If e-commerce wasn’t already booming before the global pandemic (spoiler: it was), the disruption of traditional face-to-face retail has made it official—digital shopping is the future. This isn’t to say that high street stores won’t have a place anymore. They’ll just need to adapt and integrate. UNIQLO, for example, has been using neurological headsets and algorithms to help in-store shoppers find a t-shirt. During the COVID lockdown, U.S. jewellery brand Kendra Scott used Augmented Reality (AR) to let customers try on earrings from the comfort of home. Melbourne restaurants have even embraced ancient QR-code technology to open up safely in the wake of the pandemic.
The trends that are shaping e-commerce are already well underway. IBM’s 2020 Retail Index report estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping by about five years. We’re already living in the future of e-commerce. Here are some of the big online shopping trends we can expect in 2021.
1. Subscription shopping
Retailers have taken notes from the success of SaaS, and many are moving towards more subscription-based e-commerce revenue streams. We can expect this trend to continue in 2021, and for good reason. Subscriptions help businesses plan revenue targets, smooth out quiet sales periods, increase customer retention rates and build brand loyalty. The latest projections put the global e-commerce subscription market at $246 billion by 2025, and the Subscription Economy Index (which tracks subscription businesses around the world) found that subscription retailers are growing their revenue roughly five times faster than traditional S&P 500 companies. As always, it comes back to customer experience. e-commerce users are willing to pay subscription fees in exchange for exclusive discounts, free delivery, loyalty perks and a seamless transaction process.
Like QR codes, Click-and-Collect has actually been around for quite a while (Woolworths, for example, launched Click-and-Collect back in 2017), but it took a global pandemic for the technology to really go mainstream. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Click-and-Collect services were one of the few ways to physically buy anything. Bunning’s Drive-and-Collect scheme was one such success story, and the brand has already flagged they’ll keep using the system after the pandemic is over. “We’re taking a common-sense approach to finding ways to quickly adapt our business,” said Mike Schneider, the Managing Director of Bunnings. “Our store teams are doing their best to provide customers with the best service while keeping everyone safe.”
3. Voice activation
The rise of voice assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home has essentially changed the nature of digital commerce. No search strategy is complete without voice search now, and no online store is complete without voice-activated shopping. Experts believe 75% of U.S. households will have smart speakers installed by 2025, and voice-sales are expected to reach $40 billion by 2022. Brands will begin to leverage this technology more and more over the next few years, optimising their e-commerce sales funnel towards common voice-type questions (e.g. “Where can I buy power tools?” or “How much are Nike sneakers?”) and offering built-in voice-navigation on their websites.
4. Social commerce
Ever since Instagram launched their ‘Shop’ function in March 2019, we left the age of social sharing and entered the world of social shopping. Social networks like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok are now fully-integrated, highly-optimised, six-cylinder selling platforms, with distribution channels and influencer marketing practically baked-in. TikTok has even partnered with Shopify to unlock native, shareable advertising, targeted across every possible consumer category (age, demographic, gender, user behaviour, song preference, video category etc.) This is potentially the biggest shift in e-commerce since the dawn of online purchasing—shopping isn’t just something we do anymore, it’s who we are.
5. AI and AR
In the same way that ‘social shopping’ changed our fundamental approach to e-commerce, AI and machine learning represent a mental shift in how we view online shoppers: consumers are no longer individuals, but rather complex patterns of browsing and purchasing behaviour. You are what you click. Ironically, this means shoppers will be targeted with more personalised recommendations and tailored content, thanks to fast-learning AI algorithms. This is another industry-shaking trend that will continue to rise in 2021. By 2022, online sellers are expected to spend $7.3 billion on AI, and more than 120,000 stores will enhance their customer experience using Augmented Reality.
The barriers between physical store and digital store are beginning to blur. This might be the final frontier of e-commerce—the point at which the ‘e’ becomes redundant.
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