It’s always risky to try to predict the future of any industry because no one wants to look foolish when their predictions turn out to be wrong. However, it’s also important to look ahead to see where our industries are headed so we don’t fall behind. The world of e-commerce is rapidly changing as consumer expectations evolve and technology matures. As we embark into the 2020s, here are my predictions for where online retail is headed.
Sustainability Will Become More Important
As younger shoppers gain purchasing power, they're also putting pressure on retailers to adopt more sustainable business practices. Earlier this year, fast-fashion brand Zara pledged to use 100 percent sustainable fabrics by 2025, and H&M plans to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040.
We’re also witnessing a boom in resale marketplaces such as Poshmark and thredUP, which predicts the resale market to grow from a $24 billion market today to $51 billion by 2023. That report also found that the average number of items in a consumer's closet is declining. In 2017, it was 164; in 2018, it was 147; and in 2020, it's projected to be 136.
It’s clear what consumers want, but e-commerce has a long way to go to catch up. Freight is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases and a major source of local air pollution. In 2019, we saw Etsy and Ikea commit to zero-emissions delivery vehicles, FedEx and Ryder partner to use more electric-powered vehicles, and Amazon.com pledge for half of its shipments to be carbon neutral by 2030.
Alexa, What About Voice Commerce?
While the idea of shopping with our voices has been discussed for the last few years, no one has implemented it well. The opportunity is just too big for that to last. Someone is going to figure out how to do it better because consumers want it. Will it be Amazon or a new upstart aiming to disrupt the market? The number of consumers who own smart speakers is climbing, and the majority are already using them to research prices, according to a First Insight survey.
In the meantime, look for a rise in commerce via text message. Shoppers want convenient, personalized ways to make purchases, and we're all very comfortable with texting. As social media evolves and privacy becomes more of an issue, consumers might prefer a more private way to shop instead of sharing all their lives with the public. Texting — and voice — might be the answer.
A la Carte Platform Experiences Will Provide Flexibility
The big monolithic e-commerce platforms with strict limitations on customization don’t meet the needs of today’s consumers, who want more personalized and experiential shopping experiences. Retailers need the flexibility to plug in different content, payment and design options. They need to be able to separate the commerce part of the store from the content part to accommodate different needs. Headless commerce provides this a la carte online shopping capability, and more merchants are realizing the benefits of not being tied to one platform for everything.
Big-Box Retail Will Evolve
I see a couple of ways traditional big-box retail stores will change. Many of them will turn into fulfillment centers for online purchases to cut down on deliveries and offer convenience for customers. The brick-and-mortar spaces that thrive will be those that offer a full brand experience complete with event spaces, coffee, food and other amenities.
Second, I think they will turn into collections of direct-to-consumer online-only brands, kind of like a traditional mall. Brands will come together to provide a physical space where shoppers can examine products up close before buying online. I also expect this will be how malls evolve. However, I expect instead of thousands of square feet, we’ll see smaller footprints and more focus on experience.
‘Reality’ Will Shift
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality have been part of the tech conversation for the last few years, but applications in retail are still shaking out. Furniture brands have provided some great use cases with tools to let shoppers see how a new couch would look in their living room. One of the biggest reasons consumers don’t follow through with online purchases is that they aren’t able to confidently evaluate how the product will look and feel in person. AR can go a long way toward solving that.
My prediction is there will be more AR applications that create a more connected in-store/online experience. Stores will overlay online product reviews, enable comparison shopping, and highlight complementary products. Mobile networks haven’t been powerful enough for these types of applications yet, but as 5G rolls out, you’ll start to see a more blended omnichannel experience.
Only time will tell whether any of these predictions come true, but I feel confident that all of them will at least be partially accurate. And if I’m wrong, I’ll come back in a few years and grade how I did — or someone else certainly will.
Meghan Stabler is vice president of product marketing at BigCommerce, the world’s leading cloud e-commerce platform for established and rapidly growing businesses.
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