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The dawn of the golden age of e-commerce

June 2020

Many people will forever remember the early part of 2020 as the “Big Pause”. Time stood still, shops shut, schools and restaurants closed, social lives, careers and, it seemed, life itself was put on hold as the Covid-19 crisis unfolded. In the world of e-commerce, however, it was as though someone had pressed the pedal to the floor of a souped-up, turbo-charged Bugatti Veyron supercar.

From Beijing to Bologne, high-street retailers with shuttered shops and unsold stock gathering dust had to quickly adapt to a new online world or face an uncertain future. Staff at the likes of Asos, Uber and Amazon, meanwhile, worked round the clock to meet unprecedented demand. In Amazon’s case, the demand was so great that it had to temporarily stop shipping everything but “essentials”.

The growth in online shopping pre-dates the pandemic, of course, but this spring, it has been stratospheric. In the US, retailers' online year-over-year revenue growth was up by 68% in mid-April, surpassing an earlier peak of 49% in early January.

Many brands will have found a whole new online audience, people who went directly to them while Amazon was struggling to keep up with demand. Now is the time for those brands to up their online game and keep those new customers coming. Here’s how:

Put the pleasure into purchasing

Nobody is going to come back to your shop if the checkout process is painful. Seventy-six percent of smartphone users say they’re more likely to buy from companies whose mobile sites or apps allow them to make purchases quickly. So make your payment process fast, efficient and seamless.

Key to this is personalisation, such as storing shopping information or recently explored items. Make sure your front- and back-end framework is up to the task of delivering the best, most personalised experience possible.

The same goes for account security and verification. Your most loyal, VIP-level customers should not be made to go through the same steps as a new one. Advanced AI and machine learning algorithms can identify and segment users according to their common characteristics, tailoring the experience to each customer.

Offer good support

With the surge in online shopping comes more demand for customer support. And more than one in four US shoppers say brands could be most helpful to them by handling their needs then and there.

Here’s where AI and machine learning comes into its own. Chatbot technology, for example, is becoming more sophisticated and more ‘human’ all the time, and in today’s environment consumers don’t expect to be made to wait for email replies.

Get creative on social media

According to the 2020 Sprout Social Index: Above and Beyond, which was released in May, nearly nine in 10 consumers will buy products from a brand they follow on social media. Not only that, but of those consumers who are following a brand on social, 75% will increase their spending with that brand.

If your social presence is not up to scratch, now is the time to give your strategy a rethink.  Along with transparency and customer support, engagement with your audience is key. A huge 61% of consumers say engagement is what makes a best-in-class social presence and, when asked what makes a brand stand out on social media, the top response from both marketers and consumers was “creativity”.

Set up shop directly on social

The link between social media and e-commerce has always been strong but now the two are becoming almost indistinguishable.

With Facebook’s recently launched Shops, brands can set up storefronts on Instagram and Facebook, where customers can browse and pay for products without having to go to a different website. Customer support issues can be dealt with through Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. And the company plans to let customers browse store catalogues and make purchases directly from the chat window.

This is similar to the way WeChat, China’s social media behemoth with more than a billion users, operates its e-commerce. It has developed mini-programs that are embedded throughout the WeChat site, allowing customers to discover, browse and pay for products directly from the platform. Brands can design their user interface as they choose and access customer data as they please.

Seize the day

As lockdowns lift and the world slowly gets back to a semblance of normality, it is anyone’s guess as to how life, work and the economy will have changed. But the way we shop will almost certainly have shifted. Consumers who have become attached to the ease of online shopping may make the change a permanent one, and decide to venture out to high-street stores only for special occasions.

When it comes to this brave new world, fortune favours the prepared. The brands that greet customers with the best customer experience will be the ones to emerge as winners in the new golden age of ecommerce.