Remember 1994? I don’t. But apparently, it was a significant year.
On August 11, 1994, a US Internet startup called Net Market performed the world’s very first secure online transaction, which marked the beginning of the ecommerce era as we know it. And what was sold? You’ll never guess — it was the latest Sting album, Ten Summoner’s Tales.
Soon after, online-transaction-based sales started to pop up like mushrooms after the rain.
Pizza Hut was the first to accept an online food order on the Internet (also in 1994). It was a large pepperoni pizza with mushrooms and extra cheese. In 1995, it was Amazon that started selling everything to everybody online. Then, companies like Dell and Cisco started using Internet in all of their transactions, and eBay first started online auctions.
Buying online had an astounding novelty element and, with its convenience and efficiency, it was just a matter of time until it completely reshaped the way people shop and trade. Offline went online. Online, however, also moved forward.
Today you won’t surprise anybody by enabling them to shop online. It’s seen as a given. If in 1994 ecommerce itself was a new opportunity, now, in 2017, retailers need to seek new untapped opportunities in ecommerce.
What are these opportunities and what are the emerging trends that ecommerce is quickly picking up on? Read on to find out.
1. Extended use of AI
Unless you’ve been on a sabbatical somewhere deep in the South American jungle, you’ve probably heard about Artificial Intelligence, generally referred to as AI. Even though, intuitively, most people relate to it as something “robotic”, what AI really brings to the table is better human and user experiences across the web.
AI is making a splash in ecommerce now too, as its technologies really help to stand out from the crowd in the competitive online retail world. Due to its relatively high pricing, not many brands are harnessing the AI possibilities (yet). But when they do, customers notice.
Last year, The North Face launched an insanely smart AI-based solution to help you find the perfect jacket for whatever you’re doing — whether it’s skiing in Vail, hiking in Norway, or just staying warm at home. The idea was to provide a personal online shopper that understands exactly what the user is looking for.
“The issue is that online shopping over the past two decades has been about a grid of products on a white background,” explains Cal Bouchard, Senior Ecommerce Director at The North Face. “We wanted to take the conversation you might have with an associate in a store and see if we could put that as a service online: ‘Here’s what I need. Here’s what I want.’
If that’s what consumers want, then AI is what ecommerce needs. In the future, when technology will become more democratized, retail brands are predicted to use AI throughout the entire customer journey: for visual search, recommender systems (to exactly match users’ personal taste, shopping personalization, and even for virtual buying assistants that can be pre-set to purchase on a customer’s behalf if a beloved product goes on sale.
2. Advanced chatbots for making orders & customer service
It was at the OMR conference in Hamburg last year that I first used a Facebook Messenger chatbot, trying to make an order at a Starbucks booth. I had a sweet little chat with the virtual Barista there, who asked me a few questions about my personal preferences — up to how many spoons of sugar I like in my cappuccino — and voila, within minutes I was enjoying a cup of warm arabica.
The cool thing about this whole process was that I got to skip the lines, make an order asap, and have my name spelled correctly on the cup (which is a big deal).
“The Starbucks experience is built on the personal connection between our barista and customers, so everything we do in our digital ecosystem must reflect that sensibility,” says Gerri Martin-Flickinger, CTO for Starbucks.
So my bottom line is: When it comes to placing orders, chatbots are the future — especially now that they’re advancing so rapidly.
This year, the world witnessed the release of a new customer service chatbot created for the Australian government to help people get information about disability services. The chatbot turned out to be frighteningly realistic:
Its name is Nadia. Nadia has a digital face, and she sees you through the webcam, recognizes your facial expressions and even simulates them back, creating the illusion of empathy. It’s like she’s a real person talking to you through Skype — so it’s just a matter of time until emotionally intelligent chatbots with 3D faces make their own presence in ecommerce.
3. VR shopping
Online shopping was created for one simple reason: efficiency.
People were tired of standing in lines. They were tired of not finding their size in stores, and generally, tired of wasting their precious time on commuting. And while ecommerce solved most of these problems, there’s still one big advantage that physical stores have over their online competitors: the experience of actually being there.
Unarguably, brick and mortar stores can simply offer more in terms of experience. There’s a reason why visiting a Dior store in Paris feels somehow bigger, almost event-like, than going through a grid-template presentation of clothes online.
To fill this missing experiential gap, brands have already started offering VR shopping opportunities to their customers — and the trend is expected to grow bigger in the near future.
Last year, Alibaba introduced virtual reality possibilities to their customers in China, who were able to browse and buy at the famous Macy’s store located on Times Square in New York. This way, the Chinese customers were able to get the full Macy’s experience while still being thousands of miles away from the actual store.
4. Same-day delivery & drone delivery
Fast, instant, immediate, delivered today, or, even better, yesterday: that’s how customers want it done. And while some may argue that a matter of just a few days can’t possibly make too much of a difference, the reality proves the opposite.
According to a McKinsey study, about 50% of customers say that they’re willing to pay more for the luxury of getting their products faster. Today, same-day delivery accounts for less than 1% of all sales made, but in just a few years it’s predicted to be as high as 15%. And as a matter of fact, such a growth is faster than the whole ecommerce industry altogether (which grows ca. 11% annually).
So yes, same-day delivery is quickly becoming huge — not only because people appreciate the efficiency, but also because it combines the best of brick-and-mortar (aka getting products right here, right now) with the best of ecommerce (wider selection and lower prices). And that’s hard to say no to.
Last year, Amazon introduced the same-day delivery option to its Prime users.
This year, Jingdong, the Chinese online shopping giant, plans to fly a ton of deliveries with drones.
It’s becoming clear, then, that the key to succeeding in ecommerce is getting as close to instant shipping as possible.
5. Shoppable content
Shoppable content has been attracting a great deal of attention lately, and it’s easy to see why.
Today’s consumers highly value instant (or almost instant) accessibility. They go by words like “instant gratification” and “split-second immediacy”, so for brands doing content marketing, it’s not enough to just write engaging stories with a call to action at the end. Why? Because while it admittedly grabs people’s attention, it’s still not able to satisfy them. There’s no actual, tangible outcome.
The use of APIs made it possible to open up an entirely new chapter in ecommerce, allowing content of any kind to be instantly shoppable. In a nutshell, the API technology builds a bridge between the online retail store and the content platform (e.g. blogs, magazines, landing pages, newsletters), and integrates products directly into content.
This way, a “normal” content piece transforms into a powerful sales channel, smoothly converting content consumers into product buyers. It’s a win-win situation for both customers and retailers.
6. Live streaming
When Facebook first introduced live streaming, it seemed that the world suddenly went crazy. We’ve all enjoyed watching Buzzfeed staff blow up a watermelon, the ‘Chewbacca Mom’ who couldn’t stop laughing at herself, or Dena Blizzard playing her self-invented Chardonnay Go game (arguably way more fun than catching pokemons, by the way).
So it was only a matter of time until brands and retailers decided to follow suit and start live streaming themselves.
According to Ad Age, several brands have already experimented with this new technology: car brand Chevrolet live streamed the launch of their new Bolt EV model on Facebook, and Kate Spade, the luxury retailer, broadcasted their NY Fashion Week show from the catwalk.
For most brands that have tried their hand at live streaming, the general appeal boils down to increasing brand awareness, engaging customers and building a stronger community.
But, with an extra bit of creativity, brands can also attempt to monetize live videos, too.
The above-mentioned Macy’s hosted a live streaming shopping tour in its NY store via Taobao Live Streaming venue, one of the most popular in China, which reportedly attracted 100,000 viewers and 880 comments. Macy’s also issued ecoupons during the live stream, which the viewers could later on use to purchase real products.
It is up to you, whether you decide to take the route of innovation and follow suit now — or do it later when everybody else is on it. What’s a sure fact is that the majority of brands aren’t stuck in 1994 anymore. They’re moving forward with the times.
So the question is: are you?
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