Ecommerce Transformations Driven by the Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic certainly is one of the biggest events in the history of human-kind. While the whole world is going through unprecedented changes and people are adapting to the new normal, it’s worth pondering how fortunate we are witnessing this pandemic having achieved some basic level of digitalization. Just imagine how bad the situation would have been if there was no cross-border modernization of the food supply chain. The situation would have been so worse that the human race would have had more fatalities due to hunger than the pandemic itself. Of course, I am talking about the advanced economies of the world while acknowledging that a good chunk of the world is still reeling with basic issues such as education, healthcare, and internet connectivity.

The pandemic has opened up pandora’s box for businesses of all kinds. The situation certainly looks grim from the outside, but I think there is an opportunity presenting itself - the digital factor! Traditional businesses with no digital touchpoint with their customers have clearly lost the battle and this pandemic might be that flashpoint where they start giving due consideration to digital transformations that can make their businesses fool proof in future.

Literally every industry sector has had an impact in some way or the other. Retail dominates the limelight because of its proximity with customers and touchpoints offered. Social distancing or more precisely physical distancing will be the way of life, digital channels are the way to go for customers and we already see an upward trend in this regard. While customers are increasingly embracing digital channels, it does not imply they will take anything at face value. Customers will need to be intrigued by incorporating a human experience factor in the digital channel to minimize the gap between in store and digital experience and there cannot be a better time than this for businesses to roll up their sleeves and get on the job.

Before going into different ways businesses can enable human experience factor into their digital channels, it’s important to understand the key in-store customer activity, how the human factor comes into play through store reps, and in contrast how the online experience can evolve to induce a degree of human factor,

  1. Product Discovery:
    This is the starting point of a shopping journey where customers require the most support from the front-line reps to know where to look out for products they are looking for. Store reps play a key role in helping navigate the customers to the appropriate area of the store by accompanying them physically or guiding them through some store navigation applications. In contrast, an online experience can present real challenges for customers in finding products and this is where a human assistive factor can come into play to help the customer in finding the products they are looking for.
  2. Product Suitability:
    This varies, depending on your business, most prevalent in the fashion accessories segment where customers use trial rooms to try out products and make decisions. This is one of the key aspects of in store shopping experience which is critical from a conversion perspective. Eventually customers will come to expect they get the trial room experience online in some form, so they make informed buying decisions even while shopping online.
  3. Checkout:
    In store checkout experiences are pretty streamlined in the sense that the checkout reps usually support the customers in enabling tasks like - applying membership discounts, promotions, and making the payment process as seamless as possible. In contrast, the online checkout experience requires customers to do some extra work to complete the checkout - things like entering the card details, entering the membership details to avail any discounts, shipping addresses etc. most likely vulnerable areas necessitating a human support when customers get stuck.
  4. Product Returns:
    Another common human interaction involved in an in-store experience is when customers need to initiate product returns. Customer service reps complete the returns and initiate the refund process. In contrast, the online returns process is usually convoluted requiring a human touch.

Technology Bridging the Gap
There is no dearth of technology solutions, businesses need to be prepared to enable it. Lot of disruptive innovations have happened in the area of enabling human experience in the digital world and it is continuously evolving by day. AI combined with AR/VR and smart phones have given a new shape to entire humanoid experiences with potential to be scaled for any industry use case.

Talking contextually about the use cases for the ecommerce industry, businesses can leverage the potential of AI, AR/VR and smartphone capabilities to render a certain level of human experience. For example:

  • Virtual Assistants: Varying degrees of virtual assistants exist, advanced ones provide a real interactive experience on screen leveraging AR/VR technologies and machine learning. These virtual assistants can support the customers throughout their shopping journeys in finding products, recommend them best products, what’s on offer, checkout etc. all leveraging the power of AI. Virtual assistants can become a holistic support system for customers in every stage of the digital shopping journey.
  • Virtual Trials: Are a great way to support customer’s product trials, again AR/VR tech has gained a lot of ground in this space. We already see this in working in the fashion industry where customers can try on apparels through 3D body mapping and customers can visualize themselves with products. However, these solutions are never restrictive.

Not simple as it sounds, adopting these technologies requires insights, investment and human resources to make it more human like. There are also several challenges from an implementation perspective, most prominent ones include:

  1. These technologies continuously evolve over time with data. There can be inconsistency issues during initial stages but as data gets aggregated over time, it’ll start showing results.
  2. Enabling the usage of these technologies can be a real challenge unless there are defined intuitive guidelines.
  3. Currently there are no standard regulations to govern the usage.

The covid-19 pandemic has opened up a new era of digital transformation. It’s a matter of time before businesses will be coerced to re-strategize their initiatives and keep the human experience factor on top of the agenda.