Last year was a high-octane one for e-commerce businesses, with COVID-19 forcing the industry to move fast—and, yes, sometimes break things—in order to overcome challenges, make the most of unprecedented growth opportunities, and serve customers.
As we kick off 2022, it’s tempting to assume that most of the chaos is behind us. Unfortunately, that outlook appears to be premature. Things are still in flux, and in the new normal, the only real certainty is that digital commerce will need to keep evolving and adapting to stay ahead.
That’s especially true because customers’ expectations only climbed during the pandemic. Consumers might miss in-person shopping, but they also love the convenience of clicking through online catalogs, effortlessly placing orders, and receiving deliveries while still in their PJs. As shoppers venture back to real-world stores, sellers will need to integrate such benefits across their entire value chain.
Here are five critical insights to keep in mind as you prepare for the year ahead:
1. SHOPPING IS A MORALE BOOSTER
Over the past year, shoppers turned to e-commerce for respite from the painful reality of the pandemic, clicking to buy everything from luxury items to leisurewear to comforting snacks in a bid to boost their morale. People probably won’t stop treating shopping as a pick-me-up in the coming months, so make a point of helping your customers de-stress.
That doesn’t just mean selling treats like cocktail kits and luxury bedding. Any online seller can put a smile on shoppers’ faces if they deliver a high-quality, no-hassle shopping experience: You can thrill customers by using automated recommendations to surface the perfect product for their needs, for instance, or by offering streamlined shipping and easy-to-manage returns. Even something as simple as a compelling product experience, with accurate information and on-point photos or videos, can dramatically enrich the customer journey. In the current climate, consumers want shopping to be easy, experience-driven, and fun, and merchants that deliver those things will be positioned to do better in 2022.
2. RETAILERS ARE OFFERING OTHER PAYMENT OPTIONS BESIDES CREDIT CARDS
One smart way to reduce consumers’ anxiety is to take the sting out of the purchase. Customers want to buy the products they crave without fretting over whether they have the cash available in their accounts, but not everyone has access to a credit card, or wants to pay interest on purchases.
To solve that problem, many merchants are offering buy now, pay later (BNPL) options; in fact, IDC estimates (paywall) that four-fifths of the top 2,000 retailers will offer BNPL by 2023. These installment plans are still a form of credit, but they can usually be set up with the click of a button, and often aren’t interest-bearing. Thus, they can boost brand loyalty and encourage bigger purchases. BNPL options also give merchants end-to-end control of the customer experience, eliminating the risk of a rejected credit card leading to abandoned carts or substandard customer experiences.
3. A SALE IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
The brand experience doesn’t end when a customer clicks to buy; it encompasses the entirety of their relationship with your brand, including aftermarket support. During the pandemic, shoppers saw this more clearly: According to Forrester (paywall), over a third of U.S. online consumers have been discouraged from making purchases due to fears about return processes, forcing e-commerce sellers to think more carefully about post-purchase interactions.
This year, I think we’ll see more merchants taking an omnichannel approach to customer service, and offering zero-hassle policies that include buy-online, return-in-store options. Smart warranty and post-purchase support also will likely become more important, helping consumers buy with confidence and allowing merchants to forge deeper and longer-lasting relationships with customers—a win-win for both sellers and customers.
4. IT’S GOOD TO BE GREEN
In much the same way that sellers are considering the whole product lifecycle when dealing with customers, shoppers are looking at the bigger picture when it comes to purchasing decisions. Sustainability, for instance, is increasingly front-of-mind, with IDC finding that about 70% of consumers now consider a brand’s sustainability efforts when deciding whether to purchase from them.
To leverage sustainability, look beyond your marketing messages and find substantive, meaningful ways to showcase environmental stewardship. Decarbonizing your supply chain, your products, and your delivery network can be highly effective approaches, as long as you also find ways to credibly communicate those benefits to your customers.
5. ANALYTICS AREN’T OPTIONAL
Delivering on all of these different fronts requires a connected, data-driven approach. It’s all very well to say that you’re going to provide better end-to-end customer experiences—but to achieve that, you need end-to-end visibility to help optimize your performance. Drawing operational data from marketing, sales, service, and fulfillment into a single unified analytics suite will prove more important than ever in 2022 as merchants seek the tools they need to drive continuous improvement.
Increasingly, more merchants may use artificial intelligence tools to interpret data from across their organizations in real time. Machine learning tools can spot anomalies or new trends in one operational area, and then use those insights to inform strategic decision making in others. Marketing data can inform inventory management, for example, while customer service metrics can be used to troubleshoot fulfillment.
KEEP ON EVOLVING
The world of e-commerce has changed dramatically during the COVID-19 era, and it will likely continue to do so in 2022. Fortunately, the pandemic has made the world of e-commerce more resilient, and given merchants the tools they need to adapt and thrive. In learning to overcome recent challenges, sellers have found new ways to drive efficiencies, integrate disparate aspects of their operations, and unlock lasting value for customers.
The imperative for online sellers in 2022 will be to lean into that process. Our industry is still evolving, and brands will have to evolve too in order to anticipate customers’ changing needs and find creative responses to unexpected challenges. Merchants that streamline their operations, upgrade their strategic planning, and create frictionless and compelling experiences for consumers will be better placed to roll with the punches, capitalize on opportunities, and drive major growth this year.
Omair Tariq is the CEO and co-founder of Cart.com, the first Ecommerce-as-a-Service company.