Those of us serving the retail and hospitality industries are well aware that COVID-19 has battered these sectors. Not only have consumers been asked to stay away from their favorite retailers, restaurants and hotels to comply with social distancing mandates, but the disruption caused by the pandemic has also played havoc with suppliers, staff and managers, all of whom have been forced to change business processes to make sure that all safety protocols and local regulations are followed. This seismic shift has resulted in staffing issues and product shortages, misapprehension, and anxiety, all of which manifests in frustrated customers, brand erosion, and loss of market share.
The problem has been even more pronounced for small and midsize merchants. Big-box retailers and chains have been able to soften the blows of the pandemic by revamping ecommerce and bolstering delivery services to keep business flowing. Smaller merchants that are more beholden to budget and technology constraints do not possess the resources to make these pivots, and, as a result, have had a much tougher time transitioning to the “new normal.”
Finding new strategies
In all likelihood, the impact of the pandemic will be felt for decades. Merchants are frantically searching for new strategies and solutions that can help draw customers, improve revenues to at least acceptable levels, and, most importantly, claw their way back toward profitability. For a growing number of merchants, cloud-based ecommerce technology represents the best option to regain their footing. These solutions—which can address critical business workflows like mobile ordering and processing, contactless payment acceptance, secure payment processing, automated marketing and other services—are rapidly gaining traction among midsize merchants. In the small and midsize enterprise setting, the cloud is now recognized as a reliable and flexible architecture that can reduce the disruption caused by COVID-19 and actually accelerate the recovery.
Merchants deploying these solutions are now experiencing a jumpstart on their return to normalcy, and many now feel that profitability is not far off.
There are a multitude of cloud commerce providers in this space, so the challenge for merchants is to identify a solution that aligns with their business needs, offers the capabilities that are not just useful today, but also will remain relevant tomorrow, and offers the robust security and data privacy capabilities that will satisfy merchants, banks, consumers and regulators.
The cloud: a quick primer
Cloud technology is simply a virtualized network that hosts mission-critical applications and services—like payment processing, mobile marketing, and commerce management functions—and ensures their availability to all authenticated users, regardless of where they are located or when they want to access these capabilities.
Instead of having to download software to workstations or PCs, employees can access their preferred tools through a web browser which can reside on a desktop, tablet, or mobile device. All work applications and features are available wherever there is an internet connection, which can help overcome COVID-19 restrictions by facilitating work-from-home implementations, or empowering merchants to utilize geographically disparate services like off-shore call centers to maintain operations.
Flexibility and innovation
One of the most attractive attributes of the cloud is its profound flexibility and innovation. Where creating and managing an online presence was once complicated and cost prohibitive for many businesses, savvy ecommerce providers have developed cloud-based applications and services that allow smaller merchants to quickly enter the ecommerce space.
These services enable merchants to sell and fulfill orders, process payments, manage inventories, and even leverage data analytics to help improve service and instill brand loyalty. Managing all these functions can occur on premise, at home or anywhere in between.
Cloud services deliver a ubiquitous experience that offers a distinct advantage over organizations still grappling with work-from-home and social distance regulations. Best of all, leveraging cloud services requires no capital investment. Businesses can select the services they want and pay monthly subscription fees based upon the capabilities they consume. For cash-strapped businesses, this business model is incredibly compelling.
Security is paramount
Just as the features and capabilities vary among ecommerce providers, businesses should not presume that all data privacy and security features are created equal. Merchants are well-advised to take a close look at the security protocols and processes each vendor uses and ask some pointed questions that will determine the solution’s efficacy and strength. For instance, it’s important to know where personal data is stored. Does the merchant or provider keep data at rest, and how is it protected? Is data protected when transmitted? Is encryption used, and what kind? And what about EMV and other recent payment innovations? Does the ecommerce provider offer the most up-to-date terminals that accept chip cards? These are critical questions that—when answered—will help merchants evaluate the security qualifications for their cloud commerce providers.
The impact of COVID-19 continues to be profound. Workers and customers remain hesitant to come into a store or restaurant, forcing many establishments to pivot from brick-and-mortar to virtual establishments. Thanks to the capabilities of cloud technology, this transition is proving to be faster and more cost-effective than many merchants envisioned. Powerful cloud commerce solutions, tailored to satisfy the unique needs of small and midsize merchants, are earning high marks for facilitating this efficient transformation. Through these services, businesses and customers can engage over the internet—eliminating the need for face-to-face interactions.
Physical menus are repurposed as online ordering systems, stores transition from ‘purchasing’ to ‘fulfillment’ centers, and managers run their operations from a single web portal that gives them visibility into sales, expenses, marketing, workforce management and dozens of other key performance indicators. Even as the pandemic abates, there will be little debate that the benefits of cloud technology will continue to define the merchant services space. Retailers, restaurants, hotels and other organizations that run their businesses through the cloud, find themselves more efficient, secure, customer-focused and profitable. The benefits are impossible to ignore.