The Untapped Potential of E-Commerce

rocketair product design team blog author fuel for thought
RocketAir Crew
December 10, 2019
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Designing for the New Consumer

Black Friday’s Blackout

For a long time, Black Friday has been an intrinsic part of Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, signaling the official kickoff for the annual holiday shopping season. You could always count on local newscasts showing the Black Friday spectacle: The sleep-deprived shoppers lining up outside of the biggest retailers in the middle of the night waiting for the stores to open – like tired, poor, huddled masses – and then they’d be seen rushing into the stores like crazed moms and dads as soon as the doors opened.

In fact, since 2006, a disturbing number of people have died (12) or been injured (117) in Black Friday shopping melees. There is even a website called Black Friday Death Count that tracks these grim statistics. 

But what Jeff Bezos gambled on when he founded Amazon in 1996 to sell books online was that people would eventually find it a lot easier (and safer!) if they could just shop for whatever they want without ever having to leave the comfort of their homes. He was undoubtedly right, of course, and one clear sign of this has been how Amazon’s annual Prime Day sale has not only arguably eclipsed Black Friday in importance – and has become something like a de-facto holiday in its own right – but how it has forced traditional retailers to adapt their businesses to keep up with the e-commerce giant. 

Hence, Black Friday has become “Black Friday” in name only: You now see traditional retailers offer “Black Friday” deals that stretch out over multiple days or even a full week. And there is also, of course, Cyber Monday, which gives these traditional retailers a chance to drum up additional business by offering online-exclusive deals. 

The days of shoppers lining up outside of Macy’s or Best Buy or Target in the middle of the night after Thanksgiving dinner are over. And they aren’t coming back.

The Road Ahead

So, here’s where the story gets interesting: There’s no doubt that e-commerce continues to grow in importance with shoppers – and, yes, the days of Black Friday shopping hysteria are a thing of the past – but despite all the talk about how Amazon’s ascension has signaled the “death of retail” for traditional stores, the reality is that the overwhelming share of retail business is still being done at brick-and-mortar outlets.

In the U.S., for example, e-commerce sales accounted for 9 percent of all retail sales in 2017; by 2020, they’re expected to make up 12.4 percent of all retail sales. That is clear growth; but it’s also slow growth, which is why e-commerce will continue to make up a relatively small share of overall retail sales in the near future. And Amazon continues to be unmatched in driving a lion’s share of e-commerce growth in the U.S., which means that right now in the U.S. e-commerce space, there’s Amazon and there’s everyone else.

But it also means there’s a tremendous amount of untapped potential in this market, not just for retailers, but also for the people who build and design their digital products. E-commerce is going to continue to grow its share of retail business and will become even more dominant as the market of younger, digitally native consumers – including those in Generation Z – continues to grow and come of age.

E-commerce sales are expected to reach $4 trillion by next year and will no doubt continue to grow significantly over the next decade. There are a few trends that analysts seem to generally agree on when assessing where the e-commerce market is heading in 2020 and beyond.

1. Mobile Takeover:

One of these trends will be the continued growth of omnichannel commerce, which means that consumers will shop across multiple platforms online (desktop and mobile), multiple channels (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the e-commerce site itself), but they will also continue to shop in brick-and-mortar stories if a company has one.

For e-commerce businesses, the growth of their mobile business (or m-commerce) will be increasingly important to the growth of the overall market. But while m-commerce is expected to account for 53.9 percent of all retail e-commerce by 2021, “mobile shoppers convert at a dismal rate of just 1.73% compared to desktop’ shoppers’ 4.02%,” according to Tara Johnson of CPC Strategy.

Why such a low conversion rate for mobile shopping? Johnson believes it’s because mobile design has lagged behind desktop design.

“As smartphones evolve, desktop shopping technology remains relatively stagnant — a mobile-optimized version of a desktop site is no longer enough to create the best experience possible,” she notes. “Whether through an app or a mobile site, retailers should view mobile as an entirely separate initiative, tailoring the design, content, and checkout to the latest smartphone and tablet operating systems.”

This obviously creates an opportunity for designers to help the e-commerce market build out its business by designing a better mobile UX. The customer experience “should feel seamless” across multiple channels, according to Johnson of CPC Strategy, which would mean not only designing a UX that travels from desktop to mobile, but branding that is also consistent across multiple channels.

2. Getting Personal:

As convenient as online shopping can be, when you see an e-commerce giant like Amazon opening up physical stores, it’s an acknowledgment that many consumers continue to value some sort of personal interaction when choosing a product to buy, even when they’re buying it online. This is why the most successful brick-and-mortar stores aren’t going away anytime soon; and it’s also why another trend in e-commerce will be the growth of personalization technology. 

With personalization technology, e-commerce sites can “mimic” the “face-to-face personal interaction” that someone might have at a traditional store, according to Adam Enfroy, a content marketing consultant.

“Using personal online data such as search queries, page visits, and purchase history, brands transform their online stores to best serve the customer’s needs and interests,” he notes. 

Enfory believes more e-commerce sites will follow the technology pioneered by companies like Amazon, which has “recommended products based on your past purchases, ads tailored to your search history, and marketing copy speaking directly to you.”

3. Robot Friends:

Along with the use of personalization technology, e-commerce sites will also continue to increasingly rely on AI assistants and chatbots in their product design. These are tools that benefit both consumers and businesses, according to Enfroy. 

For consumers, chatbots can answer questions they have and can develop a more personalized shopping experience, especially for repeat customers. For business owners, “AI assistants can handle a number of tasks typically assigned to a human, such as managing inventory or handling inquiries,” which can free them up to focus on other aspects of running their company.  

4. Born and Raised Online:

It’s no surprise that some of the best-designed online brands are those that are digitally native: Casper, Bonobos, Warby Parker, Harry’s, Away, etc. These companies are also some of the most successful e-commerce brands – and are expected to grow in influence in the coming years.

These digitally native, vertically integrated brands (DNVBs) have succeeded not just by cutting out the middleman and selling their products directly to consumers, but by prioritizing user experience. 

“DNVBs put the consumer front and center by offering a buying experience that is as memorable as the product,” Jonathan Poma, CEO of BVACCel explained. “They have a deep understanding of how customers’ lifestyles, decisions, and habits are influenced by technology.”

Poma adds that DNVBs have built their tech “on a foundation of humanity,” which means driving “more customer intimacy than any other type of company, since they collect data on every transaction and interaction to get to know how their customers behave online.”

Products, Design

If you’re ever been shopping at a brick-and-mortar store and can’t find a sales associate to help you with a question you have about a product, it can be frustrating enough that you just put the product away and leave the store. Poor customer service has cost the store potential business.

Customer service is, of course, also just as important to retail e-commerce, even if there’s never any personal interaction between the seller and customer. For an e-commerce business, customer service is almost always going to succeed or fail based on its site’s UX design.

Nearly all of the elements that go into building successful UI and UX design for non-consumer websites, holds true for an e-commerce site: Color coordination, visual hierarchy, consistent design of the website and app, accessibility, etc. But with an e-commerce site, UX and UI design becomes an extension of the company’s sales process; an important part of the company’s effort to convert customers.

All of the design elements on an e-commerce site serve to promote the brand, but also (perhaps more importantly) promote the products. For example, in the same way that brick-and-mortar stores have always relied on window displays to generate traffic, a well-designed e-commerce site prioritizes how its products are displayed on its pages.

Think of a company like the Australian-based Bellroy, which first made its name by designing slim wallets to fit the slimmer style of pants that have become de rigueur. (The company has expanded its product offering beyond wallets in the years since its launch). Bellroy’s site does an excellent job of not only displaying its collection of wallets, but also showing what you can fit inside of them, using both images and a short video.

Getting around Bellroy’s site is also a straightforward process, something Raul Harman, editor in chief at Technivorz and a business consultant, says is crucial. He notes that because “intuitive navigation” on an e-commerce site is significant  to the overall user experience, an e-commerce site should then be designed with simplified menus, links that make it easy to move from one page to another and descriptive labeling.

If the navigation is confusing or clunky, it can be as frustrating as not finding an available sales clerk to help you at a traditional store. The goal of the page design is to help convert a user into a customer.

“Remember, they don’t want to click and scroll endlessly until they find the desired product,” Harman says. “If they notice they’re wasting their precious time on unnecessary operations, they will simply leave you for your competitors.”

As Harman notes, the point of intuitive navigation is ultimately to make it easy for the user to find and purchase a product. It’s also why the design shouldn’t overwhelm the product either; while the site should be visually appealing, the products shouldn’t be secondary to the design.

Investing in UX design will be crucial to the growth of the e-commerce market, especially as companies look to ramp up their mobile business. And as the digitally native consumers gain more purchasing power, investing in better design will be a necessary investment in future brand loyalty.

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