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Brands are all-in on digital commerce - but are they getting commerce experiences right?

Barb Mosher Zinck Profile picture for user barb.mosher June 19, 2020
If brands weren't planning on big digital commerce investments in January, they are now. But are they ready for the commerce experiences consumers and businesses expect? A recent study raises questions.

Hands holding a sheet with question mark in front of closed doors and stormy clouds © StunningArt - shutterstock

If you asked brands at the beginning of this year where they were focusing their budgets, most would have said it was pretty closely split between digital and offline channels.

But things are a little different now (thank you COVID-19), and it looks like they are not going back to the way they were. With digital now the primary touchpoint for consumers, how will brands adapt?

Shifting more budget to digital

Bloomreach commissioned Forrester Research to evaluate the state of digital commerce through a set of surveys with B2C and B2B consumers, as well as e-commerce brand decision-makers in early March. Many of those surveyed were then re-contacted in April to see how the pandemic would impact their original plans. 

The results are presented in the State of Commerce Experience, and what’s become very clear is that both B2C and B2B brands need to shift much of their focus and budget to the digital experience. According to the report, over half of consumers surveyed are buying things online they never bought before, and 70% are purchasing more than usual.

That’s not a surprising finding considering many stores are closed, and a lot of people don’t want to go into a store anyway (at least not at the time the surveys were done). What is essential for brands to remember, though, is that just because consumers are in a situation where they have to buy a lot of their non-discretionary items online doesn’t mean they won’t be particular about where they buy them.

Experience still matters

Maybe you think it’s strange that consumers expect just as good a shopping experience buying toilet paper or cereal, as they do a major purchase like a television or a computer. But it’s true - experience matters. And this report shows that consumers will pay for a better experience (40% of B2C and 56% of B2B according to the research).

The problem is, the experience is still lacking for many brands, even for basic things like navigation, search, and product information. Something needs to change, and brands are acknowledging that they need to put more time and effort into their digital commerce experiences. 

From the report:

This will be the new normal for at least the next year and possibly longer.

What does poor experience do? Well, it drives consumers to a competitor. In this study, almost 80% of consumers abandoned purchases due to bad customer experience. The brands surveyed said that poor experiences drive down NPS (net promoter score), lower the number of visitors to the site, and result in lost revenue for the company. They get it. But what are they doing to fix the problems?

Personalize if you can, but get the basics right

Fourteen percent of consumers indicated that their online experience was completely personalized to them. That’s a small number, but in my opinion, it is not the most important thing brands should be thinking about. You have to nail the basics of e-commerce before you can start thinking about personalization.

We all know that consumers - both B2C and B2B spend a lot of time online researching products, so you have to wonder why 72% are facing challenges like this still:

  • Finding answers to questions
  • Inaccurate search results
  • Poor/missing imagery
  • Lack of reviews or ratings

Added to these challenges, out of stock and inflexible delivery options make shopping more frustrating.

I have to throw these numbers at you now because I find them a little confusing. The survey in March asked brands what capabilities are part of their commerce strategy. Here are the options they gave and the results:

  • Auto-fill search boxes (57%)
  • Refine search (price, brand, style) 52%
  • Easy website navigation (49%)
  • Rich, detailed product information (32%)
  • Product availability (48%)

I find those numbers low, especially the detailed product information. If consumers are spending a lot of their time online researching products, then it would it not make sense that brands provide a lot of product information? Rich product data should be a given, and it’s not hard to do, even if the products are sold on third-party marketplaces. All of these things are basic features commerce experiences must provide. 

Maybe technology will help. The report states that 64% are increasing their investments in ecommerce experience technology and platforms with the top technologies being AI (40%), advanced search (38%), and mobile apps (38%). 

Reactive mode is not where brands want to be

Growing revenue is always going to be the top priority for e-commerce brands. But what this report found is that the other top goals have changed since the pandemic hit, and while they are important things, they have pushed brands into a reactive mode that isn’t necessarily good for digital experiences.

Pre-COVID, the top focuses included improving customer experiences, customer retention, and products/services. Now the priorities are team productivity, responding faster to changes, and improving the use of data insights in decision-making. Now those things are essential and must be addressed, but not at the expense of customer experience.

My take

For me, the biggest takeaway from this report is that brands were caught out big-time when COVID-19 hit. Digital commerce was always important, but it was never “the only” way to purchase. So I think brands that provided both an online and offline shopping experience had strategies and roadmaps that didn’t have the urgency required. 

It’s true, there was no way of knowing something like this was going to happen, and there is no way of knowing if or when it will happen again, but I think it shows that we don’t think of digital with the urgency that we should. 

You can say this is becoming our “new normal.” But remember that once you do that, you may become complacent, focusing only on how to make things better now. Successful brands are always looking to the future, innovating, and trying new things that improve digital experiences. 

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