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Business owner unpacking cardboard box while working in clothing store

4 retail e-commerce insights leading us out of the pandemic

More than a year in and retailers big and small remain in reaction mode

Business owner unpacking cardboard box while working in clothing storeAs businesses re-open and shoppers return in-store, retailers must keep their e-commerce strategy in mind, experts say (Getty Images/Maskot)

The retail sector has taken hits and made shifts in response to COVID-19, with one aspect soaring—e-commerce. 

According to the federal government’s Fall Economic Statement, retail e-commerce rose by almost 70 per cent in the first eight months of 2020. This surge began after overall retail sales plummeted by $33.9 billion in April 2020, according to Statistics Canada.

This acceleration in online sales has put pressure on retailers, particularly smaller players, to not only shift how they sell and move goods (for example online and with new features such as curbside pickup and using stores as warehouses), but also how those goods are returned and refunded as well. 

Here are four expert insights into how retailers should channel e-commerce efforts moving forward.


With uncertainty still prevailing, retailers should remain versatile in their response, advises retail expert, Michael LeBlanc, founder and president of M. E. LeBlanc and Company. Be ready to shift and pivot, as many had to a year ago when they tailored their approach to e-commerce, dealt with order surges and shipment delays or adjusted refund policies, he says.

“We’ve never had a circuit breaker of consumer behaviour like this before,” says Leblanc. “The key for retailers is to develop an agile culture because we’re in a world where it’s very hard to predict what’s going to come next.” 

Alongside this, should come a longer-term e-commerce strategy that takes any potential shifts into account, even when businesses re-open, shoppers return to stores and the online shopping surge potentially levels out, adds CPA Kelly Morgan, fractional controller at Amplify Advisors. 

“It’s not just about getting the shopper back into the store but being able to leverage e-commerce and make it part of an overall strategy,” says Morgan. “People will shop locally to support businesses, but they also want the convenience to go online.” 


Retailers too often view refund and exchange policies as burdens to business—both from a resource and financial standpoint—rather than an opportunity, experts say.

But there is much to leverage from a well-thought-out refund policy, including cultivating customer loyalty and reaping additional sales, which can help grow business. 

“You have to flip that mindset, [otherwise] you’re just reacting and dealing with them,” says CPA Jamie Smith, chief experience officer and co-founder of Amplify Advisors. “[It’s] recognizing returns, refunds and exchanges as an opportunity to learn more [about consumer behaviour].”

The easier and clearer the refund process, the more likely the consumer will be a repeat customer, which in turn can lead to more sales and less returns, explains LeBlanc. According to a 2018 Narvar consumer report, 96 per cent of shoppers surveyed said they would shop with a retailer again if returning items was simple. 

Tactics to simplify the refund process abound, from providing clear instructions on the website (and inside packages) to offering return labels via email and/or having customer service options readily available—such as live chat, FAQs or email support. Returns can also be avoided altogether by presenting the product (or service) optimally online by using a detailed description and realistic imagery, adds LeBlanc. 

“At the end of the day, you’re going to do whatever you can to limit returns because it creates a better experience for the customer and better economics for you,” he says.


Knowing who you are selling to is one of the biggest benefits of online retail, experts say. This is where data mining and analysis come in. 

“The objective function is to maximize your profits from sales and minimize returns, which you can do in a much more sophisticated way,” says David Soberman, professor of marketing, Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “So, I order something online, you now have my browsing history ... and your marketing might target me differently.” 

Data is vital to e-commerce success, playing into everything retailers do from expanding audience reach, building brand awareness and customer loyalty to increasing sales and reducing management costs, says Smith.

Retailers who pivoted in reaction to the pandemic without an e-commerce strategy or data utilization in place, she adds, now have an opportunity to play catch-up. 

“We’re seeing people recognize this opportunity loss and start thinking about how they can use data in their long-term systems and processes,” she says. “Not just to make offers and learn about customers, but to use that information in other areas of business.”


Partnering with third-party e-commerce vendors, whether used for payments, sales,   supply management or returns management, can be both a testing ground and learning opportunity for retailers, says Smith. 

By partnering with vendors, such as ecommerce platforms like Shopify or Amazon Marketplace or third-party logistics (3PLs) providers such as Think Logistics, which offer services not necessarily available in-house, retailers can gain better insight into their business gaps and customers’ needs, she adds. It’s an opportunity to test the services and weigh them against an overall e-commerce objective that aligns with the retailer’s brand and value proposition. 

“There’s an opportunity to gain market awareness and get information from leveraging these third parties,” she says. “Use it as an opportunity to hear from your customers to understand what’s working and what is not.”

It’s worth the up-front investment, Smith adds, from a research and development and long-term objective perspective. 

“It might cost a lot, but you have to look at it as a learning cost,” she says. “Then evaluate whether to continue that relationship, do a hybrid or move it offline and do it yourself.”

Ultimately, adds Soberman, it’s assessing what the cost of doing [and staying in] business is and aligning your strategy and any decisions you make from there. 

“The question becomes, well can I afford it?” he says. “Then you’re really facing the standard question that any business faces, which is can the actual amount that you take in, in terms of revenue, cover the costs incurred?” 


Just as e-commerce surged, so too did the sales of all-of-a-sudden hot ticket items. Find out why binoculars became a pandemic must have and how one Canadian e-motorcycle company capitalized off increased sales. And is the livestream shopping trend the future of e-commerce?

Also, if you’re a small business facing challenges during the pandemic CPA Canada has a wealth of resources to help manage your finances. These includes podcasts, webinars and how-to guides on financing, strategy and planning, cash management and managing risk to facilitate recovery from the effects of COVID-19.