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Boxcar Social co-owner Alex Castellani was concerned that consumers would abandon online ordering when businesses began to reopen a few months back.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

When the pandemic started, owners of the Boxcar Social chain of wine and coffee bars were already working on a parallel coffee-roasting business and the e-commerce technology to go with it.

But the lockdowns pushed the Toronto-based company’s focus deeper into online sales – and it hasn’t looked back.

In addition to selling local wines and craft beer, Boxcar and its sister business, Subtext Coffee Roasters, import coffee and wine that’s otherwise unavailable in Canada. They began selling wine online, alongside wine subscriptions and curated gift packs, as a pandemic pivot.

The new income stream has been a huge success for the business, says co-owner Alex Castellani, whose team plans to expand its online offerings and launch web-based coffee courses even as society opens up.

“We’ve sunk so much time and effort into these systems and allowing people to, with ease, engage in these products,” he says, noting the web has been a great way to educate customers about the company’s products, which come from specially-chosen growers and wineries that have interesting stories.

When businesses began to reopen a few months back, Mr. Castellani briefly worried consumers deprived of an in-person experience would abandon online ordering.

“But I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he says. “E-commerce was trending before the pandemic.”

Seasonally adjusted e-commerce sales in Canada peaked in May 2021, according to Statistics Canada, with many customers returning to brick-and-mortar stores as society reopens. A May report by market research company Statista forecasts Canadian e-commerce sales to continue to grow, but at a slower pace than the previous year, each year until 2025.

When businesses began to reopen a few months back, Mr. Castellani briefly worried consumers would abandon online ordering.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Experts say brands that want to hold onto their online customers should focus on exceptional customer service, communication and order fulfilment amid international supply-chain challenges.

“In this economy, the sales end is probably your easier piece,” says marketing consultant Kevin Mcisaac, president of Kelowna, B.C.-based Hot Marketing Inc.

He says supply chain issues have caused many large retailers to run out of stock on key items, leading customers to seek alternatives online.

“Right now, people have nothing to sell and there’s all kinds of demand in the market,” Mr. Mcisaac says.

Smaller e-commerce businesses can be more agile when it comes to suppliers, as long as they plan ahead and make sure they’ve arranged a back-up, adds Mr. Mcisaac, who is working with some clients on plans as far forward as 2025.

He says customers are more likely to buy from the company that has the item in stock than a company that sells it more cheaply but is facing delays.

“Know what your niche is, have a constant and wonderful communication stream back and forth,” he advises, “and if you can do what you say you’ll do, they’ll be raving fans for the next five or 10 years.”

At the start of the pandemic, “a lot of [small business owners] sat back and waited while Amazon ate their lunch,” Mr. Mcisaac adds, noting that resulted in six- to eight months of lost business and numerous closures.

Mr. Castellani would like to have an employee dedicated to chatting with clients on his websites.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

He believes the small businesses that survive will have less competition and more income streams – such as an online shop – and the added understanding that above-and-beyond service is one of the main reasons customers come back. Examples of good service include having delivery options, in-store pickup, and an excellent return policy to maintain customers’ patronage and trust.

“Trust is massive,” Mr. Mcisaac says, and an area where small businesses have the opportunity to outplay their larger competitors. “If somebody trusts you, they will shop with you. Period.”

Mr. Mcisaac also anticipates an increased use of web tools that help the customer stay connected and find what they want faster, such as chatbot widgets: “Anything that makes the website almost become more like an in-person experience,” he says. “I think that’s huge.”

Boxcar’s Mr. Castellani says he’d love to get to a point where his company can have an employee dedicated to chatting with clients on his websites.

“It would be super cool if we could have someone really knowledgeable, so when someone is on our online store, they could have a real-time live chat with someone to guide them. That’s aspirational for us.”

Other ideas for forward-thinking e-commerce entrepreneurs include tapping into niche-subject influencers and selling over social media, says retail consultant Doug Stephens, founder of the Retail Prophet consultancy.

He notes British luxury fashion house Burberry is now doing fashion shows on the interactive live streaming service Twitch.

Mr. Stephens believes live-streamed shopping will continue to grow because it connects the customer with the story behind the brand, which builds loyalty and combines commerce with entertainment.

“The boundary between those two things is evaporating,” he says. “It’s completely conceivable you’ll be able to go online and just flick through (live-stream shopping) channels … and buy in the moment.”