold online.
E-commerce success is driven by paid media offerings, such as Google PLA’s (Product Listings Ads) and LIAs (Local Inventory Ads). For marketplace participants, you will also need to develop a sensibility for Amazon Advertising and new ad platforms on Walmart, HomeDepot, and other online retailers.
In quickly standing up e-commerce capabilities, it’s important to select a limited set of SKUs to offer at launch and before growing the offering. Product Information Management (PIM) tools like Salsify, Syndigo, and Akeneo provide a platform to house product information, including descriptions, images, video, safety data sheets, and other data that can be uniquely configured and deployed on multiple channels, including your own storefront, marketplaces, and e-retailers.
Step 3: Scale and Optimize the E-Commerce Business
Once your MVP e-commerce business is live, you need to be thinking about next steps; establishing an e-commerce platform for the long term, planning for scale, and future-proofing the business.
After a successful launch, companies must look to expand their MVP, which may have offered a limited number of SKUs, operated in a reduced set of geographic regions, and have limited functionality. Additionally, they will need to implement tools to analyze and identify measurable KPIs to learn, test, and drive continuous improvement.
Areas to focus on when scaling and future-proofing an e-commerce MVP will depend on the channels through which a merchant chooses to sell. When operating across an owned and operated storefront (or storefronts), online marketplaces and digital retailers, solution scaling can include these elements:
Expanded Demand Generation Techniques for Owned Storefront
Develop greater sophistication around content creation, which drives enhanced organic search traffic. Deploy an email solution that uses AI and machine learning to send targeted emails when customers are ready to reorder, not en-masse. Work with technology providers that will help generate reviews and ratings for product listings.
Entering New Demand Channels
Expand your Amazon activity through sponsored ads, the elimination of resellers, or by selling on Amazon Business. Look to start selling on any number of marketplaces including Walmart, Target, eBay, and Etsy. Look to relevant retailer websites and offer products that may or may not be available in their physical stores.
There will be a need to connect external 3PL, internal distribution center, marketplace, and other systems through middleware that can integrate with ERP software. For companies that serve business customers or need a password-protected storefront, functionality will have to be developed to provide these options. And as both the number of SKUs and the number of demand channels expand, a need will arise for a PIM and DAM (Digital Asset Management) tool to house product listing details, from images to descriptions to safety data and more, and distribute that data in unique formats to various storefronts, marketplaces and e-retailers.
Although building an e-commerce business from the ground up may appear to be intimidating, our experience at BCGDV has shown that with the right approach and mindset, companies can execute this process in 6–8 weeks and drive significant value to their enterprise.