State-of-the-art digital commerce already looks very different from a decade ago. But how will the sector develop in the years ahead? Here, we highlight three company examples that, in their different ways, show how the next wave of e-commerce will be all about creating compelling product experiences.
L’Oréal Paris: making brand values count
One of the risks with employing new technologies is that consumers will be interested first and foremost in the technology, in its sheer novelty value, and then quickly move on. In contrast, successful experiential retail initiatives draw consumers in. They help to encourage consumers to engage and interact with a brand or retailer.
Signature Faces1 from luxury brand L’Oréal Paris is an example of how to get this right. Billed as “the first digital makeup line”, it’s a virtual range of augmented reality (AR) filters designed to be ‘worn’ online. This in itself is a reflection of the way we live now, a world of online meetings and socializing via smartphones.
This could easily be dismissed as precisely the kind of novelty we’ve warned against, except that L’Oréal’s website also has a Virtual Try On feature2. Here, consumers can upload a selfie and try out different products.
What links both these ways of reaching out to consumers, and reveals L’Oréal’s underlying strategy, is that they take the best features of the makeup counter, a sense of semi-frivolous fun and the opportunity to try products, into the digital world. Perhaps without even realizing this, consumers are engaged by an experience that’s new and different, and yet also reassuringly familiar and genuinely useful for those who haven’t the time to visit a store.
In this way, L’Oréal also takes brand values established in the real world into the digital realm.
Amazon: livestreaming and retail as entertainment
The idea of retail as theatre has deep roots. The patter of market stall holder is supposed to make you turn your head. Since the Victorian era, retailers have used Christmas window displays to attract customers.3 IKEA’s stores are designed not to be friction free, but to demand that shoppers get immersed in an IKEA world, seeing different ‘rooms’ and products as they slowly wend their way to the checkout.4
Seen in this light, the rise of livestreaming is, while certainly a new phenomenon, also a variation on an old theme, the idea of retail as entertainment – sometimes dubbed ‘retailtainment’.
In Asia especially, a development heralded by the launch of Alibaba’s Taobao Live in May 2016, it’s now commonplace for consumers to watch and shop at the same time, its in this hyper-competitive environment, the most successful influencers able to attract huge audiences. Chinese sales via livestreaming are expected to reach $423bn by 2022.5 With consumers able to click to buy products and participate via chat, this is 21st-century retail tailored to the age of mobile and social media channels.
So bad news for established retailers? Not necessarily. Amazon’s roots lie in the catalogue shopping, desktop PC era of e-commerce, but it has consistently embraced new developments. Launched in February 2019, Amazon Live enables the global retail behemoth to compete both with livestreaming and with home-shopping TV channels too.
The demographic may often be older than those using TikTok, Twitch and Instagram, but Amazon’s sheer reach is making Live an attractive proposition, notably for international brands launching new products.6 In short, Amazon is using Live to leverage its size and reach.
Pangaia: a glimpse of the future of e-commerce?
Eco-clothing company Pangaia describes its approach as one of “high-tech naturalism”. By this, it means it combines work at the cutting edge of materials science with an ethos that emphasises sustainability.7 The company’s name combines Pan, meaning all-inclusive, and Gaia, James Lovelock’s idea of the Earth as a single system.8
One of its most recent launches revolved around FLWRDWN, a proprietary replacement for goose and duck down insulation. This is created from a high-tech formula using wildflower agricultural waste mixed with a biopolymer 9 and infused with aerogel.10
But how do you sell such a product? On the one hand, you can point out it’s a high-performance material for puffer jackets, but this seems inadequate for such a revolutionary product. The other risk is of over-complicating the marketing, emphasizing science and sustainability over selling the jackets as chic and fashionable.
In 2020, Pangaia offered a glimpse of a way to resolve the tensions here. Working with London College of Fashion’s Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA)11 and virtual immersive e-commerce specialists, AnamXR12, the company unveiled a virtual and immersive Antarctic environment that shows off the FLWRDWN range against an icy backdrop. Rather than telling consumers the material is efficient, this created a visual (and emotional) cue that FLWRDWN is warm even in the coldest of climes.13
It was an approach that combined 3D modelling, video and, arguably most importantly, storytelling. It’s also an example of how techniques used in gaming are coming to e-commerce, just one of a number of such gamification initiatives from the fashion sector that show how digital retail will evolve in the years ahead.
How do brands and retailers take their first steps to next-generation digital commerce success?
To craft the kinds of product experiences we have described here, businesses not only need to a clear understanding of brand values and of how the company is perceived in the market but need technologies that support the creation of these experiences. And of course, businesses need to offer innovative products and experiences.
But this is not enough in itself. Brands and retailers need to tell customers about their products, and to do this consistently across different channels. A Product Information Management (PIM) system can help here because it enables businesses to take better control of product data, helping to underpin and drive customer experiences.