When the covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it left an indelible mark on the future of e-commerce. Brick-and-mortar stores around the globe shut their doors, many for months, and without in-person shopping, consumers turned to e-commerce in unprecedented numbers. According to the united nations, the sector saw a ‘dramatic’ rise in its share of all retail sales, from 16 percent to 19 percent in 2020 alone. To keep up with demand, e-commerce has had to evolve faster than ever, instantaneously impacting the omnichannel experience.
Whether consumers were stocking up on hand sanitiser or investing in new home appliances, extra pressure was being placed on brands to provide their customers with a seamless shopping experience across all available channels. Traditionally, many customers rely on the in-store experience as the most important part of their buyer journey.
57.5 percent of people over 34 even still prefer to shop at physical locations, citing the ability to physically touch a product as the most crucial factor in their path to purchase. Connecting with consumers in lockdown became a new challenge that brands had to learn to prioritise. Making sure that social channels and online sales channels were aligned was a key part of this, as was integrating them with their brick-and-mortar stores, so that they would be ready to welcome customers back when lockdown ended. The power of the omnichannel experience was now being presented to brands as the secret to making genuine connections with consumers when they needed it most.
While 89 percent of Europeans last year said that they would continue to shop online just as much, if not more, post-lockdown, the return of in-person shopping has also been warmly welcomed back. Last June, UK retail sales were up 9.5 percent from pre-COVID levels of February 2020. We will not be bidding farewell to the in-store shopping experience any time soon, and as e-Commerce grows, brands should remember not to disregard brick-and-mortar in their omnichannel strategy. In any case, today greater numbers of shoppers prefer to observe multiple sales channels before making their purchase.
74 percent of consumers even expect consistent interactions across all channels. We are currently front-row spectators to a new hybrid online-offline shopping experience taking centre-stage, and to come out ahead of it, brands need to recognise that no one single sales channel should be prioritised over another – instead, the future of eCommerce lies in omnichannel experiences.
So, What does the future look like?
CROSS-CHANNEL CONSUMER CONVENIENCE
While brand product discovery may happen online, customers may want to see and feel the product in real life before making a purchase. Likewise, a consumer might also want to browse the product on Instagram. For brands, this means ensuring all sales channels work together instead of competing with one another. This is crucial in both delivering the best customer experience and growing total revenue.
Innovations in the e-Commerce space such as BOPIS (Buy Online Pick-Up In-Store) and BORIS (Buy Online Return In Store) are no longer merely ‘nice-to-haves’. Instead, they are proving both essential and lucrative for brick-and-mortar stores to adopt. According to Salesforce, brick-and-mortar brands with BOPIS checkout options grew their digital revenue by more than 27 percent in the first quarter of 2020. This is in contrast to retailers who did not offer a BOPIS checkout option on their sites and saw their online sales growing by just 13 percent. The pressure to integrate these innovations will only continue to grow for brands that are yet to do so, especially as the expectation matures into an industry standard. This is where Where To Buy Local technology, which connects the digital touchpoints with local retail partners, can help bridge the technological gap and instantly offer a streamlined omnichannel customer experience.
NEW CONNECTIONS WITH SOCIAL COMMERCE
Social commerce is bringing customers closer to the product, removing the need to click through to a company’s website to find and purchase a product. Accelerated by the pandemic, the impact of social commerce on consumer habits cannot be underestimated for its role in shaping the future of e-Commerce.
Both millennials and Gen-Zers are steadily increasing their purchasing power in a world where social platforms are now acting as social marketplaces. Facebook has made great strides towards making it easier for its users to discover products and shop directly in-app. Instagram now has a checkout feature, while Facebook Shops has made selling within the social media giant easier than ever before. Social media apps offer an opportunity to interact directly with the brand. For many individuals, social media is a personal experience, and for some younger consumers, shopping via Instagram is even preferable to shopping in-store. Through social media, a consumer can browse products for as long as they like, peruse shopper reviews, or, increasingly, consider the recommendations of popular online influencers. Brand partnerships with popular influencers are a highly lucrative way of reaching new customers today. Gen-Z consumers, otherwise known as those aged 25 and under, are more likely to make a purchase via social media if an influencer they trust is promoting it, with 35 percent of surveyed individuals stating that they trust what their favourite influencers have to say or recommend. Social commerce is now both a meaningful and invaluable tool for building brand credibility and fostering consumer trust.
Every customer is different, and while some might prefer to exclusively shop in person or on existing online stores, 84 percent of shoppers will also look for additional insights on social media before making their purchase. It is crucial that what a brand presents on social media is in tune with, rather than competing with, what it presents in its online store. This is the essence of an omnichannel experience which centres around the customer, letting them decide where they would like to make the purchase while ensuring that they can do so with ease.
EMBRACING TECH INNOVATIONS FOR OMNICHANNEL SUCCESS
Last year, Mary Meeker’s COVID-19 impact report noted that accelerating digital transformation would help companies gain a competitive advantage in the post-pandemic world. From doctors shifting from in-person to telehealth appointments, to families enjoying more digital entertainment, many of these offline-to-online trends were already gaining traction by the time the pandemic hit. Extensive lockdowns subsequently kicked these trends into high gear.
The future of eCommerce is undoubtedly one of technological innovation. New experiences such as shopping via Augmented Reality (AR) are likely to bridge the online/offline barrier even further. In many cases, the inexpensive yet sophisticated technology of Desktop AR will be enough to match the in-person experience for consumers. In others, offering an AR preview of a product might just end up being the final push a customer needs to finish an online purchase. Since the pandemic began, 19 percent of brands have started using AR in online retail. As this trend continues, increased numbers will come to expect an AR option online. With Deloitte referring to AR shopping as the ‘quiet revolution’ which might just change the face of eCommerce, it would be wise for brands to get ahead of this trend while they can.
Whether e-Commerce will experience another revolution via AR or another, newer tech innovation yet to come, what will anchor brands in the future is the convenience of the omnichannel experience. We are looking towards a customer-centric future that prioritises shopper convenience across all channels. After all, 40 percent of customers say that they won’t do business with companies if they can’t use their preferred channels.
Creating a seamless omnichannel experience for the customer will be the most sustainable and effective way to safeguard sales as e-Commerce continues to evolve. The adoption of new operational processes and technologies such as BOPIS, AR, and social commerce is rapidly growing and increasingly blurring the line between offline and online. The mission for brands today is thus twofold: embrace tech innovation, and integrate it into a customer-centric omnichannel experience. As e-Commerce marches towards a changed future, the brands that fail to do so might just see themselves left behind by the sector.