When the first ecommerce websites launched 20 years ago, they were seen as digital extensions of the store catalog—a nice reference, but hardly a replacement for the in-store experience. Fast-forward to the present and the modern ecommerce experience is providing consumers with more convenient alternatives to the traditional website. More than just a digitized catalog of products, ecommerce has exploded into a variety of hybrid experiences that combine the ubiquity of mobile with the richness of brick and mortar. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where retail sales through smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices accounted for nearly half of all ecommerce sales in 2015 (US$334 billion). Comparatively, mobile commerce makes up only 22 percent of ecommerce sales in the US.
Payments Paved the Way
The ecommerce landscape has always been inextricably shaped by innovations in digital payments. Starting with PayPal in 1998, digital payment services have worked to make it easier for people to shop online. Today, services like Apple Pay are putting smartphones on track to facilitate true frictionless payments. Social apps like Snapchat have integrated peer-to-peer payments, enhancing a familiar environment to enable small transactions between friends, and potentially acclimating users to more expensive purchases from brands. These seamless transactions are not limited to smartphones, and are now being baked into watches, connected cars, and media-streaming boxes. Already, we are seeing the scales tip.
Speed Is, and Isn’t, Everything
Along with innovations in the monetary transaction, the supporting logistics have grown immensely—with same-day delivery and instant gratification becoming the new norm. Even smaller retailers, who don’t necessarily have the capacity or infrastructural capabilities to do delivery themselves, are partnering with courier services like Postmates and Uber to compete. While quick delivery is clearly important, quality service never gets old. With this in mind, ecommerce upstarts like Enjoy are sending “Experts” to deliver products and help customers set them up, using the opportunity to teach owners about their new gadgets. By improving the end-to-end customer experience, the company hopes to compete against the lower prices offered by big-box retailers.
New Confidence to Click “Buy”
Tangibility and customer service are other key benefits to visiting brick-and-mortar stores—and areas where ecommerce has traditionally struggled to measure up. Using cameras built into smartphones and desktop computers, apparel companies are providing greater accuracy with fitting, replacing in-store dressing rooms with digital solutions. For instance, mobile apps like ThirdLove allow women to take images of their bust and then, using its image recognition algorithm, receive a relevant selection of form-fitting garments to browse. Given the difficulty of finding the right fit for “never-quite-right” items like bras, shoes, or jeans, once customers find something that works for them, they typically stick with the brand.
Casual, Conversational Commerce
Dynamic sizing guides aren’t the only way to ensure shoppers feel confident about their purchases; now, a quick text can often suffice. Text-based services, such as Facebook’s Businesses on Messenger, let customers chat directly with retailers while leveraging a familiar communication platform. In addition to being quick and convenient, texting is casual and appealing to younger generations, who prefer it to actually calling an establishment on the phone. Customers can also opt to outsource these conversations completely with Facebook’s M, a virtual assistant that sits inside Messenger and can help users purchase anything from a breakfast burrito or a new pair of shoes to more unusual items like a pet parrot. Users simply message M their requests and the virtual assistant takes it from there.
Frictionless In-Feed Commerce
New services are allowing consumers to make nearly instantaneous purchases directly from the original point of inspiration—whether it’s within their social feeds or integrated into the conversations they have with friends. By providing both inspiration and instant access, content embedded with “buy” buttons allows consumers to make purchases wherever they are online. Since a large portion of consumer attention is dedicated to social media and happening on mobile, major networks like Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram are letting brands inject commerce into their pins, posts, and photos. Even search engines like Yelp and Google, which have traditionally been in the business of directing users to specific results, are integrating frictionless commerce into their core user experiences. These companies are working with select partners to make purchases possible immediately following a user’s search inquiry.
Price will always be a primary factor for consumers when deciding where to buy, but retailers can still endear themselves to shoppers by providing convenient commerce solutions. Even seemingly unshakable services like one-hour delivery are not disruption proof. What we think of as fast now could be considered absurdly sluggish or irrelevant in several years—when products automatically reorder themselves and are delivered before we even know we need them by autonomous drones, or are downloaded from the Internet and 3D printed with absolutely no middlemen at all.
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