Ecommerce trends in 2013

Shopping via an app on a smartphone (from a product manager working for a retailer that’s been around for more than 95 years, I face a daunting but intriguing task. Popular opinion says that retailers like mine are going to fall to Amazon. But, hope is not lost. These five themes are evolutionary ways that can help us compete, and even thrive against Amazon.

1. Proprietary content will parry the showrooming effect

Content and commerce are indelibly linked, since content has always been a critical part of presenting stories and enriching the shopping experience. For example, take a look at the J. Peterman site. “Traditional” forms of content such as reviews, editorials, merchandising copy, social media integration, third-party data, and etc. are certainly important, but that’s not my focus.

The kind of content I’m talking about enriches the shopping experience by tailoring what gets presented to an individual. Content such as taxonomies and mined data (from big data) will become even more important than before. With this sort of content, retailers can personalize and inform shoppers just as well as the best store associates you could encounter.

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2. Mobile shopping will morph into tablet shopping

Responsive design will overtake purpose-built mobile websites. At the minimum, retailers should be getting an iPad app ready as a short-term measure. Given the diversity of devices and formats, HTML5 is a good choice for a more universal experience, but retailers will have to invest in software QA and a particular discipline towards the minimum-viable product concept.

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3. Consumer mobile payments will spread

Despite my jest of one’s wallet running out of battery power, my use of Square’s Wallet app has convinced me that mobile payments are capable of so much more. Imagine nifty in-store integration regarding coupon presentation (as opposed to ads), personalization and content recommendations at time of purchase, and the possibilities of bundling multiple items (particularly for content/media retailers).

Of course, consumers must adopt mobile payments in scale for this to work, and it is not a given that they will. With some luck, retailers may follow the direction set by Starbucks and potentially diversify through partnerships with multiple service providers (see: Square and Apple) to make this work in the interim.

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4. Paid shipping options will become more popular than free shipping

Ok, it is a stretch to think that consumers in 2013 will suddenly flip over to paying for shipping. But it isn’t a stretch to realize what dire straits the USPS is in. Supply chain improvements will be countered by worsening USPS service in light of their budget crunch. So warehouses and distribution centers can get faster at picking and packing but it will not necessarily translate to better shipping service.

Customers will increasingly look for “just good enough” shipping at a low price to counteract the “Sorry, we missed you” fatigue. And to top it off, I can also see the possibilities with the packaging itself becoming more novel to try “delighting” consumers when opening a package.

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5. Physical and ecommerce stores will tear down their walls

Retailers with both physical and ecommerce stores will realize that they have a competitive advantage against Amazon: their own stores! The yellow lockers for Amazon pickup are not prevalent, but it doesn’t mean that Amazon will not or cannot get better. The window of opportunity is shrinking every day given that ecommerce-only players like eBay and Amazon are developing novel shipping services for customers.

Retailers will compete through their existing capabilities: human service and reach of outlets. Store associates who can contribute to the conversation about online and offline price comparisons, content knowledge, and overall person-to-person service will become more valuable to retailers. They will become better armed with more data and alternate methods to facilitate checkout and delivery, either in-store or online. No one wants to go on an inventory scavenger hunt across multiple store locations, and retailers can apply ecommerce concepts like conversion and abandonment to justify their approach. Consider a store associate telling a customer to go to a store several miles away just to get a $20 book, or worse, a $200 appliance. That just translates into an increased probability of abandonment, which can be weighed against the cost-benefit of a shipping option that allow a store associate to say “We’ll just ship that to you tonight!”

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Disclaimer: I work for Barnes & Noble, a Fortune 500 retailer. This is not a roadmap, promise of features, or anything other than my own perspective on how retailing will shake out in 2013. The “around for more than 95 years” bit is actually interesting trivia sourced from Wikipedia’s citation to Newsday via the Wayback Machine.

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