The Digital Transformation of Retail During the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Comparative Study in Canada, China, And France

The Digital Transformation of Retail During the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Comparative Study in Canada, China, And France

Chapter And Authors Information

Messaline Nicolaï

HEC Montreal, Canada

Camille Grange

HEC Montreal, Canada
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Ebrahim Mazaheri
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ABSTRACT

This study invites scholars and practitioners to reflect on the digital transformation of retail throughout the year 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has activated two countervailing forces particularly relevant to the dynamics of the retail sector. On the one hand, months-long lockdown and stay-at-home measures have boosted e-commerce transactions at the expense of brick-and-mortar sales. On the other hand, the pandemic has contributed to economic hardship, and drops in customer confidence and discretionary purchasing. Thus, 2020 has been a year where retailers have had to juggle between handling extraordinary challenges and embracing opportunities via digital innovations. Against this backdrop, we set out to better understand the nature and scale of retail actors’ digital responses to the disruptions generated by the pandemic. Because these responses are likely to have been contingent on their socio-cultural and economic setting, we opted for a comparative study of the most salient initiatives in China, France, and Canada. This approach, which highlights the diversity of responses across countries, intends to broaden the spectrum of possibilities for decision-makers across the globe when it comes to leveraging digital technology in the retail sector.

Keywords: Retail, E-Commerce, Digital Transformation, Covid-19, Comparative Study

1. INTRODUCTION

This paper presents a comparative study of the digital initiatives implemented in China, France, and Canada to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. The geographical framework chosen for the study is especially relevant to those interested in e-commerce and the digital transformation of retail (Deloitte 2017, Grewal et al. 2017). The three selected countries are ranked among the top ten global markets in terms of online sales, which amounted to USD 1.8 trillion for China, USD 66 billion for France, and USD 43 billion for Canada in 2019 (Cramer-Flood, 2020b). Furthermore, Canada, China, and France have some similarities that make them comparable. For example, they are relatively mature from a technological infrastructure standpoint, and they have faced common challenges during the pandemic (e.g., the collapse in demand and the breakdown of supply chains). However, their socio-cultural and economic contexts differ significantly. As a result, the initiatives led by the key economic players in the three countries have varied, enabling a broad analysis of the digital transformation of retail engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Comparative research analyzes the contrast among different macro-level units (such as countries) at a particular point in time (Esser and Vliegenthart 2017), which encourages a stronger awareness of the practices and challenges that are idiosyncratic to contexts differing from those one is most exposed and accustomed to. In this study, we leverage a comparative approach to develop a wide-ranging understanding of how the retail industry has engaged with digital technologies to implement changes in value creation (e.g., proposing new sales or interaction channels, revisiting offerings and value propositions) during the COVID-19 crisis. Our analysis, which relies on secondary data (e.g., industry reports, market analyses, white papers, magazine and newspaper articles, governments and retailers’ announcements), offers a concrete basis for retail actors to assess, contrast, and accelerate their digital transformation efforts (Vial 2019).
In the rest of the paper, we first describe the geographical framework for the comparative study. Then, we analyze the friction points that have impeded customer-retailer interactions because of the pandemic. We subsequently discuss the most salient digital innovation initiatives that retail actors have set up to address these friction points. We conclude by highlighting some key insights.

2. Pre-Pandemic Digitalization of Retail in China, France, and Canada

In this section, we review the central characteristics and enablers of the diffusion of e-commerce practices in the three compared markets.

2.1. China: E-Commerce on Steroids

China is by far the world leader in e-commerce. It has generated USD 1.8 trillion in revenues in 20191, accounting for 34% of the country’s total retail sales (Cramer-Flood, 2020a). The economic, technological, and regulatory reforms undertaken in the 1980s,1990s, and early 2000s by the Chinese government have been instrumental to a fast development of national e-commerce. The Great Firewall of China was set up in the late 1990s to regulate the Internet, blocking access to selected foreign websites and slowing down cross-border Internet traffic. In the early 2000s, China also started the Golden Shield Project, a massive surveillance and censoring system (Arsène, 2019). The set of strict government regulations have made it difficult for foreign companies to gain a foothold in China – a market of 904 million Internet users in March 2020 (Thomala, 2020a). Google even pulled out of the search engine market in 2010 and Amazon shut down its marketplace in 2019. Unsurprisingly, China’s e-commerce is thus controlled by national companies, the most important of which in 2019 were Vip.com (USD 20.38 billion in revenues), Suning (USD 33.35 billion), Pinduoduo (USD 145.69 billion), JD.com (USD 294.67 billion), and the ultra-dominant Alibaba (USD 1,004.69 billion), owner of both Taobao and Tmall (Cramer-Flood, 2020a).
The growth of online marketplaces in China was fueled by a profound transformation of consumption at the end of the 2000s. During that time, e-commerce quickly became the norm due to underdeveloped physical retail, a cheap and high-performance national logistics system, as well as the increased purchasing power of the urban middle class resulting from the economic reforms initiated in the 1990s (Biggs and al, 2017; Liu, 2019). In 2018, the average household income in cities was RMB 39,251 (USD 5,873) compared to RMB 1,510 (USD 225) in 1990 (Textor, 2020). This growth in buying power was further accelerated by increased access to broadband Internet.
Furthermore, Chinese consumers have quickly adopted the mobile Internet to carry out their online activities (e.g., messaging, social networking, shopping). This is explained by the more affordable cost of smartphones compared to computers, and by public investments in the mobile network infrastructure (Evans, 2017). In December 2019, 99% of Chinese Internet users used their smartphones to access the Web, compared to 43% and 35% for desktop and laptops use, respectively (Thomala, 2020b). It is no surprise that mobile applications have flourished, especially those dedicated to payment. Alibaba and Tencent possess 90% of the market with their respective Alipay and WeChat Pay / Tenpay applications (Thomala, 2020c). WeChat was created in 2011 as an instant messaging tool, but it has quickly evolved to offer a number of other features including payments (Schaeffer, 2017). The success of WeChat was made possible due to the integration of “mini-programs” allowing e-merchants to take advantage of the application’s social network to increase conversion rates (Cramer-Flood, 2020a). In 2019, these mini programs generated an income of RMB 800 billion (USD 115 billion) (Kats, 2020). The quick and easy payment solutions based on the scan of a QR code have undoubtedly boosted the adoption of mobile payment. In 2019, a staggering 80.3% of all online sales were conducted via mobile devices (Cramer-Flood, 2020a).
Finally, it is important to note that entertainment is key to the Chinese shopping experience. It manifests through entertainment activities in shopping centers, but also online through social commerce or live streaming. This particularity has contributed to the desire to define a Chinese “New retail”, a term coined in 2016 by Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba. “New retail” places the consumer at the center of growth and encourages retailers to fully integrate digital and physical channels to create an ecosystem offering a unified customer experience (PWC, 2019).

2.2. France: Starting Slow but Catching Up Quick

Online sales in France reached USD 66 billion in 2019, representing 9.2% of total retail revenues1 and making the country the 6th in the world in terms of e-commerce sales (Cramer-Flood, 2020b; Von Abrams, 2020). As these figures indicate, e-commerce is now a very solid practice. However, its diffusion was much slower than in neighboring countries such as the UK or Germany. In the 1990s, electronic transactions, mostly B2B, were conducted through the key technology of the time, the Minitel (Isaac, 2017; Brousseau 2003). Contrary to China, Frances’s main public operator France Telecom did not quite appreciate the economic potential of the Internet at the time, judging that “its cooperative mode of operation was not designed to offer commercial services” (Eudes, 2019). The Internet for the general public emerged in 1994 when small independent ISPs started offering cheap subscriptions (Eudes, 2019), and the 1990s thus constituted a period of transition from the Minitel to the Web (BNF, 2016). It was only at the beginning of the 2000s that Internet adoption accelerated thanks to the availability of broadband technology and of better computing equipment in French households (Barba, 2011). In 2002, the home Internet penetration rate reached 23% compared to 4% in 1998. In 2005, about half of the French population could access the Internet. (Statista, 2020f).
Online consumption also picked up in the 2000s as new merchants entered the market (Barba, 2011). In 2018, the number of online stores in France was 182, 000 compared to 22,600 in 2006 (Statista, 2020d). Google, and its search engine advertising platform, largely benefited from the intensified competition. In 2019, it held a 90.5% share in the search engine market in the country (Statista, 2019). Amazon entered the French market in 2000 and quickly became the leading online seller outside of the food category. Despite Amazon’s lead, French e-commerce enterprises have built a robust presence. In 2020, 70% of the top 10 merchants (according to the number of customers) were French. Amazon led with a 53.7% of market shares, followed by Fnac (27%), Cdiscount (18.2%), Veepee (13.6%) and eLeclerc (11.1%) (Besnard, 2020).
Another key feature of French e-commerce is the significant stronghold of large-scale retailers in the online grocery sector, and related, its significant click-and-collect / click-and-drive infrastructure. In that regard, Carrefour and Intermarché opened 232 and 85 collection points in 2018, respectively (Batty, 2019), and in 2019, there were more than 5,100 drive sites in the country, including 3,720 click-and-drive (Nielsen, 2019). The economic weight of French companies in the online grocery sector has been detrimental to Amazon’s growth rate, which dropped from 44% to 14% in 2019 in this sector because of harsh competition and the multiplication of collection points for pedestrians in urban areas (Batty, 2019). Finally, although the fast-moving consumer goods sector occupies an important place in the French e-commerce landscape, the fashion segment generated the most online sales in 2019 with a share of 46.9% (Statista, 2020a). Another ascending consumption trend in the country is mobile ecommerce: 35.1% of online purchases were made via m-commerce in 2019, a 22.1% growth compared to the previous year (Von Abrams, 2020).

2.3. Canada: Where are Canadian Online Retailers?

In Canada, online sales reached USD 32 billion in 20191, that is, 6.8% of total retail sales, making it 9th in the world in terms of e-commerce sales (Briggs, 2020; Cramer-Flood, 2020b). The expansion of e-commerce in Canada has paralleled the development of the technological infrastructure. During the 1990s, the Ministry of Industry created the Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC) and developed a series of measures to develop the information highway and give faster access to information to Canadians (OECD, 2002). According to Statistcs Canada, while only 15% of the Canadian population had access to the Internet at home in 1996, this grew to 53% in 2002 (mostly in urban areas) and 87% in 2019. In parallel, online sales increased from CAD 417 million in 1998 to CAD 1.1 billion in 2000 (De Mont & Caragata, 2013; Statistique Canada 2001), and in 2019, 67% of Canadians were shopping online (Coppola, 2020).
Although consumer adoption of e-commerce has risen steadily in the last two decades, sales have mostly benefited American companies. In 1998, an astounding 63% of online sales in Canada were the results of transactions on US websites (De Mont & Caragata, 2013). The dominance of American players in the Canadian online landscape remains prominent today: among the five leading retailers in 2019 in terms of customer acquisition, only one was Canadian (Canadian Tire1) (Briggs, 2019). The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) reported in 2019 that 64% of Canadians would have liked to buy more from local online stores. However, the online presence of Canadian retailers online remains weak (only 54% of local businesses had a website in 2017 according to Statistics Canada). As such, a large portion of online purchases is still being captured by foreign retail sites (Shaw 2017).

2.4. Synthesis

In summary, the dynamics of retail digitalization in China, France and Canada are heterogeneous both in terms of supply (retail offerings) and demand (consumer behavior). E-commerce has become the norm in Chinese retail. As reported in Table 1, which presents key statistics of Internet and e-commerce adoption in the three countries, e-commerce in China represents an impressive 34.1% of total retail sales. This is explained in part by the fact that physical retail had not reached maturity when the Internet emerged, and by the early and extremely fast diffusion of mobile devices and mobile shopping stores. In contrast, the share of e-commerce in total retail sales in France and Canada represents 9.2% and 6.8% respectively. In those markets, e-commerce emerged as an alternative (and competitor) to physical retail, which was already mature in both countries. It is particularly striking that Canadian companies are still lagging behind in the adoption of e-commerce, leaving a large part of the market to foreign retailers, Amazon in particular. Although the latter also dominates online sales in France, French retailers keep a solid foothold, especially in the online grocery business.

Table 1.
Key markers of e-commerce in China, France and Canada before the COVID-19 pandemic (compiled from eMarketer and Statista data in 2019)

  China France Canada
Internet penetration rate (% of population) 61% 86% 87%
E-commerce penetration rate 74.8% 68.5% 67 %
E-commerce revenues (billions) USD 1800 USD 66 USD 32
% of total retail sales 34.1% 9.2% 6.8%
Mobile internet users (% of population) 99.1% 65% 79 %
Mobile buyers’ rate (% of online buyers) 99.7% 36.6% 46.2 %
Mobile commerce revenues (billions) USD 1447 USD 23 USD 10.5
Number of social media users (in millions) 882 36 25
Number of social commerce buyers (in millions) 713 8.8 6.2

3. Retailers’ Digital Initiatives during the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this section, we document customer-retailer friction points as a result of the health crisis, and we illustrate how they have been addressed by retailers’ digital innovations. This analysis relies on the customer journey framework, which enables a complete consideration of the consumption lifecycle.

3.1. COVID-19 Induced Friction Points During Customer-Retailer Interactions

A customer journey is composed of three generic stages: pre-purchase, purchase, and post-purchase (Lemon and Verhoef, 2016). As we explain next and illustrate in Table 2, all stages have been disrupted during the pandemic (KPMG 2020).

Table 2.
Synthesis of Key Friction Points Throughout the Customer Journey During the Pandemic

Pre-purchase

 

 

(need recognition, consideration, search)

Purchase

 

 

(choice, ordering, payment)

Post-purchase

 

 

(consumption, engagement, service)

·  Decreased offerings visibility

 

 

·  Inability to discuss products in person

·  Inability to go shopping at will

·  Long line-up to get into stores

·  Risks of infection while shopping

·  Product inventory issues

·  Errors in product availability

 

 

·  Few payment options

·  Unsecured payment process

·  Long line-up to pay

·  Risks of infection while paying

·  Delivery issues (notable delays, errors)

 

 

·  Difficulties in returning products

·  Risk of infection during delivery

·  Less resources to attend to customers’ requests

The pre-purchase stage includes customers’ activities prior to the acquisition of a good or service (Lemon and Verhoef, 2016). This involves becoming aware of one’s needs, seeking information, and considering and evaluating goods. This can be done through a variety digital or physical channels, some owned by brands and others controlled by consumers. In short, customers strive to collect information to decrease the level of uncertainty about a purchase. Because of the pandemic, it has been more difficult for consumers to research and evaluate products. Most importantly, the closure of physical stores has considerably decreased offerings visibility, social distancing has reduced opportunities to discuss and discover products, and the breakdown of supply chain has generated inventory issues.
The purchase phase is focused on the acquisition of the product or service and encompasses all interactions between consumers, brands and their environment during the purchase (Lemon, Verhoef, 2016). At this point, consumers have made a choice, and they need to validate their order and pay for it. Their objective is to optimize utility while reducing the cost of purchase (Gao et al, 2019). During the pandemic, payment has been a struggle for many. The main challenges have involved safety (e.g., contamination risks when buying in-store) and efficiency (e.g., reduced payment options)
The post-purchase stage pertains to getting possession of the product and to maintaining a relationship with the seller after the purchase (Lemon, Verhoef, 2016). At this stage, the products or services constitute the crucial points of contact between consumers and brands. The delivery experience as well as the consumption experience determine repeated purchases, and therefore, consumer loyalty (Gao et al, 2019). The pandemic has created serious challenges in this stage of the customer journey due to supply chain disruptions that have resulted in shortages as well as delivery delays. These were also caused by an upsurge in demand via e-commerce channels and a reduced number of delivery staff whom, in certain countries such as France, could exercise their right of withdrawal1. Under these conditions, maintaining a level of satisfaction corresponding to customer expectations has constituted a real challenge for retailers, and implementing solutions that ensure a positive experience has been essential to foster consumer loyalty.
In the next sections, we highlight a number of key digital innovations addressing some of the friction points that emerged as a result of the pandemic.

3.2. Digital Innovations in Support of the Pre-Purchase Stage
3.2.1. The Boom of Live Streaming E-Commerce in China

In China, the first country to experience coronavirus outbreaks, the authorities implemented rigorous public health measures. The measures were particularly strict in Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic, where the population was in lockdown, unable to go out shopping, from early January to the beginning of April. Live streaming has proven to be particularly effective in promoting offerings. Live streaming does not only consist of broadcasting a video about a product, it is a live shopping event during which prospects / viewers interact not only with a seller but also with each other. They discuss reasons for acquiring a certain product, how to use it, etc. (Kestenbaum, 2020). A real community forms around the products, generally on mobile platforms such as Taobao, Douyin, Kuaishou or WeChat on which purchases can be made directly. Customers can also see the number of orders made in real time and prices may fluctuate depending on the number of buyers (Bourdinière, 2020). Promotional communication on the platforms is carried out through celebrities or opinion leaders when the brands have the financial means. Even the mayor of Wuhan, Li Qiang, carried out a Live Streaming during the lockdown in order to promote the brands of the province of Hubei and reach the millions of Chinese people confined. About 300,000 items were sold in just a few hours on Douyin, and the entire campaign generated revenues of RMB 17.9 million (USD 2.5 million) (Ni & Wang, 2020). Live streaming also enabled the first digitization of Shangai’s Fashion Week, during which Internet users were able to buy designer pieces via Taobao Live. (Qi, 2020). The opening show generated 4 million views, and the revenues generated from the entire event totaled over RMB 500 million (USD 70 million) (Qi, 2020).
Taobao, a subsidiary of Alibaba, is the most popular platform in the Live Streaming industry with 61% of the market share in terms of users as of May 2020 (Ma, 2020a). Following the confinement, the company launched an aid plan for 200,000 brick and mortars, whose activities had ceased, in order to allow them to benefit from Alibaba’s audience, i.e., 800 million users per month visit the group’s transactional sites (Chou, 2020). Taobao’s first initiative in this direction was to remove all service fees for merchants wishing to join the Live Streaming platform in February 2020 (Chou, 2020). These merchants were thus able to leverage live sessions to promote their products, and the number of e-merchants using Taobao Live increased by 719% compared to January 2020 (Taobao, 2020). The digital giant has also supported farmers, who were mostly selling to offline intermediaries, by allowing them to promote and sell their goods directly to end consumers via Live Streaming. Rural live streaming existed before the health crisis, but it was not very popular. The COVID-19 crisis served as a powerful catalyst, and Taobao now has 50,000 rural streamers, up from only 1,000 back in 2019 (Hao, 2020). In sum, Live Streaming has not only helped coping with the crisis, but it has established a new business model likely to continue in the sale of agriculture products (Hao, 2020). Like Taobao, WeChat and JD.com have also launched aid plans for traders as well as producers. The Live Streaming industry, which generated RMB 451 billion (USD 66 billion) in 2019, could very well double in size 2020 (Toh & Wang, 2020).

3.2.2. Marketplaces at the Rescue of Small Sellers in France

France experienced a first episode of confinement from March 2000 to May 2020. Restrictions were less strict than those in China as businesses selling essential goods were allowed to be open. However, the closure of retail stores deemed non-essential, together with the risks of contamination from visiting a physical store, encouraged French people to make their purchases online, leading to a 60% increase in e-commerce sales during containment (eMarketer, 2020c). Similar to Chinese retailers, French retailers had to find new ways to make their offerings more visible and to promote their products to confined consumers. It is, in part, through marketplaces, firmly established in the e-commerce sector that merchants have been able to achieve this. Amazon, Cdiscount and Carrefour in particular have supported local retailers whose visibility had been reduced, providing them with a powerful online showcase to reach consumers.
Amazon, the leading online distributor in the country, has had a conflicting relationship with France. It has been repeatedly confronted with justice as well as with government officials’ critics about different business matters such as their dumping practices in the publishing market or the allegedly unsafe working conditions during the pandemic (Biseau, 2020). During the COVID-19 crisis, the American giant has provided support to French retailers, in particular SMEs and VSEs. The first initiative in that regard was about facilitating the setting up of online stores for the latter so that they can promote their products and gain visibility amongst French and European consumers (Amazon, 2020b). The company has made available their online mall called “producers’ shops” created in 2018, the objective of which is to encourage the visibility and commercial activity of producers and cooperatives by enabling them to sell directly to consumers (Amazon, 2020a). For example, the Lyon-based company Chabiothé, which sells organic tea on the American marketplace, has seen its sales increase by 30% since the start of the crisis, like the Breton cooperative SICA which sold in average 100 baskets of vegetables per day during the first containment, a volume 10 times larger than before (Amazon, 2020a). Since November 2020, Amazon has been offering 3 months free subscription to new retailers as well as free advertising to increase their visibility (Bianchi, 2020).
In the same vein, the French marketplace Cdiscount, a key competitor of Amazon, has been offering preferential conditions and prices to SMEs via increased visibility of customizable micro sites (to benefit from the 22 million visitors per month on the marketplace), free registration, or fee reduction (Cdiscount, 2020). During the March to May confinement, the company, which had 12,000 partners including 5,000 French VSEs / SMEs, saw its sales increase by more than 60% (Ugolini, 2020). The opportunity to acquire new partner vendors was also exploited by the Carrefour marketplace, created in June 2020. Access to the marketplace has been offered for free to sellers during confinement and is now composed of 52% of SME / VSE (Lourdessamy, 2020). The marketplace has specialized in the distribution of fine, organic, and local groceries, which represent a popular consumption trend in times of health crisis (Bartnik, 2020).

3.2.3. Traffic Monitoring Technology to Smoothen Store Visits in Canada

Faced with the spread of the pandemic, Canadians also experienced a period of confinement which extended from March 2020 to May 2020. Businesses whose activities were considered non-essential were forced to close, triggering a surge in online sales, which more than doubled during confinement (eMarketer, 2020b). Businesses supplying essential goods, such as grocery stores or supermarkets, remained open. Yet, emergency public health measures required them to ensure social distancing by managing traffic and capacity. A portion of Canadians (20.4%) surveyed in a post-lockdown consumer behavior study conducted in August 2020, reported that online shopping was a good alternative to avoid the annoyance of having to wait in line when

going to a brick-and-mortar store during the pandemic (Statista, 2020g). However, a large majority continued to shop in-store. In April 2020, 5% of consumers tried online grocery shopping while 64% continued to go to the supermarket, preferably buying larger quantities in order to limit trips (Briggs, 2020).
The impediments of in-store visits have inspired digital innovations in the lineup management sphere. Canadian start-up company Andie.work leverages data gathered at more than 75,000 stores such as grocery stores, supermarkets, liquor stores, or pharmacies, to provide real-time updates of waiting times in front of stores (Yuen, 2020). Based on AI technology, the start-up is able to predict the best time slots to go grocery shopping – which happened to be Tuesday afternoons between 1:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. as well as Wednesday between 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. (Andie.work, 2020). Other similar lineup management initiatives have emerged in 2020, from open, crowd-sourced platforms (e.g., howsby) to large organizations (e.g., Ivanohe Cambridge’s proprietary app for use by its mall tenants). Some stores have also integrated their own technological devices to avoid excessive customer groupings and mitigate wait times as well as infection risks. For example, as part of its plan to invest CAD 3.5 billion over the next five years in new technologies to create smarter stores (The Canadian Press, 2020), Walmart developed a “traffic monitoring” system into its mobile application to help stores manage customer traffic flows. On the app, users select the desired store and time slot, and in return they receive a confirmation email to be shown at the store entrance (Walmart, 2020). In some locations, Walmart customers could also scan QR Codes via their mobile devices to learn about the company’s security measures in place during the pandemic (Lewis, 2020).

3.3. Digital Innovations in Support of the Purchase Stage
3.3.1. The Progress of Contactless and Lightweight Payment in France and Canada

Crucial technological initiatives in support of customer purchase have consisted in innovations enabling the need for contactless payments. In France, shopping transactions are carried out mainly via payment cards or cash (Dubrulle, 2019). Cash transactions fell 60% in the first week of confinement (Maldonato, 2020). In contrast, contactless payment, considered as a barrier gesture by the authorities, has become an increasingly popular technology, and this has been helped by purchase ceilings going up from € 30 to € 50 at most retailers (Blondel, 2020). In parallel, an increase in mobile transactions was also observed: + 60% during the first week of confinement. However, this method of payment still has a relatively low penetration rate (2.2%), and 64% of French people remain uncertain about its use in 2020 (Maldonato, 2020; Statista, 2020e).
In parallel, creative payment solutions were also implemented in support of new business models. Lyra, a French fintech company, which states to be “the future of digital payment”, has offered its services at preferential rates during the pandemic. The retailer Fromage et Compagnie called on the services of the company to find a payment solution to be integrated into its new B2C drive / click & collect system (Lyra, 2020). The solution, which involves sending payment links via email, SMS, Facebook or WhatsApp, has helped the company mitigate the loss of B2B revenues associated with restaurants being closed during confinement episodes (Lyra, 2020).
Like France, the Canadian payment system relies heavily on bank solutions. The most highly used methods of payment at points of sale in 2019 were credit cards (51%), debit cards (26%), and cash (10%) (De Best, 2020). Unsurprisingly, the barrier gestures and distancing constraints imposed by the pandemic have influenced the payment behavior of Canadian consumers. The use of cash declined by 62% between April and July 2020, and in parallel contactless payments via cards increased by 64%, with an 83% surge in the restaurant sector (Macleaod, 2020; Interac, 2020). Digital payment solutions have constituted an additional alternative; a record number of 61.3 million Interac transfer transactions were carried out in April 2020 (Interac, 2020). Although this method was already used by Canadians before the pandemic, its adoption rate has increased by 43% between March 2019 and March 2020 (Interac, 2020). The adoption of this type of payment has also grown among SMEs, a third of which confirmed to have used contactless cards and Interac transfers to record transactions this year (CFIB, 2020). In parallel, businesses have reported a “digital shift” with cash transactions falling by 38% (CFIB, 2020). In sum, similar to France, the digital initiatives of Canadian retailers in terms of purchase support have been highly focused on implementing contactless payment solutions.

3.3.2. Big Tech’s Contactless Payment Solutions in China

Partial bank disintermediation is a unique feature of the payment system in China, which is dominated by tech giants such as Alibaba (Alipay) and Tencent (WeChat Pay) (Klein, 2020). Together with the strong adoption of smartphones in the country, this has fostered the development of a payment system based on digital wallets and QR codes, leading to a usage rate of 58% in 2019 (JP Morgan, 2020). In other words, digital and contactless payments were already widely used practices in China long before the pandemic happened. Alipay has been the most widely used platform in the country with a staggering 95% adoption rate among mobile shoppers (Statista, 2020c). Since the start of the pandemic, the company has deployed a series of technological measures aimed at supporting distressed retailers. For example, it launched the “Small Businesses 2020” program, in which it commits to helping small businesses use contactless payments and transfer their businesses online (Alizia, 2020). It has also invested in the digitalization of the service sector by encouraging third-party developers to create mini programs intended to meet the new needs of consumers during the pandemic (Li, 2020). Nearly 180 mini programs were launched just one week after announcing the initiative. Thanks to this, Meicai, a Chinese start-up that connects vegetable farmers with restaurants and consumers, was able to attract 800,000 new users to its platform in just a few days and received orders from over 80 Chinese cities following the operation (Li, 2020).

3.4. Digital Innovations in Support of the Post-Purchase Stage
3.4.1. Making Express Delivery More Efficient in China

During the lockdown, the closure of stores and restaurants has resulted in increased demand in the delivery sector, especially for food products. In fact, 24% of Chinese consumers said they have used more food delivery from restaurants, and 33% said they have done their grocery shopping online more frequently since the start of the pandemic (Ho et al., 2020). The express delivery sector has experienced significant development in recent years in China due to the growth of urbanization, the improvement of the logistics infrastructure, and the expansion of e-commerce. The sector recorded a 20% increase in revenue in 2019 with sales of RMB 745 billion (USD 107 billion), including RMB 654 billion (USD 99.5 billion) for food-delivery only (Government of China, 2020; Ma, 2020b). It is by far the largest market in the world, served by 20,000 companies and 3 million employees (Government of China, 2020), and it is currently dominated by Meituan-Dianping (renamed Meituam as of September 2020) and Ele.me, whose shares are 67% and 27%, respectively (Ma, 2020b). Following the onset of the pandemic, e-commerce companies have set up contactless delivery systems to facilitate physical distancing (Storey et al. 2021). Among them, Meituan integrated contactless delivery into its application, allowing users to receive their food parcels or prepared meals in previously designated spaces such as smart lockers, removing the need to interact with delivery people (Yu, 2020). This new form of delivery was first tested in Wuhan, and then exported to 184 Chinese cities (Yu, 2020). The company has also deployed a fleet of autonomous vehicles to reach smart lockers (Chan et al, 2020). Likewise, the increase in demand has prompted other e-commerce players such as Alibaba or JD.com to engage in driverless delivery (and delivery trials via drones, Zhaoyi 2020) to reach confined consumers and address the last mile delivery challenge more efficiently (Lin, 2020).

3.4.2. Furthering Click and Collect in France

In 2019, the revenues generated by the last mile delivery business in France amounted to 100 billion euros with 500 million parcels distributed (Doumbe, 2020). La Poste is the largest logistics provider in the country with 61% market shares, followed by Chronopost (33%) and Mondial Relay (25%) (eCommerceDB, 2020). Although the preferred delivery mode of French customers is home delivery (85% of people use it), relay points and click-and-collect options are also popular means to get products ordered online; their penetration rates are 68% and 28%, respectively (Gautier, 2020). Unsurprisingly, the delivery of goods has been highly disrupted during the pandemic due to relay point closures and the sharp increase in e-commerce sales. It is estimated that 75% of orders were distributed with an average delay of more than five days (Bouaziz, 2020a).
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, retailers with an omnichannel infrastructure have been able to quickly respond to store closure directives and delivery issues by allowing consumers to pick up their orders at or near points of sale. The French government authorized retailers to practice click-and-collect for certain categories of products (food, DIY, garden centers, cultural) (Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Recovery, 2020). That proved successful as the large French brands offering this delivery method, such as Auchan, Fnac-Darty, and Carrefour, recorded a 50% growth in sales between March and April 2020 (Von Abrams, 2020). The experience was more challenging for retailers that had not already built click-and-collect capability before the crisis. Leroy Merlin, for example, had to set up an appointment-based order pick-up system in the parking lots of its stores (Bouaziz, 2020b). Other retailers with more limited technical and financial resources have also chosen to implement click & collect or join platforms possessing the capability. This was the case of the 25th Hour bookstore, which decided in October 2020 to join a transactional platform bringing together several Parisian bookstores “Paris Librairies” (Briard, 2020a). The bookstore was thus able to exploit the platform’s logistics services and continue offering products to its consumers. In sum, click-and-collect solutions have become increasingly popular in France during the pandemic. This has been the case with very small businesses especially (25% of them used it in 2020) (Sintes, 2020).

3.4.3. Ramping up Delivery Capabilities for Online Sales in Canada

In 2019, the revenues generated by parcel delivery services amounted to CAD 12.8 billion and the three main players were FedEx (10% market share), UPS (22.4%) and Canada Post (35.4 %) (Mc Grath, 2020). The latter delivered 320 million parcels in 2019, an 8.3% increase compared to the previous year, which parallels the steady growth of e-commerce in the country (Canada Post, 2020a). Online sales have also grown since the start of the pandemic, inevitably leading to an increase in the volume of deliveries. For example, Canada Post processed 75% more parcels in June 2020 compared to June 2019 (Canada Post, 2020b). Last mile delivery is challenging in Canada due, in part, to the size of the country, its low-density areas, and the long distances to be covered to reach the most remote, less inhabited areas (Deloitte, 2019). Delays in delivery were reported in large-scale food distribution in particular, where the volume of online orders increased dramatically, as was the case for the Metro grocery store, which saw its demand double during confinement (Venne, 2020). To cope with increased demand, Metro decided to strengthen its logistics system by establishing a partnership with the Cornershop, which acts as an express delivery intermediary (Metro, 2020). Customers place their orders on the Cornershop’s website or mobile app, and they are charged a fee that is equivalent to 10% of their grocery bill (Orfali, 2020). Metro has also developed the Metro Priorité platform for people aged 70 and over, as well as people with reduced mobility or in quarantine. This service makes it possible to prioritize orders from the target audience within 48 hours, to pre-assemble them outside the stores or to deliver them to their homes (Metro, 2020). At the close of the fourth half of 2020, Metro’s online sales recorded a 160% increase in revenues amounting to CAD 4.14 billion, or + 7.4% compared the previous year (Fournier, 2020).

4. Conclusion

Table 5 provides a summary of retailers’ digital initiatives in the three targeted geographic areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given idiosyncratic differences in the three countries’ retail sectors, both in terms of offerings and consumer behavior, as well as in their governments’ regulatory responses to the pandemic, the focus of digital innovations has varied between Canada, China, and France.
What has been particularly noticeable in Canada (and mostly absent in China and France) is that a great deal of innovation has occurred at the brick-and-mortar level (e.g., queue/traffic management systems). This suggests that even if the pandemic has encouraged local sellers to move online and online transactions have surged, Canadians remain keen on shopping in physical stores.
In China and France, the dominant e-commerce players (giant tech, like Alibaba in the case of China; Amazon-and Carrefour albeit to a lesser extent-in France) have been at the forefront of several important initiatives. These have included facilitating SMEs’ emergency online transition by expanding the access to their digital tools and capabilities (e.g., online stores, live streaming).
Overall, our comparative analysis indicates that the pandemic has been a formidable accelerator of existing diffusion trends in the three countries: the popularity of social commerce in China, the use of Click & Collect in France, and the maturing of e-commerce in Canada. Crises are often powerful catalysts for innovations. As discussed in this paper, an utterly salient example of this has been the digital transformation of retail across the globe throughout 2020.

Table 5.

Key digital innovations used across countries and stages of the customer journey during the pandemic

  China France Canada
Pre-purchase Live Streaming Marketplaces Traffic monitoring tech/apps
Purchase Mobile payment

 

 

Digital wallet

Biometry

Contactless payment

 

 

Digital wallet

Payment via IM

Contactless payment

 

 

E-transfer

Post-purchase Contactless delivery

 

 

Smart locker

Autonomous vehicles

WeChat groups

Click & Collect Third party logistics platform

 

 

Click & Collect

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