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The future of commerce will be the human touch

(Image credit: Image Credit: Snowing / Freepik)

The eCommerce landscape is constantly changing; technology is advancing rapidly, consumers are becoming increasingly demanding and one company seems to be setting the pace in online retail. This is putting a huge amount of pressure on brands and retailers getting caught up in the struggle to stand out from the crowd and offer something different.

As consumers increasingly flock online – 55 per cent of UK consumers are shopping more online this year compared to 2017 (opens in new tab) – it’s vital online retailers don’t lose the human touch that forms the very backbone of high street shopping. Online shoppers may not be able to touch, smell or physically interact with products like they would in-store, so brands and retailers must find other ways to engage consumers on a website.

This is far from impossible. Bringing emotion and empathy to the online experience will be the defining characteristic of a successful eCommerce retailer.

Crafting an experience

Most businesses live and die by their balance sheet, with sales and revenue a key determinate for many retailers. A customer browsing but not purchasing is counted as unsuccessful. But this shouldn’t be the key metric by which a retailer is ultimately judged. Far too much focus is put on financial ROI, rather than on what the customer feels and experiences when visiting a retail site.

Too often, online retailers see the eCommerce system as a function, rather than an experience; another bolt-on or channel through which to purchase.

However, by creating a digital customer journey that generates emotion and empathy it keeps consumers engaged, builds rapport with the brand and ultimately makes them more loyal. 83 per cent of consumers think physical stores are important (opens in new tab), but this doesn’t mean that an online retailer cannot create the same, or perhaps even a better, shopping experience.

As it stands, two in five people (43 per cent) say they’re more likely to make an unexpected purchase online (opens in new tab) than in-store – an exciting revelation for the eCommerce industry and one that shows consumers have a desire for interaction and elements of surprise. Retailers need to deliver powerful experiences by understanding their customers human nature; their wants, desires and emotional drive, to be able to really get them and essentially pre-empt their purchases; this is where digital empathy comes into play.

Emotions and data

There is a collective belief in using data to intervene and support digital tactics. It’s in our nature to try to understand what happens on an online store through data and surely there is value in it. However, data tells only that which is perceptible therefore presenting commerce as a chain of events; linearly and causally, simplifying it.

With a third (33 per cent) of UK consumers (opens in new tab) looking to brands for inspiration when shopping online, surely using data can contribute to predict a buyer’s next move. But, it must not be a retailer’s sole decision driver. Even though data can detect and predict trends on both products and user behaviour to identify opportunities, brands that successfully deliver irresistible products in unique ways, distinguish from other brands not because of the data they process but because of the way they think of their goods and their services. Seeing them as something that can be loved, not because of what they are, nor for what they do, but because of the way they make people feel besides a function that of course they must master.

Data mustn’t quell creativity and ideas but stimulate and inspire them. It must be used to form a connection with the consumer; people first and data second. What’s important is not the what but the how, not the features or the tools, but the way they’re felt, the way they connect with people, the form beyond than the function.

Make search centre stage

The search function on a website has become a vital part of creating experiences, and we’ve witnessed its evolution in recent years, growing from a small, hidden magnifying glass to a key feature that´s not only bigger but much more prominent. In fact, consumers say it’s now the third most important aspect of an online store (opens in new tab).

Search´s main purpose is no longer to solely find something specific, but to give consumers inspiration. It is simultaneously a discovery tool and an experience generator. It’s also become the conversation between the brand and their customer, replacing the physical shop assistant who knows your size, tastes and preferences.

As brands offer more and more products, the search function must increasingly become the glue, connecting the buyer’s wants to what the store has to offer. As the online retail industry continues to grow, the search function will become the crucial discovery tool for all brands. A tool that not only understands but predicts individual customers’ needs, wants and intentions to generate emotion and engagement, and – ultimately – of course, boost sales.

Deploying AI in the right way

Part of what’s driving the search function to new heights – and other aspects of retail technology, including insight, analytics and even in-store capabilities – is the use of Machine Learning for signal processing and all related forms of Artificial Intelligence. Many people are declaring that AI is the future, not least of all in retail, but they are missing a key point and ignoring the fundamental aspect that makes irresistible products; creativity.

After all, AI is not what we think of it, but what people see of it. The future of AI is in design, aesthetics and beauty, evolving from a basic, functional role of scoring models (at least in search functions) into a panache of aesthetics and perceptible experiences. AI will eventually move beyond the data sorting and into the infinite possibilities of the presentation of the data (as mentioned above).

Don’t lose sight of what matters

In a golden age of eCommerce – one where consumers have more choice about what they buy and how they buy it – brands and retailers have a great opportunity to make a genuine connection with their customers. It’s all well and good having the latest technology in place and data to play with, but using this intelligently is what will define retail success now and in the future.

The real winners will be those who see shoppers as subjects and not objects, who can create a journey that resonates with the customer by exciting and delighting them. Financial ROI must pave the way for a new kind of ROI, one that is measured in experience; as soon as retailers lose sight of the experience, they lose sight of the customer. As soon as that happens, customers will look elsewhere and retailers will soon realise they’ve lost sight of their profits.

The human touch is everything.

Angel Maldonado, Founder, EmpathyBroker (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Snowing / Freepik

Founder of EmpathyBroker, Angel has spent the last 17 years passionately developing and executing eCommerce search and navigation solutions.