By now it's a cliché; to say that the pandemic has forever changed how we shop. The enduring lockdowns, retail closures, and stay-at-home orders pushed most of us out of our normal habits and pulled new online products and services into the limelight. Ecommerce activity soared in 2020 as consumers flocked online to stock up on home office furniture, masks, sweatpants, and flour for all our shelter-in-place needs.
Now, with ongoing vaccine distribution and lifting lockdown orders, the key questions all business owners must answer are: how do they plan a product strategy that's pandemic-proof? Should stores keep stocking up on 2020's hottest items, or should they turn their attention to new categories? And as online businesses prepare for spending to shift once retail is back in full force, how can they keep the customers they've already earned?
1. Baby clothes and accessories
Is there a secret pandemic baby boom happening? Despite headlines proclaiming a “COVID baby bust” this year, our research found that 24% of parents and parents-to-be expect to spend more on baby items post-pandemic.
The audience makes perfect sense for ecommerce: busy parents value the convenience and safety of online shopping more than any other demographic. And unlike their adult variety, most baby items are viewed more as commodities rather than items where you'd spend a ton of time shopping in-store. In other words, once you find the best baby formula you like, you stick with it. As one shopper we surveyed said, With craft supplies and baby toys, I don't have to worry about size and prefer online shopping.
Even though it's a crowded category, there's still plenty of opportunity to break into the You could curate items under a brand, or specialize in a niche product. Functional items, like baby bottles, diapers, bibs, might yield lower margins, but they're also ripe for subscription based revenue. For those with a more creative bent, novelty items like toys, books, and crafts, could generate higher margins, but also cost more to acquire new customers.
Not interested in product development? You could start a reseller business where your focus is on marketing and selling products made by other companies.
Lauren Sotto, a Shopify employee who runs McCoy Kids, curates sustainable, heirloom-quality” brands and items both online and retail. Her online marketing strategy focuses on adding differentiators, or reasons why customers would come to her store versus buying directly from brands and marketplaces. For example, she advises brands to consider specialized gift services. “We've been very successful offering free gift wrap/messaging and free local delivery, Lauren says.
Organic Baby Shop is another reseller that specializes in importing European formula—believed by many parents to be superior to American formula. By finding an in-demand niche, they can focus less on their own branding and more on providing responsive customer service and shipping and fulfillment.
2. Virtual classes and experiences
From orchestras to yoga centers and book clubs, companies in the entertainment and education business scrambled to get online when lockdowns began. Fortunately for these resilient businesses, consumer appetite for virtual learning will likely continue post-pandemic. Why? Perhaps it’s the safety and immunity from new virus strains. Or perhaps we all love the convenience of being able to take a class, or watch a live concert, from anywhere in the world.
For example, pre-pandemic I would’ve had to fly to Rome and take a chartered bus ride out to attend one of Nona Nerino’s famous live cooking demos. Now, the 84-year-old grandmother hosts her classes virtually. And although all her dishes can be made with local supermarket ingredients, Nona also sells Italian-imported pantry items.
Yoga Wild, a studio based in Washington state, launched on-demand virtual classes during the pandemic for a low subscription fee. They also showcase shorter, free versions. Virtual classes help the teachers maintain relationships with existing students, and expand their reach to new ones who may return to studios or continue online.
Another benefit of virtual classes and experiences is that you can easily turn them into video ads for multiple platforms, thereby extending your reach. Besides your own store, you could recut the same video for all your favorite social networks, YouTube, etc.
It’s worth noting that this “category” was the most polarizing amongst consumers. While 23% planned to spend more on virtual classes and experiences in a post-pandemic world, 20% planned to spend less on this category.
3. Sporting goods
Miss that sweaty communal gym feel? Not I. And apparently, not a lot of others: nearly 30% of American gym-goers don't plan on returning to a gym until 2022, at the earliest. After more than a year of ditching gyms for retrofitted home gyms and outdoor trails, it's no wonder that 19% of consumers plan to spend more on exercise equipment, even as gyms reopen.
Strength Fitness USA combines personal or commercial gym equipment with white-glove service. Owner Joe Serrao began the store in 2016 after spending the first part of his career as an electrical engineer. For selling high-ticket items, like gym retrofits, Joe thinks the best marketing strategy is testimonials.
Nothing will help you stand out like generating real, positive customer reviews,” Joe says. Provide exemplary customer service. Be genuinely helpful and interested in your customers' needs and well-being. This will all work together to help you succeed/
If you dont have a warehouse to store all that bulky fitness equipment, dropshipping might be a more accessible route. Dropshipping lets you choose and market in-demand products that are manufactured and shipped by a third party.
Were also bullish on bike saddles, one of the top trending products we identified earlier this year. Search volume for the term bike saddles” is getting 22,200 searchs per month. People are also looking for more specific types, such as “comfortable bike saddles”; (12,100/mo), “mountain bike saddles” (3,600/mo), and “road bike saddles”; (4,400/mo). Other bicycle equipment is also likely to remain stable through the warmer seasons as consumers stick to their new, COVID-era mode of transportation.
4. Household cleaning products
Even as demand for cleaning products settles down from our pandemic stockpiling days, 19% of consumers plan to buy more cleaning products as things return to normal.
Cleaning products can be added to an existing product portfolio, too. For example, Hello Green is an Australian store selling eco-friendly household brands for items like reusable baby food pouches and disposable cutlery. During the pandemic, they expanded their lineup of cleaning products, appealing to the eco-conscious with green solutions to sanitizers, laundry detergent, and more.
Cleaning products are ripe for retention opportunities, given most of us stick with a product we like and repurchase them without thought. For example, you could offer subscriptions which give shoppers a convenient, personalized, and slightly discounted way to automatically buy what they need on a recurring basis. You could also breed customer loyalty through a rewards program.;
5. Beauty products (e.g., skincare, haircare, etc.)
It’s projected that the global beauty industry will be worth a jaw-dropping $756 billion by 2026. And although most beauty products are bought in retail, the pandemic has activated plenty of online beauty consumers. 47% of consumers bought more beauty products online in 2020, and 17% plan to buy even more post-pandemic as we venture back into the real world where fine lines and wrinkles come in HD.
If you’re already an avid consumer and researcher of beauty products, this might be the category for you. Your first step is deciding what to sell in a very broad category: there’s makeup, haircare, and skincare, to name a few.
After that, you need to learn everything you can about your target audience: who influences them, where they hang out online, where they discover new beauty products, etc.
SUGAR Cosmetics founder Vineeta Singh spotted a gap in the market for cosmetics that complement Indian skin tones. Going against what every other Indian cosmetic brand did at the time, she aimed her label squarely at young women who followed global beauty trends but wanted things to be “Indianized” for them, as Singh describes it. She also employed many women in her target audience, which became a perfect testing ground for new concepts.
6. Personal care products (e.g., toothpaste, soap, etc.)
Personal care is one of the most stable industries you can join. Pandemic or not, we need (or try) to maintain our personal hygiene routines.
And apparently, few of us miss buying toothpaste in real life. 40% of consumers bought more personal care products online during the pandemic, and 17% plan to buy more of this after the pandemic. From shampoo to razors and menstrual pads, the pandemic gave us the opportunity to skip those humdrum trips to the drugstore and head straight to online retailers.
What should you sell? Soap is a safe bet, as 71% of those surveyed said they plan to wash their hands more even after COVID-19 is but a distant memory. Soaps and bath bombs are ripe for DIY-ers and don’t require expensive storage space.
Alternatively, you could focus on differentiating yourself from the generics of the world through high-quality formulations. Twice is a premium toothpaste brand backed by Lenny Kravitz, and invented by a family of dentists. It boasts vitamins and antioxidants, and uses 100% recyclable packaging.
Twice lets its happy customers do the talking, showcasing more than 1,000 positive reviews on their Shopify store. To inspire confidence in a first-time customer, they also offer a 100% money back guarantee and no minimums for canceling a subscription, and donate 10% of company profits to charity.
Founder Julian Levine told us in an episode of Shopify Masters that features tell, but benefits sell, “At the end of the day, you need to have a product that really speaks to the consumer, and showcases to them how it's going to improve their lives,” says Julian.
Groceries are a trillion-dollar industry, so even though 90% of grocery shopping is still happening offline, there is sizable revenue for ambitious ecommerce brands. The pandemic activated plenty of new online grocery consumers in a manner that’s expected to continue to surge: 21.5% of groceries sales—worth more than $215 billion—will happen online by 2025.
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) plays a miniscule, but growing, part of that pie. According to Dan Frommer, editor of The New Consumer, the “vast, vast majority of online groceries happens through a big aggregator—the Instacarts and Amazons of the world.” However he thinks there is a huge opportunity for independent brands now that more consumers are comfortable shopping online.
“High-end, direct-to-consumer meal kits seems like an obvious growth opportunity, but it will really depend on how companies can handle pandemic-related deflation,” says Frommer.
For example, Omsom specializes in quality Asian sauce packets, enabling home chefs to make Asian dishes like Thai larb and Filipino sisig at home. Their brand is bold, loud, and audacious, with colors almost as shocking as their spices. To Frommer, Omsom is a perfect example of a strong, high-end DTC brand in the grocery category.
“Omsom has an email newsletter that sounds more like you’re hearing from friends than a company that’s trying to sell to you. They probably had an unrealistic growth year because everyone was home and cooking. The challenge for them now is to work harder for repeat purchases,” he says.
Another trend? A focus on health and “preventative eating.” According to a 2020 survey conducted by FMCG Gurus—a market research company specializing in food—80% of consumers indicated they were planning to eat and drink more healthily in 2021 as a direct result of COVID-19. Already, 58% of North American consumers say they regularly research different ways to improve their health. Meanwhile, six out of 10 consumers surveyed by Innova indicated they were looking for products to support their immune health, with one in three saying these concerns increased in 2020.
Due to the sheer amount of grocery sales still happening offline, the key for many food and beverage sellers is wholesale distribution and partnerships.
8. Athleisure clothing
It’s a yoga leggings world, and I am all for it. The pandemic sparked a major shift in what people wear, with consumers swapping out what my colleague Greg calls “hard pants” (jeans) for stretchy yoga pants, sweats, and shorts. According to our survey, 41% of consumers purchased more athleisure clothing online during the pandemic, and 19% plan on buying even more in this category as lockdowns ease.
Whether or not this represents a fashion trend that would probably make Coco Chanel turn in her grave, awaits to be seen. One thing we know for sure—after a year of Zoom meetings with executives in baseball caps, it’s unlikely we’ll be going back to suit and tie anytime soon. Furthermore, many studies show that people are more productive when they’re comfortable.
What does post-pandemic athleisure look like? Does it need to accommodate a hybrid work model? A home-to-office-to-nightlife lifestyle? It’s anyone’s guess, really, which represents an exciting opportunity for entrepreneurs in this category.
The key word here is “lifestyle.” When considering your marketing strategy, think about where your audience hangs out. You should already be following relevant influencers and social media accounts that your target audience follow. If you’re just starting out, consider tapping influencers to help you promote your products.
Women’s Best, a brand selling athleisure and supplements for health-conscious women, targets those who reject Barbie-proportioned sizes marketed by competing businesses. Their brand aims to celebrate health above dated concepts of beauty.
The brand has also made an international name for itself by localizing their Instagram stores. The U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, and France all have custom Instagram accounts that lead to specific online shops—in local currency and languages—for regional customers.
9. Clothing accessories (e.g., shoes, hats, etc.)
Sales of accessories were already up during the pandemic—48% of consumers bought more of these through ecommerce stores in 2020—and 19% plan to spend even more on accessories in a post-pandemic world. After months sporting new Crocs and baseball caps, consumers are eager to freshen up their accessories for life outside the house.
Passionate about Italian leather shoes? You can help consumers skip the middleman (and middleman fees) by working directly with manufacturers. That’s how Velasca began. In order to compete with Goliath brands, founders Enrico Casati and Jacopo Sebastio focused on sleek storytelling and photography to appeal to a new generation of consumers struck by a recession in 2012.
Velasca also elevated its marketing efforts by publishing a magazine called A Million Steps, which showcases the Italian way of life through interviews and stories on pop culture, sports, food, and more. There’s no mention of Velasca’s shoes or promotions to be found—it’s a separate editorial effort meant to accompany fans’ journey through life.
While it’s unclear where the shoe winds will blow post-pandemic, it’s probably safe to say that with more public foot traffic, we’re going to need better shoes.
10. Pet supplies
The pandemic led to a slight uptick in pet adoption, so you can bet the pet supply business will surge as a result. At least 18% of consumers plan to buy more pet supplies post-pandemic, according to our survey.
Like beauty products, pet supply products can breed a lot of brand loyalty and repeat purchases—if your pet loves a certain product, you’re more likely to keep buying the exact same product. Big box stores in particular can trigger “choice paralysis.” This is where an overabundance of options makes it hard for customers to decide what to purchase, sometimes resulting in no purchase at all.
That’s good news for ecommerce stores. Given so many of us were forced to buy online this past year, the hurdle of convincing a pet owner to try a different shopping channel is already out of the way.
From dropshipping to homemade treats, the type of pet supply store you start really depends on your interest, time, and risk appetite.
If you feel passionate about your own idea, you could go the product development route. For example, UK-based Poppy’s Picnic sells its own raw dog food and prepared meal plans for the cooking-fatigued canine owner. Poppy’s leans heavily into health claims for raw dog food, such as extending pet life, preventing weight issues, dull coat, etc. Their branding also appeals to the conscientious dog lover, with a blog that tackles topics like “pet-safe plants” and “hosting dog weddings.” Their Instagram account features, of course, adorable pet pictures tagged by customers, with real rave reviews. A+ content.
Alternatively, you could resell pet supplies and become a one-stop shop competing against the PetCo’s of the world. Teddybob is a Canadian retailer that provides all kinds of basic products for dog and cat owners.
While their collections are extensive, Teddybob does a great job of narrowing the focus of their branding and cutting out any opportunities for choice paralysis. Despite selling everything from litter boxes to heating pads, their sleek, modern branding always acts as the unifying force behind their collections. Aside from the occasional color variant, their everyday supplies tend to have few options. And shoppers can check out fast with Shop Pay—savvy.
Now what? Post-pandemic, it’s all about retention
As the economy re-opens, many ecommerce businesses met the moment with the right product or rapidly pivoted to fit customer needs. Those that thrived during the worst of the pandemic should anticipate change—and some attrition. For existing online businesses, the biggest challenge now is retention.
“Perhaps someone tried you once during the pandemic,” Dan says. “How do you maintain that relationship for the next decade?”
In our view, strong storytelling, product expansion, and seamless checkout are all ways to maintain or build loyal customers even as habits reverse and the big box retailers return. It’s not easy. But as an entrepreneur, you were never about easy.
Main illustration by Luca D'Urbino.