Footfall was down 44.7% in March. High street stores without eCommerce operations saw sales collapse. Primark, for instance, saw its monthly sales of £650m a month evaporate. 

And whilst eCommerce retailers have the advantage of being able to maintain online sales, it’s evident that even those retailers are scrambling to adopt new business models and maintain business continuity. As a measure of how difficult it is to keep operations going, consider that Debenhams has fallen into administration, Cath Kidston has permanently shut up shop and Next and many others had to temporarily at least close their online operations altogether.

One positive sign amidst the turmoil: shopping habits remain healthy with global data showing online sales up 46% since just before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic and stay-at-home orders began rolling out. The rise in online sales has been so significant, in fact, that the ongoing shift from brick-and-mortar stores to online shopping has been accelerated by a year or two because of the pandemic.

While it’s too early to predict how much of the growth in online spending will persist after the pandemic ends, the growth is certain to outstrip the 16.1% global growth rate that eMarketer predicted for 2020.

No doubt retailers are buoyed by seeing more consumers — and more new customers — heading online. But the rapid shift in shopping channels comes with challenges, including holiday-like order volumes, supply chain disruptions and the need to continue operating with employees working from home.

Unlike the holiday season, of course, the COVID-19 induced changes and challenges came with very little warning or time to prepare. The combination of a spike in online orders and the reality of a dispersed workforce create specific difficulties when it comes to reviewing online orders for fraud and protecting the business from consumer abuse.

Retailers that rely heavily on manual fraud review teams might find it difficult to keep up with the dramatic and persistent increase in orders while still accurately assessing which orders are fraudulent and which are legitimate.

Workforce woes and data breaches

The problem is exacerbated by requirements that fraud teams work from home. Agents’ home offices might not be equipped with the tools they need — including secure laptops on which they can review customers’ personally identifiable information. Their cybersecurity systems might not be as robust as the protections in place at company offices. All of which raises the potential of violating privacy regulations or experiencing a data breach.

Moreover, even the most hard-working employees might not be able to maintain the same level of productivity at home, where two or more adults might be working and where children need to be cared for and possibly homeschooled. That creates a situation in which higher-order volume means more work needs to be done at the very time that review agents’ personal circumstances mean they have less time to do the work.

All these pressures come at a time when potential for fraud and consumer abuse is on the rise. Fraudsters thrive amid chaos and they often seek to hide among the noise of increased order volumes. Furthermore, COVID-19 and the need to limit the disease’s spread have inspired new ways of doing business.

For instance, to keep employees and customers safe, many couriers across the globe no longer require signatures on deliveries. That increases the chances for doorstep theft of an eCommerce package or for someone to claim that they did not receive a shipment that they actually had received. Unfortunately, the ongoing financial strain brought on by COVID-19 could lead to increases in consumer abuse.

It’s not all doom and gloom

As difficult as these times seem, however, there are steps retailers can take to protect themselves while providing their shoppers with improved customer experience. Automated order flow, with fraud solutions that rely on machine learning, allow merchants to off-load overflow orders to systems that can sift good orders from fraudulent ones almost instantly. The best among these solutions also protect merchants from false claims that a package never arrived or that the product did arrive was not in line with what was described on the merchant’s website. These automated systems can scale up almost infinitely and they provide all the necessary security to protect consumers’ personally identifiable information.

The technology has been around long enough that the AI-based machines have had years to learn from processing vast amounts of data. By their nature, such systems are able to keep up with changing fraud tactics and targets without being distracted by the surrounding chaos.

Exploring the potential of automated order flow can be a key step in building out a business continuity plan to guide your enterprise through the current pandemic. More importantly, it can be the start of preparing your business for the post-pandemic world and whatever that will bring.