How Technology Is Changing Ecommerce (and What Brands Need to Do)
Changes in ecommerce are coming in hot from two directions. Shifting user behaviors reflect new consumer expectations, and brands have enormous incentives to meet them or get left behind. At the same time, developments in technology push the envelope of what’s possible, particularly in an industry based entirely on tech to begin with. These shifts, too, are shaping ecommerce, and ultimately accelerate the shifting consumer expectations.
The resulting cocktail of factors swirls headily throughout the industry today, quickly changing what ecommerce looks like.
Ecommerce is not even 30 years young, yet its rapid growth has shown how changing this landscape will continue to be. In 2017, ecommerce sales reached $2.3 trillion, and in 2021 is expected to reach $4.9 trillion. The room for even greater development has no apparent ceiling.
The changes driven by technology are impacting how we shop, which in turn accelerates changes in consumer preferences. This has given brands the chance to get ahead of the curve today by staying on top of tech changes, though always with the crucial question: how do you adjust an ecommerce strategy as a result of these changes?
Keep reading to learn about some of the most important tech changes in ecommerce, then get ready to wrap up with the one simple thing brands can do about them all.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been surfacing in new tech across industries, and ecommerce is no exception. Truly, what better industry to develop AI solutions than one based entirely on technology? Ecommerce brands also have real financial incentives to use AI-powered technologies to improve everything from ad copy to listings and lead segmentation.
AI-based algorithms also help brands by using machine learning to analyze consumer behavior. The more we know about each unique consumer, the better we can personalize our content, product suggestions, and sales paths. The idea of managing several or even dozens of unique buyer journeys sounds challenging, but with segmentation and CRM technologies on the rise as well, brands today have all the tools they need to drive AI-powered strategies to the next level.
Personalization in ecommerce is a trend meriting an article of its own, but it’s worthwhile to point to AI as the primary tool that makes it possible. Only with AI and machine learning are we able to instantly gather and assess the patterns and preferences of consumers. Equipped with that information, segmented ads, emails, product suggestions and more are sent to consumers with a more personal touch than ever imagined before.
AI can also help with inventory management and order fulfillment. Even customer service in ecommerce has taken strides with AI-based algorithms to help answer inquiries.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Another exciting acronym in ecommerce tech is AR, or Augmented Reality. The layers of shopping this technology adds to ecommerce are extraordinary. In the face of a global pandemic, the move to online shopping accelerated at an incredible rate throughout 2020. Though much of that shopping was done out of necessity (from lockdowns and the safety of home), the transition brought conveniences that consumers are now accustomed to. The trend will continue even after the pandemic is over.
The only trouble, of course, is that there are still certain products that consumers prefer to try on, hold or touch before they buy them.
The answer to this quandary has come in multiple forms, including enriched product photos, product videos, and AR. For example, by superimposing a couch that a consumer is thinking of buying into the room where it would go, or by smiling for a camera from behind a filter that lets the consumer “try on” those new sunglasses, AR has enabled consumers to see products in their intended environment.
This technology will continue to grow. Paired with Virtual Reality (VR), it will quickly become a baseline consumer expectation. Ecommerce brands will be best to stay ahead of this trend.
Multichannel Sales Presence
Multichannel marketing has been abuzz of late with ecommerce brands crisscrossing consumer touchpoints from social networks to third-party and proprietary channels. The multichannel system works. In fact, it leads to incredible possibilities for a brand, but once again that’s another conversation for another day.
What you don’t read as much about is the ecommerce strategy to SELL on multiple channels. Today’s strides in tech have made this approach even simpler to implement, and to the enormous benefit of brands.
Selling on multiple online marketplaces (plus an ecommerce storefront, plus social selling channels) is good for brands because of the way consumers shop today. With an average of almost three brand touchpoints per consumer before a purchase is made, shoppers are not navigating to one online store and wrapping their purchase up in a click. Instead, with the trends of “shopping around” plus an increasing number of sales through “discovery shopping” (i.e., idly browsing for inspiration instead of searching for products by name), the only solution for brands to stay relevant in ecommerce today is to offer products on multiple fronts.
Ecommerce technology has made multichannel selling possible through key operational apps such as product information management (PIM) and CRM software. The latter, of course, is the hub where brands capture consumer information for the first time and then track every interaction with each unique user, including eventual sales. PIM software, on the other hand, is built to enable brands to optimize their product data (from SKUs and descriptions to product photos and videos) for each unique platform they sell on. Otherwise, managing 1,000 products with several unique versions of the product data for each to load to Amazon, Shopify, Pinterest and Etsy would be an administrative disaster riddled with incomplete and inaccurate product information.
Voice technology was first introduced by Google in 2011, and in recent years has grown from a thing of novelty to a solution most adults use daily. In 2020, more than half of smartphone users engaged voice-enabled technology on their smartphones, and 41% did so at least once a day.
What does this mean, specifically, for ecommerce? Along with changes to how consumers shop (with multiple touchpoints and price comparisons before ever landing on a product page), voice-enabled search optimizations have to be woven into product data to “meet consumers where they’re at” in the buyer journey.
For example, if someone is standing in the kitchen and asks Amazon’s Alexa about a product, or initiates a search for “better pots and pans” via Google’s Home Assistant, the voice optimizations on the relevant product pages have to take into account that the user won’t be able to see the product. In this stage of research, the consumer is limited to the verbal description read aloud by the assistant.
Purchases can be made via voice technologies, of course, however it’s less common unless the consumer knows the product well. Instead, voice technologies act as the first touchpoint in an increasingly elaborate buyer journey.
Image Search Technology
Not far off from trends in voice technology is the increasing use of image search technology. As search algorithms become smarter and pinpoint with increasing accuracy what a user’s trying to find, consumers are now starting their shopping journeys in Google Image Search and similar image search engines.
A recent study by Moz found that over a quarter of searches online start directly in Google Images. Optimizing ecommerce product images and product data for this search function is a clear first step for brands. Ecommerce sites are also integrating image searches of their own into their website search functions. Why? The first thing consumers want to see when they search for a product is an image of the product itself, and these ecommerce pages are more shoppable than the competition.
Image search technology has opened other avenues to shop, too. Take, for example, reverse searches (where consumers take a photo of something to find where to buy it online) or scan-in-buy apps (where brick-and-mortar retailers allow consumers to scan a product in-store to purchase them instantly). Consumers are positively eating this tech up, which means the moment has come for brands to get organized and make their catalogs “image shoppable.”
Of course, the formats, sizes and other optimizations for photos will differ by platform. For the multichannel ecommerce brand, this loops back to PIM software as an essential tool, because if product images aren’t optimized to be “findable” everywhere consumers are looking, then those product images will be for naught in the new normal of ecommerce.
Social media and ecommerce have always been best friends, and that camaraderie has recently rocketed to a new level. Social media thrives on interaction, and with users asking for recommendations from friends and spending hours scrolling Pinterest boards for “inspiration,” it’s natural that social and ecommerce platforms have now linked up.
The social technology making this link possible is what’s been dubbed “social commerce.” With integrations between platforms like Facebook and Instagram with ecommerce motors like Shopify, company pages on social networks are now able to offer “shoppable posts” where consumers can purchase items without ever leaving their feeds.
It’s hard to imagine greater convenience—and now, we don’t have to.
Enhanced Consumer Experience
All these ecommerce tech trends have gained traction because of the convenience and frictionless shopping experience they offer consumers. From social shopping to reverse image search and AR “try-on” experiences, ecommerce brands have more tools today than ever to engage buyers.
Buyers, for their part, have come to expect this level of shopping experience. This is, perhaps, the most important takeaway for ecommerce brands with the changing landscape of ecommerce tech: this technology doesn’t just offer a competitive edge, it’s also a path by which the industry will meet today’s consumers standards.
What’s a Brand to Do?
For brands already up and running in ecommerce as well as those just about to dive in, this technology can be as exciting as it is overwhelming.
Where’s a brand to start? Where do the funds come from to take advantage of this new tech? How is a small brand supposed to integrate something as cutting-edge as AR into their buyer journey?
Fortunately, the same developers and SaaS leaders advancing these technologies are also the people building SaaS solutions to give a greater number of brands access. Your brand doesn’t need to develop its own AR shopping tool or reverse image search. Instead, you can cherry-pick the SaaS solutions that tap the technologies you want to use.
Signing up for half a dozen new SaaS apps, however, implies new costs. It also requires new APIs and integrations between software to make the new solutions viable. For example, an AR-powered module that you can slap your branding on and set live in your ecommerce store won’t do any good if it can’t “talk” to your CRM when sales are made.
The one thing a brand can—and should—do is map out its SaaS ecosystem. There are already several software solutions any brand will have in play: you probably have an ERP, CRM, PLM, and maybe even a PIM. These solutions have to be mapped out with any new SaaS you consider or your good intentions with new technology will result in dead-end efforts.
Make a list of the software you have and the software you’re considering. Then, fill out a table with the following columns answered for each:
How much does the software cost?
Which other software can it integrate with?
Which other software should it integrate with (if only in a perfect world)?
Which departments will need access?
Does its purpose overlap with any other software on this list? If yes, which?
SaaS solutions will fuel your growth as these technologies continue to grow. You don’t want to sign up willy nilly for every solution that’s out there, though—your SaaS stack should reflect operational efficiency and your bigger plan. By answering these questions, you’ll be able to pick out flags like cost-prohibitive pricing or an overlap with existing software before you sign up for “just any” solution.
Once you do find those SaaS that tap these new technologies and make sense for your brand, you’ll be ready to take full advantage of these extraordinary tech trends.
Read more about the future of ecommerce and decide which of these ecommerce technologies you’ll explore first!