COVID-19 reshaped e-commerce in 2020, rapidly accelerating a revolution already in progress. Brands integrated online, in-store, curbside and home delivery via omnichannel logistics solutions at lightning speed, meeting the challenge and, in many ways, successfully engaging with changed consumer behaviors.
One year in, life remains different, but we anticipate new changes on the horizon. Vaccine distribution is underway, and some kind of return to “normal” will occur. What does that mean for an industry that has been wholly transformed by rapid changes in consumer expectations, needs and demands?
One thing is certain, there will not be any slowing down for e-commerce. In 2021, over 2.4 billion people worldwide are expected to buy goods and services online, up from 1.66 billion in 2016. In the U.S. alone, online retail sales of physical goods are expected to reach $476.5 billion by 2024. In 2019, sales amounted to $343.2 billion.
With all signs pointing toward continued e-commerce growth post-pandemic, here’s what will help ensure retailer success in 2021 and beyond.
Adopting an Omnichannel Mentality
The resumption of in-store shopping will not reverse the rise of e-commerce. Customers have enjoyed the convenience and optionality of omnichannel, and they will be unwilling to give it up. Buy online/pick-up in store, contactless delivery, curbside pick-up and in-store returns have transformed expectations. Brands will need to synthesize traditional buying behaviors from 2019 and earlier with the e-commerce developments of 2020.
Success in 2021 is contingent upon abandoning the view of e-commerce operations as supplementary or separate from more traditional channels. In 2020, e-commerce became the primary interface, while brick and mortar became secondary, flipping convention on its head. Retail stores will continue to serve as fulfillment locations for online orders, but moving forward, they must also incorporate the experiential component absent during the pandemic. We expect to see a resurgence in tactics to boost in-store shopping, such as product testing, limited in-store offers, unique events and even product tastings.
Additionally, we will see omnichannel become synonymous with personalization. In fact, 79% of customers cite personalized customer service being more important than personalized marketing. For brands, this will mean incorporating more sophisticated data mining technology that will provide quick, easy-to-use information (such as purchasing history) to anticipate each customer’s unique needs.
Inventory optimization will be an important trend moving forward, outpacing traditional inventory management efforts. Brands need to effectively leverage their inventory across channels in real time. For example, no one wants excess inventory sitting in brick-and-mortar stores when consumers are asking for at-home delivery. It is now about getting the right product, in the right place, at the right time.
Historically, purchase history drove inventory planning, but in 2021, brands need a “just-in-time” approach to inventory across channels. Research is consistently showing that meeting shoppers’ expectations is about fast retail, with journeys, transactions and experiences moving at the speed of the shopper. In short, inventory optimization will help brands effectively navigate the swiftly changing shopping patterns in 2021 and beyond.
For supply-chain managers, having the right tools in place to navigate this change is key. Real-time data, and the right analysis of that data, are critical for overall supply-chain agility while enhancing the digital shopping experience. Integration across all points of fulfillment is imperative. Analytics and machine learning provide a window into what is working, what is not and how consumers are shopping (such as where, when and how much). Omnichannel helps brands meet consumers where they are; analytics help them stay there.
Leveraging Mobile Shopping
The growth in mobile shopping, accelerated in 2020, shows no sign of slowing down. As consumers spend more time on their phones, the door is opened to more brand engagement. In 2020, the share of consumers who reported using their mobile devices to enhance the in-store experience jumped from 49.6% to 72.1%. In 2021, mobile e-commerce could bring in nearly $3.5 trillion and make up almost three quarters of e-commerce sales. On Cyber Monday 2020, the largest U.S. internet shopping day ever, 37% of sales were made on mobile devices. Brands investing in their e-commerce via mobile app experiences will drive increased cart additions via intuitive interfaces and smart suggestions based on buying history. Additionally, we will see brands increasingly utilize functions such as live chat and texting into their omnichannel strategy to make the purchasing experience more efficient and personable.
Transforming Reverse Logistics
Finally, 2021 will see the continued transformation of reverse logistics. The processes and infrastructure have been reengineered to accommodate an accelerated omnichannel evolution and will continue to adapt as in-store, online and mobile integrate in new and expanded ways. Online purchases are three times as likely to be returned as in-store purchases, so retailers must leverage innovative solutions to bridge the gap between customer expectations and current state reverse logistics. Retailers will also demand more visibility and speed with customers’ returns. Additionally, we can anticipate more “drop-off” locations, like lockers and kiosks, to accommodate the changing landscape for returns and reverse logistics.
The success of omnichannel brands over the last year points heavily to a future in which customers receive the products they want, wherever and however they want to shop. Speed, visibility and cost remain key to the customer experience, relying on the continued integration of the physical store with inventory, logistics, distribution, IT and software. We will see analytics play a major role in this ongoing shift and the improved agility of distribution networks. 2021 will undoubtedly be another transformative year for e-commerce, and brands that increasingly embrace an omnichannel mindset with the latest tools and technologies will lead the pack.
Mike Honious is president and CEO of GEODIS in Americas.