During the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown we were sure that the world would look completely different in the aftermath. Today we live in the post coronavirus era. And one lesson we have certainly learned is this: digital is definitely the new normal. While the physical shops remained closed, new possibilities developed online. Having your own domain name was seldom so important in business. Companies that register a domain name usually do so for two simple reasons:
- They want a digital sign for their business in the form of a website.
- They want to be findable online and accessible for their customers.
COVID-19 made the importance of online presence even clearer. Everyone was locked down in their homes and entrepreneurs had to make sure that things ran as smoothly as possible and that customers would not forget them. E-commerce turned out to be a proper plaster on the wound. It was not for nothing that ‘Commande’ [Order] was the most registered word in .be domain names in April.
An investment that pays off
Companies that already had a website before this crisis could add a web shop or install a live chat so as to serve customers optimally with relative ease. During this crisis, some discovered the full value of previous investments in a professional web shop. The Leuven shoe retailer Erik Meulemans worked overtime in his online shop in full lockdown. In an interview with madeinvlaamsbrabant.be he stated that the web shop cannot make up for sales in the physical stores, but that it was nice to see that people also appreciate his online efforts and service and the investments pay off.
Leander Van Holderbeke, a butcher from Lotenhulle, launched his own web shop three years ago. “It hardly worked at the outset,’ he recently admitted in Het Laatste Nieuws. ‘But it started to grow thanks to promotional actions and discounts offered online. In the closing days of last year, 75% of the orders for festive meals were already being placed online. Since the onset of the coronavirus, the online story has gone through the roof. We now receive some 200 orders through our web shop every week.’
Whether Leander set the example for his city of Aalter is not certain, but the town did see the light during the lockdown and has gone fully online with the first digital shopping street in the country. Aalter Online is emerging as a platform where local merchants and self-employed people can create a web shop for free thanks to support from the municipality and UNIZO (Union of Independent Entrepreneurs). The storyline in Aalter is that ‘a physical store and a web shop constitute the ideal combination’.
Coronavirus web shop
Other entrepreneurs had to work in a hurry and create a website or web shop from scratch - preferably in just a few days. Bon Appetit in Haacht is a fresh market with a bistro where you can go for bread, cold meats, cheeses, catering services and eat all this delicious stuff on the spot. ‘We did see our turnover drop at first due to the lockdown because people were afraid. We panicked for a while,' admits manager Caroline. We had to close down our catering segment. We used to work with a dozen girls serving customers on Sundays. We couldn't do that now.'
Bon Appetit had been working on a web shop for a while before the lockdown but it did not communicate with the checkout system. That's why the project was put on hold. The first weekend of the lockdown customers were allowed to place their orders by e-mail. ‘The first Sunday we had 150 orders by e-mail. We never expected that. It was a lot of work to process all orders on time, and not something we could keep up for long.’
'A web shop is an additional store in fact.’
‘My husband mans the kitchen of our bistro, so he was temporarily unemployed. He used that period of time to get a handle on the web shop. We worked on it full-time for almost 14 days,' Caroline says. ‘But it was worth the effort. Our turnover is still not what it used to be, but we did see a shift in customers who used to come to the store and who now order online. People are also spending more on the web shop for the time being. There are at least 10% to 25% more orders and these are largely automated via the web shop'.
The customers of Bon Appetit are enthusiastic in any event, and want the web shop to stay. There are shorter waiting times and little physical contact. ‘Last week I helped an 82 year old lady for some 20 minutes because she insisted on ordering online', smiles Caroline. ‘But the web shop is having a big impact on how Bon Appetit is organised. We used to have one person who took orders on Sundays from 5:00 am to 1:00 pm. Now we have already 2.5 FTEs on Sunday, we've had to rearrange our premises and we're still thinking about how we can get organised optimally.”
Having a presence on the internet is crucial for entrepreneurs. If you are not convinced yet, you run the risk of missing the boat in the next unforeseen crisis. A domain name can be registered in a jiffy. And setting up a website or a web shop is not nearly as insurmountable as it might seem, although you have to be aware of some of the challenges a web shop entails.
Bon Appetit's golden tip for other entrepreneurs considering a web shop? 'Don't think of it as something you take a quick look at. It's definitely an extra shop, where you have to set up new products and new photos on a regular basis. People always order the same thing. That's why it's important to put other products in the spotlight every now and then, so that they can try them out. You also need to keep a closer look on your stock and make sure that what you offer online is actually available. In the store, it's simple: when you run out, you run out. But that's not how it works online.’