More than a decade ago, economists and news outlets were predicting the demise of brick-and-mortar retail. While direct-to-consumer e-commerce and the rise of online retail goliaths like Amazon have certainly tipped the scales, shoppers today still seem to prefer a hybrid model — splitting their time and money among brick-and-mortar stores, online purchases and in-store pickup, as well as conventional e-commerce.
Customers use multiple platforms ranging from online retail markets (Amazon, Ebay and now Walmart) to social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) for purchases, as well as in-store pickups. Every day, it seems, a new way emerges to shop. Shoppers have evolved into omnichannel consumers — those who both buy and do their pre-purchase research on a variety of platforms and across devices. As a result, I’ve noticed that consumers have become increasingly selective about what they like and don’t like, and retailers are battling to hold their attention.
Online retail spending grew by 15% between 2017 and 2018, according to a report by Internet Retailer (via Digital Commerce 360). Amazon constitutes a whopping 40% of all online sales, which means 60% of all online purchases are still made elsewhere, opening the door for new e-commerce businesses to enter the marketplace.
The question remains, how are e-commerce businesses expected to appeal to today’s omnichannel consumer? How can they leverage memorable customer experience to turn browsers into buyers? How can these businesses compete with the likes of Amazon and Walmart, given they have limited resources and much smaller IT budgets? While the vast majority of online retailers won’t be able to go head-to-head with the behemoths, they can still create a highly appealing customer experience that will set them apart, and in the end, secure more customers and more business.
As the chief strategy officer at a software company, I have two avenues to learn about strategies that work in e-commerce: first, through researching other systems and their customers to see what works, and second, through gathering direct feedback from customers who use our products. Let’s explore a few ways that I’ve learned e-commerce businesses can set themselves up for success:
1. Create an on-demand point-of-sale that allows customers to engage with your brand, browse and test products, and purchase in innovative ways. For your end customer, think about how your POS system can offer personalized services such as an order history that allows for comparisons and convenient reordering. For example, Sephora’s virtual artist tool lets customers try on varying shades of cosmetics from different brands and provides recommendations for brands and colors. Everlane’s POS appeals to both price-conscious and eco-conscious shoppers. Modsy’s virtual design site enables customers to receive affordable interior design advice with a 3D plan to follow and the option to purchase the recommended goods right from the site.
2. Utilize artificial intelligence (AI) tools to gather, study, and personalize the shopping experience from beginning to end. Many software vendors are integrating AI into their solutions because it offers a fast and efficient way to analyze your customers’ browsing and shopping habits, which in turn can help you fine tune your site to more efficiently convert shopping into sales as well as fix user interfaces that may cause customers to drop off. One possible application for AI is to understand the reason for cart abandonment, like having too many steps, a lack of flexibility and poor shipping and payment options. Another way to use AI is to look for patterns in returns and the issues that drive them, like size issues or damages in transit.
3. Offer multiple methods of payment ranging from credit cards to “cash-based” options such as PayPal. Ensure that all payments are secure with encryption. Set up your business on a VPN (virtual private network) in order to thwart hackers from breaking into your site and stealing credit card or other personal information.
4. Integrate with multiple shipping vendors. Offering your customers an array of choices, from free shipping that might take a few more days to faster shipping that costs extra, will help meet the needs of customers in varying stages of the purchase process. This will cater to those who value cost as well as those who want their purchases in a more timely manner.
5. When applicable, set up your online store to sell through as many channels as possible: your own e-commerce platform, third-party marketplaces such as Etsy, Amazon and Walmart (even though it means they will take a cut of sales) — and if possible, brick-and-mortar channels, even if it’s only for brand awareness.
Build your e-commerce store not just to today’s standards but in anticipation of the shifting trends in retail. While this might be challenging to achieve — after all, none of us have a crystal ball — keeping up with industry news via publications such as eMarketer and SmallBizTechnology will help you stay updated on trends, especially advancements in technology that could work for your business. Consider attending at least one retail conference each year to network and refresh your technology knowledge, such as NRF, ShopTalk or one specifically for e-commerce marketing, such as CommerceNext. Finally, make a habit of following a selection of sites that excel in offering a great customer experience. See what they do to evolve their look and feel and to continually improve that experience. You may discover something to apply to your own brand.