The first thing most eCommerce companies did in February of 2020 was to smash their crystal balls and toss out demand forecasts because the world was shaping up to be like nothing we’ve seen before. That uncertainty still exists, but we can now turn to it to see patterns and set some expectations for 2021. But keep the grains of salt ready because no one is quite sure what the year will shape up to be.

To offer what help we can, we’ve put together a list of seven predictions for 2021 eCommerce and what it means for large and small brands. These are based on elements that should strengthen your store and limit disruption while building better customer relationships. The economy and your customers are still changing, so let’s look at what the driving forces of change have taught us.

1. Greater social integration

eCommerce marketing tends to follow broader sales and social trends, prioritizing ease of access for its innovation. For instance, Instagram’s shoppable posts and stories allowed users to check out almost immediately and were a considerable success. They led to a Shops program that arrived during the COVID crisis. These tools have helped companies increase their general eCommerce capabilities and capture more interest from a captive audience.

Other social channels also made inroads as 2020 ended. Shopify’s partnership with TikTok is one move that’s gaining attention from brands and consumers because ads can arrive in a user’s feed and are styled like the other content they consume.

We expect this trend to continue as users remain home through 2021, and many social media increases of the past year solidify into more permanent habits. Mobile was a common way that engagement increased, and TikTok’s mobile focus made it a place to watch for social eCommerce. Companies will want to observe which channels their audience use but should expect to shift some of their more traditional ad spending to social shopping and new integrations between sales channels and social apps.

2. Customers want you to get out of the way

A feature of the 2020 landscape was a sharp rise in digital self-service tools. Human-powered chatbots and phone service tools also increased because of the need to stay remote. The average consumer liked these options before, but now more than  75% of buyers say they prefer them, according to McKinsey.

That same research highlights the preference extends to B2B and B2C customers, and only 20% of B2B shoppers want to return to in-person sales. That cuts against many practices in the space and demonstrates that you’ll need to do relationship building on websites and through content. Interactions are digital now, and customer preferences are going to keep it that way.

The eCommerce takeaway is that you need to provide pathways for customers to shop and explore, getting the information they need to make a purchase decision with minimal interruption. The sales journey is now self-directed, so most touchpoints for human interaction should be driven by customers. Clicking to call or access a chatbot, tweeting for service, or being able to schedule a video conference/demo should be in their hands.

Digging into the report shows that buyers and sellers expect these patterns to stick through at least 2021, giving you plenty of opportunities to test and optimize the efforts that your customers prefer. 

3. Niche markets become a bigger play

In 2020, the eCommerce boom initially played right into the hands of the largest digital marketplaces around. For example, Amazon posted its largest-ever profits and likely will blow that number out of the water again.

However, Amazon’s profits, and those of its founder and CEO, have spurred some conversation about how consumers should spend their money. The company’s treatment of workers, delays, and closer looks at its business practices are causing small communities to look elsewhere. Bookstores have become one area where people are shifting their dollars, and niche markets that avoid the behemoths may be more enticing for consumers who want to give back to their local community and smaller businesses.

We’ve seen it in the marketing and sales for smaller eCommerce companies and even in some B2B circles. There’s a desire to look local and focus smaller. For the seller, having a presence on this smaller scale also provides greater flexibility for responding to consumer demands. It can open significant doors, especially if you let your audience drive the conservation.

What eCommerce companies should watch in 2021 is how well their competitors can capture niche areas and what can or can’t be mimicked. For example, the Capitol Hill Books bookstore in Washington D.C. tried to mirror some competitor’s exclusivity offers for shopping, but it had mixed success. Then, a single email from a customer turned into one of its most successful sales tools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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4. Voice will prioritize better buying

Voice interactions on devices with and without screens are significantly increasing thanks to personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa. You’ve likely seen voice search and buying as a trend to watch for a few years, and we would agree that the space has been expanding in exciting ways for eCommerce.

However, 2020 showed us that it is a potential powerhouse for eCommerce because people feel comfortable buying via voice. The industry went from expecting this trend to seeing 43% of smart speaker owners in the U.S. using the technology to make a purchase. That’s roughly 17 million Americans.

For eCommerce, this means ensuring that your content works on smart speakers. Make this a review process for everything you do, from search ads and capabilities to your website and even emails and offers you send. When you’re simpler and easier to understand, you’re a better candidate for sales.

Many smaller eCommerce brands don’t realize these search tools often rely on Bing for search queries. That should guide marketing and site development efforts, at least in part. It’ll create additional work and emphasis but ensuring that your content is correct on Bing may help you land some additional eCommerce sales. 

5. Dynamic pricing will see a thorough test of data

Dynamic pricing saw an increase during the pandemic, and it is expected to continue according to companies with data on it, like 3dcart. That comes with a lot of potential for revenue and customer satisfaction. At the same time, there’s a significant risk if customers perceive you as price-gouging or experience large price increases during their buyer’s journey.

In 2021, eCommerce brands are expected to perform more competitor research, informing prices and likely yield changes throughout the year. The ability to capture this data and more consumer information will make it easier to develop “price intelligence,” allowing businesses to maximize revenue while minimizing threats and cannibalization.

Supply and demand will continue to be in flux. That creates an opportunity to test new dynamic pricing models and methodologies, and makers of pricing intelligence products are likely to start offering more data and tools. Retailers will need to prioritize metric tracking and forecasts, including how competitors adjust promotions that might push something below an advertised price.

Customers are doing dynamic pricing work, too. Browser extensions — such as Honey, Amazon Assistant, and Invisible Hand — to check prices across sites, apply coupons, and even track your pricing over time. The data available to consumer tools will inform their shopping and ultimate vendor selection.

If you plan on adjusting pricing often, realize that your 2021 customers will likely learn what you’re doing and may reward or punish you depending on how good of a deal you offer versus if they feel you’re getting too greedy.

6. Customers will want more shipping information and touches

As a provider of eCommerce fulfillment services specializing in large, heavy, or bulky items, we at Red Stag Fulfillment track a variety of consumer and company requests around shipping and fulfillment. 

Starting with 2019 data, eCommerce brands saw increases in customers wanting more options and information on their shipping capabilities. Customers wanted to see different pricing and speed selections during the checkout process, plus estimates while shopping. Integration with cart tools allowed many to estimate price and still note that final selections rely on shopper ZIP codes.

Transparency was the key for starting 2020. Then, the market experienced some of the biggest disruptions to fulfillment in recent memory. Local and regional sales were less likely to be impacted, but we still saw increases in demand for information around availability, speeds, reliability, and processing times. Your customers are becoming savvy about all aspects of fulfillment and will be asking deeper questions than before.

eCommerce brands are going to want to learn how they can provide information and automate these steps while also offering free and fast options. Beyond broad categories, they’re also asking about your specific industry elements. Luxury goods and fragile products have customers demanding a better unboxing experience that includes branded shipping and inserts. If you’re targeting health- and planet-conscious customers, be ready to answer questions about your sustainability in shipping.

Free shipping is no longer the only thing brands will need if they want to be seen as innovative and offering the most compelling fulfillment options.

7. Quick decision-making may be a permanent feature

The customer’s decision-making process drives the other factors we’ve looked at for 2021. Consumers are becoming more informed and expect you to deliver various information and options while also meeting them where they want to shop and play. When they decide that your store is where they’ll spend, shopping needs to be easy and efficient while picking the products, shipping, and getting other details they want. 

Your customers are in the driver’s seat. That also means they’re free to change lanes at any given moment, and the boom in eCommerce options only makes that easier. A break in the sales journey might not be something they work through on their own. eCommerce companies will need to manage expectations and repeatedly test to ensure everything is working and data on refunds, returns, shipping, sales, and more are always available.

While customers have been very forgiving after making a purchase in 2020, it’s unclear if they will be forgiving before making a purchase in 2021. Your mission is to help them while not getting the way and supporting an easier buying experience. When they’ve decided to purchase from you, speed it along and don’t give them a chance to change their mind.

Prepare for more changes

As a result of the pandemic, trends in eCommerce advanced at an incredibly fast rate in 2020. And it’s likely that the changes we listed here will continue to solidify as necessities throughout 2021. Be prepared to jump on them now and make the necessary changes to keep your eCommerce business competitive. There’s less of an opportunity to wait and if you aren’t at least considering adapting to a handful of these trends, you’ll soon find yourself struggling to keep up.

Jake RheudeJake Rheude

Jake Rheude is the director of marketing for Red Stag Fulfillment, an ecommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of ecommerce. He has years of experience in ecommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.