Is online ‘e-tailing’ missing the human touch?

Last year the IMRG reported that UK consumers spent a huge £133 billion online – £18 billion more than 2015; growth that is in part fuelled by the 47% year-on-year increase in sales made on smartphones. With figures set to record a further 14% growth for 2017 it’s clear that the retail industry is dealing with a new kind of customer.

As online, mobile-first shopping habits continue to rise, online retailers occupy a unique position in the market – with consumer convenience on their side, etailers have the opportunity to control an even bigger portion of it.

However, despite these significant sales figures and this commanding position, online retail still only represents just over a third of total UK retail revenues. So, what’s holding them back?

In 2015 Brightcove conducted research with 2,000 UK consumers to unveil their online shopping habits, preferences and – more importantly – wants. The findings revealed that despite the convenience online shopping offers, consumers still value ‘real life’ experiences and miss the ability to touch and feel products.

So, two years on, have things changed? Is ‘e-tailing’ still missing the human touch? And, if so, how can new technologies help bridge the gap between on- and offline shopping experiences?

In-store appeal

Looking at the results from this year’s study – ‘When Worlds Collide: The Future of Online Shopping– it is clear that this online/offline gap still exists for UK retailers, with consumers continuing to pine for the tactile, hands-on experience of bricks-and-mortar retailing.

consumers continue to pine for the tactile, hands-on experience

Our 2017 data showed that two thirds of consumers still miss the ability to try on (66%), touch and feel (64%) the products they are buying, over a third (36%) miss the ease of returning items, and around two in ten (17%) say online shopping lacks the advice of sales assistants.

Until online retailers are able to replicate or at least embrace some of these aspects of the offline retail experience, consumers will only ever hover over the ‘Buy Now’ button.

So what can e-tailers be doing to bring more of the in-store experience online?

Bringing the offline experience online

Our research revealed three key areas in which online retailers could be capitalising on aspects of the offline experience:

Bring products to life

The first step to achieving this is to virtualise your product offering – bringing the items consumers browse to life in a way that leaves them feeling confident in the purchase they’re about to make. Of the consumers we surveyed, 43% called for more visual content – i.e. images, videos, live-streamed content or branded TV – to help improve their online shopping experience. Coupled with the fact that 53% also acknowledge that video, images and multimedia content encourages them to purchase products online, the case for retailers to up the video ante is clear.

Personalise in order to monetise

38% of consumers voiced a desire for brands to get more personal. In this regard specific or bespoke offers, personalised shopping experiences, and targeted videos that make online shopping an individual, rather than mass-marketed, experience would all win over potential customers.

Make shopping simple

It seems a given, but online shopping must be easy – after all, it’s the comparative convenience that’s brought browsers online (from the comfort of their own home) in the first place. Despite this however, almost four in ten (37%) are still looking for easier navigation online, and a further 22% for easier payment options. If you’re going to opt for interactive elements, like video, to simplify the online shopping experience it must be seamlessly integrated so not to complicate the path to purchase. Making videos shoppable so browsers can click through to their basket or buy an item within the video itself is a great example of this. 

Great next-gen expectations

It’s one thing to understand what today’s shopper wants, but another thing entirely to predict the needs and expectations of tomorrow’s. As early as 2020, our survey revealed that UK consumers – especially younger generations – are expecting a very different online shopping experience.

Not only will high quality visual and video content play an even more important role for the ‘millennial’ browser, but a whole host of new improvements and innovations are on the cards.

Within the next five years, Generation Z – represented in our survey by those aged between 18-24 from the UK – are expecting:

  • Instant gratification – almost three in five (56%) want instant delivery
  • Personalised fashion advice – three in ten (31%) want personalised style suggestions
  • Virtual retail experiences – 32% want to see virtual dressing rooms that can be shared with friends online, over a quarter (28%) want to shop in online ‘eMalls’, and a fifth (18%) want virtual customer service assistants

Sound a little farfetched? In fact, technology innovations are already helping etailers innovate and pave the way to achieving some of these next-gen experiences – and, in doing so, close in even more on their offline competitors.

technology innovations are already helping etailers innovate

For example, Amazon’s Prime Wardrobe service is already making it easy for shoppers to try on and return fashion items for free, with no upfront cost. It’s Amazon Echo Look technology is also set to see Alexa step in as a consumer’s very own stylist, helping them choose outfits by taking photos, and making recommendations by comparing them with the latest fashion trends.

The retailer Gap has also been trialling an augmented reality app, known as DressingRoom, which gives users a more ‘real’ sense of the clothing item they wish to buy, using a 3D mannequin to model the garment.

The time to future proof is now

We all knew the shoppers of the future would be more demanding. But now we know by exactly how much, the time for brands to prepare for this new etailing era is now.

In order to gain and retain the custom of future generations of shoppers, online retailers must innovate to embody the best of both the on- and offline shopping worlds.

Video is certainly one of the first stepping-stones to achieving the virtual environment consumers are growing to expect and will remain at the heart of creating successful online shopping experiences in future.

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