What Next for E-Commerce?
While the covid pandemic has shaken up shopping like never before, what’s around the corner will take the world of retail to a whole new level.
In the last 12 months, shoppers have relied on e-commerce. Those who have bought online for the first time have realised they actually quite like the convenience of it and former giants of the high street have been taken over by online upstarts.
Many knew what we’ve witnessed was inevitable; it’s just that circumstances have accelerated change.
But savvy retailers know they can’t assume long-term success and realise that continual innovation is a necessity to avoid becoming the next Debenhams or British Home Stores.
Fortunately for consumers, digital businesses have this kind of agility built into their DNA.
This is why online shopping is set to be taken in new directions beyond simply visiting a website or an app, browsing products and clicking the ‘Buy now’ button.
The future of online shopping will consist of:
- Social commerce
- Live shopping
- Experiential retail
- Augmented and virtual reality
- Customer service via messaging apps
Are you ready?
Social commerce - changing the game
This is going to be the big disruptor of online shopping.
Social commerce will allow brands to sell directly to customers without the need to visit a website – all purchasing and interactions carried out on social media channels.
Facebook and Instagram Shops launched in the UK in October 2020 – the launch date brought forward because of covid – and TikTok is taking big dance steps in this area.
In the last few days, TikTok and e-commerce platform Shopify have announced a new partnership in the UK to allow merchants to run advertising campaigns on the social media platform directly from Shopify’s dashboard.
And expect to see TikTok opening up the opportunity for users to buy products within the platform itself in the near future.
Asia – and particularly China – points to how social commerce will change buying behaviour in the future.
Predictions are that, in 2021, China will become the first country in the world where online sales overtake offline; an incredible statistic driven by a surge in social commerce over recent years.
In 2020, social commerce grew by 44% in China and is predicted to increase this year by another 35% to reach $363billion. Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – has run its own in-app store, allowing users to buy products directly from videos they’ve viewed, since 2018.
It is accurate to say that China is somewhat of an outlier when it comes to consumer behaviour and the use of social commerce – in America, for example, it is predicted to account for a much smaller sum of $36billion in 2021 – but the fact that the big social media platforms are putting in significant amounts of effort into this area proves how they believe other countries will embrace this shift in shopping.
Live shopping - satisfy your retail therapy needs
Live-streaming is a popular medium for events, gaming and news channels and is beginning to make waves in the world of online shopping.
The concept isn’t new – most television viewers have dipped in to catch a few minutes of QVC at some point – but online technology allows for more interactivity while the rise of the social media influencer adds an important element of social proof.
Live shopping here in the UK mostly takes place on social media channels through Facebook or Instagram but expect to see dedicated platforms in the future, such as the American-owned TalkShop Live, while YouTube has obvious potential.
The basic premise of live shopping allows brands to showcase their products to a live audience, with offers and special events running for the time of the stream.
Using Facebook or Instagram Live allows for instantaneous feedback and provides customers with the opportunity to ask questions about the product, shipping, returns etc and share immediately with their friends, while allowing brands to signpost ways to buy.
Hosts are likely to include internal product experts – think of the cosmetics experts in department stores transferred online – while involving social media influencers is a surefire way to amplify the brand’s message to a wider audience.
And because of the niche offerings scattered across the web, any e-commerce audience can be engaged with very specific live streams.
Experiential e-commerce - going beyond click-and-buy
While the end goal of e-commerce is, obviously, to make consistent online sales, how to make that happen is becoming more competitive as the sector expands.
Digital marketing plays its significant part in a broad marketing strategy but this still largely seeks to drive traffic to a website.
As part of the broader brand strategy, consumers are beginning to be drawn in by online experiential techniques.
Experience-led events have been used to attract customers to physical stores for years but, again accelerated by the pandemic, these are moving to the digital realm and brands can use these to elevate themselves above competitors.
Asia, again, points the way to how this can be achieved. South East Asia e-commerce specialists Lazada is merging shopping with entertainment and social experiences to deliver something it calls ‘Shoppertainment’.
The company’s chief marketing officer, Michelle Yip, told The Drum’s Digital Transformation Festival: “We recently had our brand report that found consumers think of Lazada as a platform where we help them to connect with each other and a place for them to be entertained and relaxed.
“Sometimes people watch the livestream to be informed, for example, to taste wine. If our brand partners are trying to showcase events like a wine fair, a toy fair or a baby fair, we can do these through live streaming too.”
This takes the notion of live shopping further and includes demonstrating a new product or range, running Q&A sessions with internal experts, influencers or brand ambassadors and hosting live workshops.
Go Instore recently launched two new services in the UK: live selling and appointments, and also allows brands to launch products virtually and run live Q&As.
Then, there are the more intimate group packages. Wine Unearthed runs a virtual tasting experience to learn more about the best reds and whites.
Augmented and virtual reality - bringing products & stores to life
The single, most challenging aspect for online retail is being unable to provide customers with the ability to touch or try a product and, in the case, of fashion, try it on. High-quality photography and videography are key aspects of a website product page but how do you convince customers that what they are buying will be right for their home or their physique?
Enter augmented reality.
A number of UK brands are already providing customers with pretty advanced AR via their smartphones.
John Lewis’ virtual sofa allows app users to view how a new piece of furniture would look in their living room and its virtual lipstick lets you see how a certain shade might suit.
Trainer-lovers can see how they’d look wearing some slick new footwear while the sustainable glasses brand, Coral Eyewear, provides a virtual try-on for customers who want to sharpen up their look while doing their bit for the planet, all done via their laptop’s camera.
While the benefits of augmented reality are obvious, the use of its virtual cousin is less so. However, as the price of VR kits such as Facebook’s Oculus becomes more affordable then this will open up some potentially incredible possibilities for e-commerce.
Imagine stepping into a limitless virtual world and having your choice of retailer showcase their wares, complete with 360-degree product views and you’re only scratching the surface of what is possible.
Virtual reality stores are now available and brands, such as Patron tequila, are taking advantage of technology such as Google Cardboard to tell its brand story via an immersive, enriching experience.
While augmented reality might be more practical, virtual reality has the potential to be wildly imaginative and bring an entirely new element of fun to the shopping experience.
Messaging apps - customer service and marketing
The majority of smartphone users are well-versed in the use of messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and brands are beginning to see the potential for new customer service and marketing channels.
Customers have become comfortable in turning to social media channels to ask questions about a purchase rather than picking up the phone or emailing a generic address and this change in behaviour has brought messaging apps into the equation, particularly as notifications ping on to a phone to alert you to the fact that you have received a response.
Merchants are able to add a post-purchase chat widget on their Shopify store, allowing customers to interact in a way which tends to be more informal and, therefore, more human.
Messaging apps are also now being used for remarketing purposes, meaning that customers who abandon their online baskets can be targeted in order to get that purchase over the line and, in the process, potentially benefiting from a discount used as a sweetener.
Quickfire Digital has published a piece on the rise in chat marketing and how brands can use it so please check it out.
While much of the talk around retail has centred on what the high street will look like and how it simply must adapt to changing consumer behaviour, the online shopping space is also evolving at a rapid pace.
Digital-only brands, by their very nature, tend to be more comfortable in innovating and understanding how and why customers are buying from them.
And with online competition increasing, the next few years of digital retail are shaping up to be full of new ideas and technology.
Shopping might never have been this much fun.
About the author
Nathan Lomax is co-founder and director of Quickfire Digital, an e-commerce focused digital evolution agency specialising in Shopify.
Opinions expressed here are those of the guest author.