Science & Technology

E-commerce booms in a time of retail uncertainty

The e-commerce industry has existed for over 40 years, but never in its history has it experienced such a period of immense growth as during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Within two weeks of Canadian cities beginning to lockdown in mid-March, online sales in the country had already doubled, with a net increase of 99 per cent across all retail sectors combined. 

The global crisis came as a shock to businesses that were reluctant or unable to adapt, driving some companies to file for bankruptcy while online businesses flourished. Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce giant, had reported a record 62 per cent surge in the creation of online stores in just six weeks. These developments have made Shopify one of Canada’s largest publicly listed companies. 

Hoda Mottaghi, senior e-business consultant at Desjardins and lecturer at McGill’s School of Continuing Studies, explained that for businesses, developing an engaging online interface during this period of retail uncertainty is crucial. 

“User experience is everything,” Mottaghi said in a video interview with The McGill Tribune. “A good website gets the content to the customer at the right time.” 

Mottaghi emphasized that a successful online platform requires tried and tested website infrastructure able to evolve with consumer needs. Small changes, such as the strategic placement of buttons on web pages and attention-grabbing graphics, can substantially increase user engagement.

“Market research is the first essential step, followed by the development of a mobile-friendly website before the web version,” Mottaghi said. “The limited screen space forces web developers to be creative but concise.” 

As the push into a digital marketplace persists, three McGill undergraduate students have taken an entrepreneurial approach to help local businesses reach customers. By helping to bring small businesses online, at a time when global dependence on e-commerce is surging, these students are providing support to those facing financial burden during the pandemic.  

Laid-off from his summer job, Owen Cumming, U2 Arts, founded ShopBaxter. ShopBaxter is a service-based business that specializes in designing e-commerce stores for small businesses looking to have an online presence on existing platforms such as Shopify or Squarespace.

“Shopbaxter was founded by students who were affected by the pandemic to help other students and businesses that were also affected,” Cumming said in a phone interview with the Tribune. 

Cumming developed ShopBaxter when he recognized that small businesses without an online presence required affordable solutions to create engaging digital platforms. 

“Not only do people pay thousands to build a website, they have to repay web developers for any additional changes once the website is set up,” he said. 

Alongside Cumming, Jake Furniss-Yesk, U3 Arts, and Will Croke-Martin, U3 Arts, work closely with their clients to build websites that are affordable, customizable, and easy to update. 

“Online is the future, and we can finally see why [….] Following the pandemic, more and more corporations will start looking to young people,” Cumming said. “Investing in an online presence has become necessary in order to be self-sufficient and [to] survive the post-pandemic market.”

In the near future, while many social distancing measures may still be in place, data scientists and web developers will remain hard at work reinventing the online business standard. Research suggests that consumers are unlikely to revert to shopping traditionally, foreshadowing high competition amongst retailers in the e-commerce sector. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the success of a business may not only be determined by the quality of their products and services, but also their ability to engage users online.  

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