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The Future of Online Shopping

From dramatically redesigned websites and shoppable content to two-hour delivery, BoF outlines the services that will define the next era of e-commerce.
Balenciaga's Fall 2021 collection from its video game lookbook.
Balenciaga's Fall 2021 collection from its video game lookbook.

Brianna Vandervoort loves shopping online. Last month alone, the 27-year-old dentist made more than a dozen purchases buying clothes, shoes and accessories from Reformation, Agolde and Anine Bing, among other brands.

But while she’ll spend hours browsing page after page on Sephora or Aritzia’s website, her patience only goes so far. When one loungewear brand took more than a day to respond on Instagram to her question about sizing, she’d already moved on.

“By then, I kind of lost interest,” Vandervoort said. “I’m an instant gratification kind of person.”

For many brands, keeping customers like Vandervoort happy is mission-critical, as the pandemic’s e-commerce boom shows no signs of receding. In the third quarter of 2020, e-commerce sales rose 37 percent compared to the same period in 2019, according to the US Census Bureau. But with ample options for everything from underwear to skin care, shoppers have sky-high expectations and little tolerance for mistakes. Some of the services brands adopted as stopgap measures — such as same-day delivery or live online chats with store associates — are becoming permanent fixtures.

Below, BoF outlines six predictions that will define the future of online shopping.

Live, online customer service is here to stay

When customers switched to shopping online during the pandemic, many still expected the same one-on-one service they received in stores. Tools and tactics developed before the pandemic — chatbots and next-day messages from the social media team — didn’t cut it.

“The service just stinks,” said retail futurist Faith Popcorn. “They call it live chat but the person isn’t actually live or they’re in India and don’t know much about the [brand.] It’s endless frustration.”

When stores closed, retailers put in-store stylists and sales associates to work answering emails or doling out tips in online chats. New technology made it easier for employees to talk to customers via text or social media.

That genie can’t be put back in the bottle, said Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group. Brands will need to continue offering top-notch digital customer service even after the pandemic subsides. And it has to be seamless.

“I’ve signed up for digital stylists and literally it’s crickets,” she said. “It’s a risk to turn on these services if you can’t support it.”

Delivery will be measured in hours, not days

For many customers, two-day shipping just isn’t fast enough anymore. A 2018 PwC survey found that more than 40 percent of respondents said they would pay for same-day shipping and 23 percent said they’d pay for delivery that comes within three hours.

These numbers have likely increased as consumers used to the convenience of shopping in stores reluctantly switched to e-commerce. Some retailers have partnered with last-mile delivery services like Instacart and Postmates to make same-day deliveries, using their stores as mini distribution centres that also enable buy-online, pick-up-in-store, or buy-online, return-in-store. Some retailers work with third-party fulfilment companies, who operate multiple warehouse spaces for their brand partners to ensure even faster delivery.

Nitin Mangtani, the founder and chief executive of retail customer service platform PredictSpring, said he believes any delivery made in metropolitan areas should and could already be as fast as 45 minutes.

“We’re doing it with Uber Eats and Seamless” with food items that cost a fraction of what consumers pay for dresses or sneakers, Mangtani said. “So why aren’t the majority of retailers offering this service?”

But retailers don’t need third-party micro-fulfilment partners to make same-day delivery happen — they can go to last-mile couriers themselves, Mangtani added.

“Why can’t Zara offer two-hour delivery and just charge $10 using UberX?” he said. “The driver can show up with three different pairs of shoes, and you can try them on right there right then, and just send back the ones you don’t want.”

This time, fit tech is here to stay

Japanese e-commerce retailer Zozo Inc. set out to perfect the virtual fitting process with its polka-dotted Zozosuit in 2017. Covered in more than 300 stretchable dots that signal body shape, the quirky jumpsuit connected these measurements to the Zozo app, where shoppers could purchase custom-sized jeans and button-up shirts.

But shoppers weren’t as excited about the concept. The suit was discontinued last year, the latest in a long line of failed experiments in software-tailored clothes.

A new crop of start-ups are betting Zozo and its predecessors were just ahead of their time. The rapid shift toward e-commerce may create new demand for clothes that don’t need to be tried on. Retailers looking to reduce the number of returns could steer customers toward virtual fit technology.

Last year, several malls owned by Brookfield Properties hosted pop-up fitting studios operated by Fit:Match, which uses a 3-D body scanner to recommend personalised products and sizing.

Retail consultant Doug Stephens predicts retailers will someday invite customers to have their measurements scanned in stores, then use that data to predict sizing and push styles online.

“Within the next five years, it will be common to have your body scanned,” Stephens said. “For retailers, it’s costly technology but think about the cost of returns or damaged and unsellable merchandise.”

The line between commerce and content will blur further

Like many millennials, Vandervoort likes to shop online while she watches Netflix.

With the mystery-comedy “Dead to Me,” those activities often feel like one and the same.

“I always thought [the character Judy’s] outfits were so interesting on that show and I googled them all the time,” she said. “Maybe there should be a service where there’s a QR code with each episode and then you can find the shoppable items.”

Instagram has shoppable posts, where users can purchase an influencer’s bag or sunglasses from within the app. The Lobby, a marketplace that launched in September, is built around this concept, tapping influencers to create original content showcasing products.

Stephens imagines a world where the lines are even further blurred, and “all forms of media will become the store.” He points to Morphe, a beauty brand with studio space inside stores where shoppers can create content.

Live shopping, where influencers visit stores and try on clothes for their online audiences, is big in China and making inroads in the West.

“We’re going to see a new era of shoppable content as opposed to advertising,” he said.

Gaming is the next marketing frontier

Over the course of the pandemic, gaming, more so than sourdough and puzzles, became a pastime for nearly every consumer. A November NPD Group report found that four out of every five US consumers played a video game in the past month, a number that increased six percentage points year-over-year. For people between the ages of 45 and 64, time spent gaming increased by half, compared to numbers from 2019.

Some fashion heavyweights are taking note. In December, Balenciaga released its latest collection in the form of a game called “Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow,” in which players are invited to navigate a five-level fantasyland envisioned by creative director Demna Gvasalia, starting at a Balenciaga retail store and continuing through a forest and a rave.

Brands don’t have to create their own to join the trend: they can partner with games to create avatar “skins.” This week, Gucci and The North Face revealed their collaboration on a collection of T-shirts, hats, and backpacks in the game Pokémon Go. Some items will be available in real life, too in select Gucci stores.

Brands can make money directly by creating virtual clothing people can buy with points earned from playing games (or with real cash). Gamers as influencers are also a relatively untapped market.

“On Twitch, there are people that I would’ve never heard of that have 50 or even 100 million followers,” said Willersdorf. “The only way to get into it is to experiment — start with a sponsorship of players and then make some virtual products.”

The online “store” experience is due for a transformation

For years, retailers and retail landlords have spent significant time, money and brainpower into marketing their stores as “experiences,” whether that meant museum-calibre installations or ski slopes in mall corridors. E-commerce, by contrast, remained largely confined to selecting items out of photos arranged in grids.

Online shopping is overdue for a similar makeover, experts say.

With virtual reality technology, online shopping could look more like physical stores or completely different environments, Stephens said, pointing to creative agencies like Obsess that are helping brands create such experiences.

For instance, if a retailer sells outdoor products, it could design an interactive website that looks like an outdoor environment, Stephens added.

Willersdorf agrees. “I do expect to see the acceleration of converting physical experience into virtual ones,” she said.

From investing in web design to experimenting with virtual fit technology, innovative and ambitious retailers are already venturing into this next phase of e-commerce. And those that don’t will struggle to compete.

“The future is here. The question is how [these services] will take off,” said Mangtani. “If Apple and Whole Foods are already doing two-hour delivery, why can’t Michael Kors?”

Related Articles:

6 Ways the Pandemic Has Changed How People Shop

How Covid-19 Is Catalysing a New Era of Luxury

The Pandemic Changed the Way People Live. How Can Fashion Adapt?

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