Ecommerce: how brands are moving beyond sales

StrategyFebruary 18th, 2021

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In a sea of online marketplaces, Associate Experience Design Director Jade Fitzgerald looks at how brands are trying to persuade shoppers onto their home turf.

2020 brought a vast array of challenges. At the same time, it taught us how to adapt, survive and even flourish in the unknown. Retail and ecommerce are no different: with everybody locked in their homes for almost a year, where we shop, when we shop, how we shop and why we shop has changed. Consumers and the way we consume has changed, and brands have to do the same to remain relevant and useful.

Ecommerce is already split into several verticals, with the spectrum spanning from the hyper-personalised like Stitch Fix, whose stylists hand-select clothing tailored to your own tastes, through to mass consumerism with the likes of marketplace Alibaba, which connects exporters with companies and consumers. Since the pandemic struck, e-commerce has been pushed deeper into virtual marketplaces, with companies such as Amazon and Deliveroo dominating quick consumerism. Fashion is also falling into this marketplace genre; Boohoo’s recent strategic purchase of Debenhams for £55m is part of the clothing company’s ambition to create the UK's largest marketplace, according to executive chairman Mahmud Kamani. “It represents a huge step which accelerates our ambition to be a leader, not just in fashion ecommerce, but in new categories including beauty, sport and homeware," he said.

In these marketplaces, goods are becoming increasingly brandless as price and speed dominate. Businesses that don’t want to be drawn into this race need, as some have already started to recognise, that they need to appeal directly to their consumers and draw them back to their home turf.

Connection above commerce

But how do you do that? Well, what is the one thing that we thought was a given but is now a luxury? No, it’s not toilet paper - it’s human connection. The last year has led us to take human connection and human interaction anything but for granted; we’re craving personal experiences and this is something that brands hope to recreate online. 

Underwear brand Knix understands its buyers and markets its products to satisfy real needs. It addresses taboo times of life: post-partum, period; normal scenarios that women face but don’t often address out loud, but whom Knix want to live ‘unapologetically free’. The brand uses women of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities as their models. When Covid struck, they were quick off the mark to continue the ‘personal shopper’ experience by redistributing their store assistants to become online Knixperts providing personal shopper experiences with virtual fitting rooms, where you have a one-to-one video conference with the expert and walk through how to measure a bra correctly. Not only do these actions talk directly to the consumer, but it also shows how well they have identified their audience. This is supported by an active blog where they are able to build a human connection with their customers, through features of real people and their relatable scenarios. 

Department store brand John Lewis has pushed its partnership narrative with strong content that encourages customer interaction. It offers interactive Virtual Appointments, available for different departments, which allow customers to maintain a natural human connection with sales assistants, akin to having a query whilst browsing in-store. Nursery experts man the ‘All Things Baby’ advice service, helping customers to navigate information on products and answer questions, while the store’s guides and events offer valued content for customers, from decorating inspiration to attending virtual Wellness events. Meanwhile, home improvement brand B&Q is offering tutorials online so customers can get the best use of products they buy. 

Other brands are increasing a sense of interaction online, something shoppers have lost through the pause in physical retail. Bag and accessory brand Coach recently launched an Exploratorium to mark a collaboration with Disney + Keith Haring. This experience allows a shopper to ‘walk through’ a virtual store space and interact with products, whilst exploring creative elements.

Who’s buying? 

Millennials and Gen-Z are now the largest e-commerce consumers. They have increased social media shopping by 95 per cent since 20171. This is supported by Instagram, which has introduced a shopping button in prime position on their app, signalling their step towards Live Commerce, following the rise of D2C marketing through goods such as affordable mattresses and trending cosmetics. But it’s not just cheap razor subscriptions, like Dollar Shave Club that are dominating this market now; premium brands are gaining their share, with customers looking for superior products and better shopping experiences. In 2016, marketplace Alibaba started using Live Commerce, the marriage of live streaming and e-commerce, and it is already an industry with an estimated worth of $170bn2 in China; partnerships are now forming between e-commerce platforms and players such as YouTube to bring Live Commerce forward in the market.

A second trend that millennials and Gen-Z are pushing forward is ethical consumerism as they look for brands with purpose, such as fashion brand Patagonia or toilet paper brand Give a Crap. Strong community ties, a sustainable business or a focus on diversity and inclusion all  separate brands from their competitors with a story that appeals directly to each consumer’s conscience. 

Consumers are making a conscious decision to follow brands that have built themselves with a conscience at the forefront. But they don’t want to abandon their favourite brands entirely, so will look for a narrative that shows those companies are making their best efforts to behave responsibly. With 88 per cent of shoppers wanting brands to help them live sustainably, the drive to transparent sourcing of materials is exciting for those who want to know that product lines align with their personal values. 

One way of addressing both conscious buying and live commerce is to focus on rapid research to get up-to-date consumer data. If brands don’t understand their buyers’ current situation and react to it effectively, they will not be able to attract their business. At Beyond, we collaborated with furniture company west elm to conduct rapid research and help them re-imagine the online visual shopping experience to increase conversions, working to make online as emotionally fulfilling as the in-store, catalogue and social experience. 

High end clothing brand Net-a-Porter, for example, listened to their shoppers and whilst their white shopping bags with ribbons are symbolic of the brand, the eco-conscious are given a choice to have their goods delivered in environmentally-friendly packaging. Unilever has made a pledge to make ecommerce less impactful to the environment at both packaging and product level, with their seventh generation product Early Dose Ultra Concentrated Laundry Detergent to be sold exclusively on ecommerce as it is made with 60 per cent less plastic, 50 per cent less water and weighs 75 per cent less than their standard detergents.

There are many things that brands should address to help them better support their customers, including streamlining the online journey, but if brands don’t humanise the buying experience, they will be left subject to a battle in a faceless marketplace.

Read more about our ecommerce work in Transforming Just Eat’s future vision and strategy