Technology is relentless, making online shopping undemanding and more convenient than ever before. So where do we go from here – should we constantly strive for further innovation or focus on getting better at what we’re doing now? André Brown, Group CEO of ATTRAQT, investigates the key trends and influences that will elevate ecommerce in the next few years and discusses what form the new retail experience is likely to take.
Let’s start with a confession: I have a weakness for shirts. I am always spotting ones I admire on other people and although I will occasionally go up and ask where they are from, it’s not really socially acceptable to tap someone on the shoulder and quiz them about their wardrobe.
If only it was easier.
Imagine if you could transfer images of shirts from your mobile phone to a generic personal shopper app, and it would instantly offer up several different brand options, plus advise which would suit you best and locate the nearest shop that stocks your size. You’d be able to reserve the shirt immediately online and then go to the shop at your convenience to try it on and either complete the purchase at the till or on your mobile device.
This fantasy is not really that far-fetched. New front and back-end technology designed to ease the online shopping experience is being introduced on an almost daily basis; from Amazon’s Alexa taking voice activated orders to virtual reality showing you what those sunglasses will look like on your face, right there on your computer screen. A diverse and advanced range of technologies is enabling ecommerce retailers, whether niche or global brands, to reach new markets both at home and abroad, build loyalty in the face of unprecedented competition, streamline the shopping journey and increase sales.
Although a fairly new industry – my daughter, newly graduated from university happens to have been around just as long – the growth of ecommerce has been driven fantastically fast by advances in technology and changes in consumer behaviour. The first major shift in ecommerce was the launch of SaaS ecommerce platforms in 2000. This made setting up and maintaining an ecommerce site more affordable for retailers as it became an operational rather than capital expenditure cost, and inevitably encouraged more brands online. It also led to the arrival of new businesses that were able to add deeper functionality and value to websites such as SEO providers, online advertising companies and email and SMS marketers, which improved the experience for shoppers and the bottom line for retailers.
The mobile revolution, although incrementally creeping into our lives for a number of years before becoming one of the default shop windows, has to take a big chunk of credit for the sharp growth in online shopping. According to data from the IMRG, mobile devices account for over half of all retail transactions made online. We are now all shopping on the go and will continue to do so more often and in different ways as shoppable social media content, a relatively nascent and exciting discipline takes off, mobile phone screens get bigger and payment methods become slicker with one click checkouts.
Now, it seems natural that ecommerce will reflect the growth of digital in everyday life. That means super-fast developments for retailers to assess and if appropriate, integrate. Voice activation, virtual reality and visual search are arguably the most significant new arrivals from the consumer’s perspective and it won’t be long before they become mainstream. Digitally-ready shoppers will take it all in their stride. We’re accustomed to embracing new concepts, especially if the innovation makes things easier.
While all of these specific advances will make ecommerce a more dynamic and culturally responsive industry, there are big challenges. As the internet has lowered the barrier to entry and anyone can set up an ecommerce site, there is so much choice for the consumer and very little customer loyalty.
So how can retailers meaningfully compete?
Behind the scenes, mastering one to one personalisation will continue to be a key focus. Getting the balance right as machine learning and AI become more advanced is a challenge. Automation is great for heavy lifting, but many retailers will still want to remain in control, reacting to daily trends and influences alongside seasonal and annual events. What I like to call ‘human-guided automation’.
Differentiation in marketing and merchandising products has a massive impact on consumers. Get it right, and you build an emotional connection. Amazon is great for customers who know exactly what they want – I generalise to make a point – but shoppers also want a good experience. I saw this first hand recently while in New York with my family. We went to the Sephora store in Times Square, where my daughter was able to trial various lipsticks on a virtual reality mirror. A gimmick, yes, but an engaging one and a reminder too that shopping should be fun. Holland and Barrett, Hotel Chocolat and many others have run online promotions, where customers could win prizes or their basket for free by spinning an interactive wheel of fortune and playing retro-style computer games.
Shopping as entertainment is certainly one element of the way we’re heading and open-minded retailers will be introducing these elements both online and instore. In order to engage and entertain the shoppers of the future, they will need to refine the customer experience further by mastering the tools they already have and be agile enough to integrate the newest technology, all while retaining the human touch.
The retail landscape may be changing, but the fundamentals of why people shop remain constant. There are simply now continually new and more intelligent ways to reach a customer, sell to them and keep them interested. Those of which to adopt and invest in, well that’s the perennial dilemma and one solved only by properly understanding who chooses to shop with you. Perhaps go and ask Alexa.
By André Brown