Want to know how to survive COVID-19? Look to JD.com

COVID-19 has shaken up our world in ways that are hard to comprehend. Many retailers are hurting and looking at ways to fight the battle, with online being one of their biggest tools.

As of March 29 at 3pm, there were over 664,900 cases of COVID-19 globally and nearly 4,000 in Australia. How can retailers and brands look to innovate and potentially even prosper during these uncertain times, is it even possible?

Firstly, yes. But we need to be smart, flexible and brave with how we approach the next three to six months. The smartest brands will even look to the history books for similar situations which can provide some very important learnings.

JD.com and SARS

In 2003, the SARS outbreak was quite contained in the host country (China), however there were several cases in neighbouring countries, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam. Researchers based in Beijing stated that the outbreak costs around US$25 billion. Some reports showed ripple effects in some industries costing the world economy around US$40 billion.

JD.com, previously a bricks-and-mortar electronics retail business, was heavily impacted by SARS and almost went bankrupt. The business started selling products in social media chat groups and on college forums to survive the crisis. And this inspired Richard Liu, the founder of JD.com, to move the business from offline to online. Now, JD.com is one of the largest B2C e-commerce stores in China.

I might not go so far as to say that e-commerce was born out of the SARS outbreak, but it played an important role in inspiring businesses to innovate and pivot, which lead to the birth of e-commerce industry in China.

E-commerce and online marketplace platforms were already available to the public, but Chinese consumers hadn’t gotten fully on board until the SARS outbreak. (The availability of high-speed internet, mobile phones and online payments also helped.) This stimulated the digitalisation of the Chinese economy.

What can Australian retailers do?

The first step is to take ownership and accept that the consumer behaviour is going to change for at least the next three to six months. I believe most Australian retailers are already doing this, but for the ones that are not, you need to come to grips with this and accept that your business needs to adapt to the changing landscape in order to survive.

Next, it’s important to understand your customers on a deeper level than ever before. How do they shop? Why do they buy your product? How does your product integrate with their lives? From there, you can start planning how to enhance your product to help your customers.

Look at our beloved Barbeques Galore. You can imagine the hurt they are feeling. I mean, even the Prime Minister of Australia said now is not the time to invite friends over for a BBQ.

In response, the company released a comical video of a group of friends who, distressed by the news, decide to host a virtual BBQ, where they all cook their favourite food, get their favourite beverage and do a virtual cheers over the phone.


A contact shared the video on LinkedIn, so it’s clearly resonating. Knowing their customers personas, Barbeques Galore was able to quickly create valuable content to keep themselves relevant.

Mike Ainsworth the head of customer at Barbeques Galore wanted to share this message: “At a time when most retailers are retreating, there’s a clear space to tackle these challenges head on! When the PM calls out BBQ, how could we not jump on it! Yes, these are difficult times, however there is always a silver lining, retailers just need to tackle it head on and be brave.”

Further to that, retailers can educate and advise their customers on what they can still do at home. For example, Barbeques Galore could ask their customers what ingredients they have on hand. Knowing there are nationwide shortages, this would demonstrate compassion and understanding of their customers’ situation. From there, they could ask their customers what they love the most – meat, fish, vegetarian, etc – and help them work out the best meals they can still cook with their BBQ. Why not take this one step further and run a different recipe each day for the 14 days of quarantine?

This would not only help retailers like Barbeques Galore stay relevant to their audience, it also provides an opportunity to offer education and support when their customers need it most. And as a bonus, they might be able to capture important information, such as their customers’ intent, motivation and sentiment.

This is a very specific example, but any brand can adapt their approach to current situation. Here are some areas that we are seeing retailers focus on:

  • User experience: How can you improve and tailor your user experience to suit the current market. For example, YD, a men’s clothing brand has made a “Work from home edit” for their audience to keep themselves relevant in this climate.
  • Product discovery: Help your customers find the right products for the current environment. It’s not the right time to sell tents for camping for example, however bicycles and walking shoes are seeing an increase in demand, so help your customers find the right products for the current environment through smart product discovery. On the flip side, you can help your customers discover what they can still use your products for. For meals, help them understand what they can still cook. For activewear or gyms, help your customers understand what exercises they still do at home, etc.
  • Incentives to buy now: Buying holidays is the last thing on most people’s mind right now. But we all know the world will return to normal at some point, so how can you keep sales ticking along? For example, Luxury Escapes are offering their customers a “Buy Now, Book Later” function, so you can buy your perfect escape now, but book it later.
  • Government stimulus: The Federal Government’s economic stimulus package to keep businesses afloat has been well publicised, but there are also State and Local Government incentives to encourage businesses to shift to an “online” focus. The City of Melbourne, for instance, has opened grants of up to $5,000 for to invest in online and e-commerce activities, $10,000 for capital works projects (matching dollar-for-dollar) to adapt to changing conditions and $2,000 for training and professional development.

There is no doubt there are difficult times ahead of us, but the future still looks bright for retailers, in particular for those that focus online.

Paul Waddy, CEO of The Horse and one of the Top 50 People in E-Commerce in 2020, said, “Online retail in Australia accounts for around 10 per cent of all retail spend – there’s still a long way for this industry to go. I’d expect consumer behaviour to change as Australians will be forced to adopt online shopping out of necessity. This behaviour is likely to extend post COVID-19, which should accelerate the growth of online retail when this eventually passes.”

If brands accept that they need to focus on adjusting or pivoting, they can not only survive but prosper, just like JD.com. This is not fiction, we have seen it before, and we’ll see it again.

Michael Tutek is the founder and CEO of Preezie.

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