Pandemics are not unusual in human history and COVID-19 will most likely not be the last one. However, it is one of the few – and the farthest-reaching – to have developed in our age of digital consumer capitalism.
There is a delicate balance of the supply chain that caters to the global demand for products and services. As governments urge consumers to self-isolate at home for the foreseeable future, people are shifting their purchases to e-commerce services, to the point where deliveries are starting to be delayed by weeks.
This situation is special, given how reliant we have become on the internet, but it is not without precedent. During the SARS outbreak, e-commerce was just a gimmick on the very limited Chinese internet. JD.com was just an electronics supplier and Alibaba was mainly focused on business-to-business services between Chinese suppliers and American business people.
As parts of the country were going into quarantine, people started looking for ways to buy what they needed while staying inside. At the time, the number one e-commerce platform in the country was eBay. However, Alibaba and JD started to slowly gobble up on that market share by employing a revenue-share system with their sellers. The strategy has proven successful in the long term, as today both companies are undoubted e-commerce giants.
COVID-19 can be an immense opportunity for e-commerce, potentially bringing in previously unengaged consumer segments and allowing e-commerce specialists the potential to grow their businesses into the long term, as we saw with Alibaba two decades ago. However, it could also pose a great danger. If self-isolation and limited economic activity persist for many months on end, the pressure put on the global supply chain logistics could be too much to bear and orders may on some occasions not be met. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and e-commerce companies need to adapt very fast in the current climate, regardless of their size and experience.