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The future of ecommerce

Where is eCommerce heading?

Ah, the retail industry’s biggest question. Speculating on the future of buying, selling and consumer behaviour has garnered many opinions down the years – especially because the latest technologies have been added to this mix. As we soon approach 2020, what [realistic] expectations should we have with regards to what eCommerce entails – for business owners, UI/UX designers, developers and digital marketing specialists alike?

Contrary to popular perception, the latest tech trends or business intelligence aren’t the end all and be all of future eCommerce. Sure, they may substantially contribute to your overall business development strategy, but relying on the more sophisticated requisites alone just isn’t going to cut it. For this reason, we need to back-track a little, and simplify.

To be more specific, we’d like to emphasise on the current state of eCommerce affairs, because this will help us determine where our future in the same is headed.

So starting off…

1. Customer-centricity is everything.

The adage ‘the customer is king’ may be preached by many a business leader, but seldom does anyone truly practice it. The sad reality is that while many speak about how they understand their customers and deliver exactly what they need, problems still prevail. From delivering the wrong orders to using under-trained service specialists, many customers are left disgruntled. It isn’t so much as not making a mistake when serving customers, but more so about solving any problems through patience, proactive listening and tons of empathy.

As you can see, the future of eCommerce lies on good ol’ communication, than cutting-edge software or mobile app development. This isn’t to undermine great development, of course. Instead, it’s about differentiating between service (personalised, human connections) and medium (the software or app used to display and convey).

Take Airbnb for example.

While their app is stellar in terms of UI/UX, software development and many other technicalities, it also offers an equally stellar customer service model to not just serve their guests better, but also protect their money and travel plans in the event that something goes wrong.

For one, the way they protect their guests’ reservations is through cancellation policies that are ‘tiered’ to provide refunds based on who is doing the cancelling. If the guest cancels, the total amount paid is refunded minus the Airbnb service fees. If the host cancels, the entire amount paid is refunded, but the host is also penalised for doing so.

However, here’s the most impressive part of the cancellation policy – a ‘my host asked me to cancel’ button when the guest is about to initiate the cancellation from their end. A feature that has been included to ensure guests don’t forfeit on a complete refund if their hosts ask them to cancel, this clearly denotes that Airbnb has taken previous incidents that may have inconvenienced their guests into careful consideration. In turn, this has resulted in delivering a system that’s wonderfully focused on guests’ needs, while being fair with hosts at the same time.

Nonetheless, no matter how stringent the company’s customer service model may be, it still maintains an excellent customer service system via its Twitter account, @Airbnbhelp. If all else fails, a quick DM is all that’s needed to get an agent to respond within minutes and have your problem resolved at the soonest possible.

2. Customers don’t really care about brands anymore (for the most part).

As brands and businesses strive to create campaigns that target their ideal customers through cutting-edge apps, moving content and the like, they put their brand/product/service at the very epicentre. The focus is always on how the consumer will perceive or interact with the brand and rarely about will consumers really be bothered?

This might sound harsh, but the fact of the matter is that consumers really don’t care about your brand (once again, for the most part). Compared to a few decades ago, today’s consumers are more erred towards experiences and customer-centricity, than unshaken devotion to a product or service of a particular brand name. But this is just one out of a two-pronged justification as to why customers couldn’t care any less about brands.

In order to understand the other reason why, you’ll need to do some introspection. As an average individual, how many trials and tribulations do you have to grapple with, on a daily basis? With umpteen responsibilities and dilemmas in anybody’s life, people perceive brands as a means of getting something done (quenching thirst through a juice carton, for example) than an entity that pushes emotional hot buttons (through a sentimental ad campaign).

Once again, this isn’t to say that an emotional advertisement may not move audiences, but they don’t really contribute to the bottom line. It’s the reason why platforms such as Aliexpress and eBay have taken our generation of online shoppers by storm. With competitive prices and free shipping, who would ever want to miss out on deals like that?

Again, we need to come back to the aspect of customer-centricity, and just how important it is for successful eCommerce.

If you simply think about your product/service that solves a problem your customer may have (e.g. thirst and dehydration) and focus on the logistical facets of solving that problem, you’ll be able to generate better sales. Honestly, you need to deliver no more than a great product experience.

Here are some more examples of poor customer-centricity.

In fact, eCommerce retailers who have solved these issues are the ones who stand apart from the rest.

  1. Pay more for shipping than the actual product?

    Have you ever wondered how shipping fees are higher than the price of the product, once you fill up your shopping cart? This is a great example of how either customer-centricity has been thrown out the window, or just doesn’t exist.

  2. Great global SEO – but no worldwide delivery?

    You spend significant amounts of time, money and effort to generate quality rankings such that if anyone from any part of the world typed in your desired keywords, your website would rank on the very first page.

    But, if you’re only shipping your product to a select few countries, you’re missing the point all together.

  3. The focus is on ONLY one form digital marketing

    For example, your SEO efforts may also not pay off if your traffic isn’t naturally arriving through Google searches. Different channels work for different businesses, and depending on what you’re selling, something completely different (such as paid ads, for example) may be more fruitful for attracting convertible traffic.

    What’s more, one mustn’t completely rule out offline methods of advertising too, even though eCommerce is the topic at hand here. Once again, it depends on where your consumers are. So a hoarding might just make all the difference. Who knows?

  4. Consumers can sense dishonesty and fake news

    Consumers aren’t naïve; they can sense when something is a scam, or if someone is being insincere. One area where this happens very often is during influencer marketing. For example, many online beauty gurus have been guilty of this, as they endorse products simply because they’ve been sponsored to do so, and not because they genuinely use those products.

    A grave mistake that most brand owners make is underestimating the intelligence of their user base. In turn, faulty marketing campaigns of this sort affect business eCommerce strategies – and is also something that will not have a place in the eCommerce industry in the future.

3. Artificial Intelligence, Voice-Based Search, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things and Analytics

Automation has been taking place in almost every industry imaginable today, and it’s primarily due to the technologies available. eCommerce isn’t an exception either.

AI-powered chatbots

Bots are one such form of automation, as their self-reliant nature enables the execution of numerous tasks that would’ve otherwise required human intervention. Amazon is a great example for this, as the eCommerce giant’s warehouses are equipped with bots that do all the hard work, thereby eliminating the need for human labour.

But doing manual labour isn’t the only thing that bots are capable of. AI-powered chatbots, for instance are of a more intelligent and intuitive kind, as they listen to users’ needs and aptly deliver. This is where voice-based search also hails from, thanks to natural language processing. Machine learning contributes to AI furthermore, as it assists bots in registering patterns and retaining that information to serve customers better. Many futuristic eCommerce retailers have already embraced AI-powered chatbots for customer service, and freed employees to focus on other areas that require strategic and analytical input.

Augmented Reality

Enhancing what a user is already looking at on his/her device, many eCommerce retailers have taken advantage of AR by offering immersive experiences of their products. That way, customers can get a feel of what the product is really like, without having to visit the store. This immensely helps overseas customers, while putting customer experience at the very forefront (well before a purchase is even made).

IoT

Enter voice-based assistants such as Alexa and Siri into the eCommerce equation, and you have more and more consumers vocally asking for what they need. Completely eliminating the need for typing, voice-based search has slowly been on the rise. What’s more, the AI that powers voice-based search also assists in the aggregation of customer data directly from the source, thereby facilitating accurate product recommendations to users, in the future.

Analytics

Although analytics has been around for a while, the concept has been upgraded in many ways. For one, system integrations between varying business units, for example, has led to the accumulation of big data. As many chant about the values that big data has and how it can benefit businesses, it isn’t able to do anything on its own.

This is where AI comes in. Thanks to intricate yet powerful programming, AI can make sense of the data and tell you what the numbers mean, or process the data based on the questions you ask (in other words, this is known as business intelligence). Add to that the wonders of machine learning, and you have a system that can predict future customer preferences.

Summing it all up…

eCommerce isn’t so much about sophisticated retail strategies or cutting-edge technologies, but more about empathising with customers, delivering valuable experiences and solving their most pressing problems. This is what distinguishes successful eCommerce retailers from the rest, and also determines who will be successful with their ventures in the not so distant future.

Putting customers at the very forefront of what a business offers is a fundamental principle, yet is never executed as much and as proactively as needed. Customer-centric businesses are the foundation of successful eCommerce, and only the businesses that focus on competent customer service excel in achieving brand loyalty and subsequently, great sales both online and offline.

Another important factor to understand about customer service is that it doesn’t just assist customers to select the exact product or service they need, but also helps during crisis management, in the event something goes wrong (which it most likely will). Although these are tips that are inclined towards the basic responsibility of assisting customers, it is what will determine the future of eCommerce as consumers nowadays are more focused on customer-centricity, than prices or brands.

Furthermore, this is why brand presence doesn’t mean much in today’s day and age. This is because the aspect of experience is far more desirable than staying faithful to any one brand. Add to this incredible prices and the ability to actually solve consumers’ problems, and you have a generation of consumers who couldn’t care any less about multi-million dollar advertisement campaigns and care all about how their specific problems are solved.

Last but not the least, the addition of AI, AR and IoT are indispensable. Owing to the surge in voice-based searches and superimposed displays of products on otherwise regular smartphone screens, these technologies are all redefining eCommerce as we see it today. While a select few companies have already jumped on the bandwagon by embracing these technologies, the rest don’t have a choice but to follow suit – or else fade into oblivion.



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