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The e-commerce landscape looks almost unrecognizable compared to just a few short years ago.

Variety has broadened, service has improved, and entire communities have been built around cult products thanks to mass social media participation and influencer power.

2020 only accelerated the predicted course of the e-commerce economy, and now we look to 2021 as a new beginning for young entrepreneurs and established businesses finding their way.

Here is what CEOs and business leaders are saying about the big e-commerce trends to watch in 2021.

Revamped Customer Expectations

Last year may have been totally unpredictable, but one thing is for sure in 2021: customer expectations are on a whole different level post-pandemic.

The big box stores took huge market share in their e-commerce efforts over the past 12 months, but small businesses were able to carve out considerable market share as well.

Emerging e-commerce operations need to tune into what customers want from their online experiences and see how they can differentiate themselves from the heavy hitters of the industry.

“With stay-at-home orders forcing most consumers to exclusively shop online rather than in-store, customer expectations of e-commerce sites are going to skyrocket,” said Yuvi Alpert, Founder, Creative Director, and CEO of Noémie. “Competing with Amazon will become e-commerce professionals’ biggest goal, with consumers looking for free overnight shipping, free returns, and immediate responses to customer service inquiries from their online shopping platforms. I anticipate chat- and text-based customer service platforms will have a boom in popularity, as they will provide the immediate gratification necessary to please new online shoppers.”

Speed Up Service

Where can smaller e-commerce companies get an edge over Amazon, Target, and the other giants in the space? More businesses are realizing that service is the answer, especially the type of service that builds trust and loyalty.

While small brands may not be able to compete with titans on price or speed in the short term, they can focus on stellar service to get a reputation that sets them apart. Those investments are going to pay off big when they gain traction in the marketplace.

“Because of the pandemic, consumers are demanding more from their online customer service,” said Tyler Boyd, Chief Strategy Officer at Squeeze. “They want their queries answered immediately, by real people. While not every company can afford a fleet of customer service specialists available 24/7, AI chatbot software has evolved to the point that it can be personalized in its answers and queries to your brand identity. By 2021, AI will handle over 15 percent of global customer service interactions, making AI chatbots one of the hottest web development trends of this year”.

AI is exciting, of course, but it’s only part of the picture. Even though more people are shopping online, they still expect some degree of human interaction and the dynamic service that comes with talking to a real person.

Social Selling is the Future

The power of social proof is stronger than ever in a world where everyone is constantly tapped into social networks. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok have become massive money makers that can’t be ignored by up-and-coming sellers.

It’s no longer a question of whether a company should advertise or engage on social media. It’s a prerequisite for success in 2021 and beyond.

“Because of the increased use of social media on smartphones and social media’s involvement in retail sales, social selling has become red hot. Anyone hoping to improve their online sales success must take advantage of emerging trends,” said Eddie Machaalani, Co-Founder and CEO of Bigcommerce.

Like any marketing effort, it will take big upfront investments in organic and paid assets on social media. However, these initiatives will compound over time as the following grows and hype trains gain momentum in various industries.

Engage at Every Level

What does e-commerce engagement look like, and how do small businesses maximize this key metric? That’s the question that so many companies grappled with in 2020, and this year they’re finally making strides in the right direction.

Brands are realizing that e-commerce is a two-way street, demanding personalized messaging and tailored approaches to selling based on collected data and preferences. Companies that capitalize on the wealth of analytics and AI stand to benefit in a big way.

“When you’re offering trending fashion-related products online, it’s important that you stay engaged with your audience, so that you understand the looks they’re after, and the styles that appeal most, based on their particular demographics,” said Jordan Dwayne, CEO and Founder of 6ixIce. “One excellent way to truly understand your customers is to engage with them – and there’s no better medium than social media. Post trending styles, including your own products, and ask for opinions, while you post your content to ask a question, and to start a conversation.”

This is yet another area in which small e-commerce vendors have an advantage over big brands. Real, authentic connection and conversation are the way of the future, so stay tuned.

Calculate and Track ROI

As e-commerce companies invest in new technologies and platforms to boost outreach and sales, they run into a problem that perhaps they didn’t expect: gauging ROI.

Moving products and making money is always great, but how will staff know whether their newly implemented tools are actually making a difference on the bottom line?

This introduces a set of challenges that requires more tracking, measuring, and number crunching – especially on the marketing front.

“When you want your marketing efforts to be profitable, you must first consider two things: your end results and your investment,” said Amir Yazdan, M.D., Founder of GroMD. “While your outcome may be a sale or a new customer, you also have to look at both the financial and time investments to ensure that it was actually a success. This is why we focus on using innovative, cost-effective marketing methods to our advantage, such as email marketing, content marketing, and outreach.” 

With so many variables at play in the modern e-commerce arena, intelligent marketers and executives will keep a close eye on which techniques and tools are truly moving the dial.

Moving into Virtual Retail

Don’t expect flying cars anytime soon, but next-ten tech like virtual retail will definitely gain some traction in 2021.

We’re already seeing augmented reality apps that allow people to “try on” clothes and accessories from their phones – the next step is recreating the experience of strolling through a store like you would at the mall or plaza.

“Enhanced virtual retail experience is well on its way for ecommerce this year,” said Jeff Goodwin, Sr. Director of Marketing & E-commerce at Orgain. “Brands that are now forced into being e-commerce brands are going to develop their digital spaces to replicate the in-store retail experience. VR and AI are already budding industries that online retailers can now leverage into their company for an enhanced online shopping experience.”

Does this mean that brick-and-mortar stores are done for good? Probably not, but we expect to see the hybridization of the virtual and physical shopping worlds sooner than later.

Offer More than Low Prices

E-commerce saves people so much money by circumventing the storefront, and they’re happy to pay a bit extra for quality. In fact, consumers are far more educated about products than in the past, and they see through gimmicks more readily.

This explains a renaissance of boutique and bespoke items on the internet in every field, from athletic apparel and electronics to supplements and scented candles.

We’re witnessing an opening for entrepreneurial crowds to finally step into the e-commerce space and make a sustainable income doing what they love.

“The reason it seems that price is all your customers care about is that you haven’t given them anything else to care about,” said Branding Guru Seth Godin.

With the right mix of quality, originality, and inventiveness, small businesses have a chance to make their mark in 2021, more so than ever before.

Personalized Experiences

With all the talk about personalization in the e-commerce space, many businesses are still failing to connect with customers in an authentic way. Robot-like service and messaging may have worked back in the days of the early web, but not anymore

Small companies need to get the memo that today’s online shoppers want a full-fledged experience from beginning to end, with follow-up and communication after the purchase as well.

“We see demand marketing and personalization as being important in 2021,” said Daniel Snow, CEO and Co-Founder of The Snow Agency. “It’s not sufficient to have a website and some random social media. Consumers want to see a brand’s personality and feel more connected to what they’re buying. Finding a way to weave consistency, storytelling, characters, or concepts from one channel to the next is expected. Being cohesive signals to consumers that you’ve got it together. You’re tuned in and understand how to react, respond to consumers, and even pivot when necessary.”

Long-standing brands may not be comfortable communicating more directly and causally with customers, but that just goes to show they’re behind the times. 2021 is the time to shift things in a different direction and take personalization to a new level.

The Small Business Edge

There’s no ignoring the big-box retail domination of 2020, but there were also many victories for the little guys as they braved the storm of pandemic and shutdowns. We lost several businesses along the way, but in many cases, those resilient entrepreneurs bounced back better than before.

In the new year, we’re seeing revamped confidence and interest in small businesses, which is great news for everyone. With a growing global economy online, there’s enough cash to go around and satisfy markets across the board.

“The pandemic has brought on a shift in customer behavior,” said Tyler Forte, CEO & Founder of Felix Homes. “Now more than ever before, consumers are favoring small businesses. People are more inclined to take extra time to search small businesses, opting to stay away from giant market rulers like Amazon or Walmart. With this in mind, small businesses have an enormous opportunity to capture new customers. This is exciting news, yet with so many small businesses on the market, how can your business stand out? It’s all about branding! The key is to hook them with your unique story and follow up with an exceptional product or service. Once customers feel that connection and see value in what you’re offering, they will be loyal for life.”

2021 is proving to be the biggest year for e-commerce yet – a trend that shows no signs of altering course. Keep an eye on these developments and watch how the story unfolds.

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Lorenzo Gutierrez
Digital Marketing Consultant
Lorenzo Gutierrez is a Digital Marketing Consultant and a certified Google Partner. He helps small businesses and corporations grow their revenue online. He does this by mixing passion, innovation, & expertise.