This is the time of year when industry pundits like to predict what the coming 12 months will look like. Given the pace of change in the ecommerce sector, I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to take stock, look at emerging trends, and offer insights into where we see the industry is going.
I offer you two trends to consider:
2019 will be the year of guided commerce
Since the dawn of ecommerce, retailers left it to the consumer to figure out which products were right for them. They provided a search function, a product image and details (often taken verbatim from the manufacturer) and called it a day. It was up to the consumer to slice and dice the catalog to arrive at a decision. True, some offered live chat assistants to help consumers make decisions, but mostly they followed pre-written scripts, and lacked the detailed knowledge to help a visitor select, say, the best television for a new home theater system.
That’s changing, and it’s changing quickly. Guided selling started gaining traction in 2018, particularly in the Health & Wellness sector and is quickly spreading across the web. Today, all major brands — KitchenAid, Whirlpool, Honda, Trek — as well as digitally native brands offer guided selling to consumers.
Guided selling takes multiple forms: quiz-based personality testing, questionnaires, chatbots that walk consumers through a decisioning tree, and so on. Regardless of the format, the goal is always the same, which is to help the customer find a product that is right for him or her.
This is a fascinating trend for a few reasons. First, it’s super smart. Let’s go back to the consumer who is looking to purchase a new television. The decisions she will need to make are endless. LED or OLED? HDMI or DisplayPort? DVI or VGA? It’s enough to make one’s eyes spin. All the consumer really wants to know is: which TV will work best in the space I intend to use it? Guided selling done well will ask questions the average consumer can understand, such as, will this be your main television for a home theater, or an ancillary screen in a smaller room? How much daylight does the room get? It can then lead the customer to a product that’s optimized to her needs and context.
Another reason why guided selling fascinates me is that it allows the retailer to understand their customers better than ever. What can you really learn about consumers as they slice and dice your catalog? Obviously, you’ll know that this particular consumer is in market for a new television, and you’ll probably spend a fortune on re-marketing. What you can’t know is why they didn’t buy. Were they overwhelmed by the options? If so, you’re wasting your media spend on re-targeting, because you’re not doing anything to actually help that consumer. Whereas with guided selling, you’re getting detailed knowledge about their home and lifestyle — valuable information for establishing a lifetime relationship with them.
What’s truly interesting about guided selling is that there isn’t an ecommerce platform that’s designed to support it, or is capable of delivering a thoughtful guided selling experience. All of the ecommerce platforms that exist today were built in the last ten years, and they all follow the old paradigm of slicing and dicing very large catalogs. In my opinion, the successful ecommerce platforms will need to cater to this style of selling in their very next product releases, or they will be looked at as aged dinosaurs.
We’ll also see a new ecosystem of AI-driven sales assistant point solutions, such as SMARTASSISTANT(a company that is quickly becoming an important partner of Something Digital). By 2020, these types of solutions will be as vital to an ecommerce store as its ESP or CRM.
GDPR is building walls around the web
On the negative side: GDPR is having a bigger impact on the global economy than we may realize. There are two trends that I find particularly disconcerting. First, there is a dark pattern emerging among global content brands, such as Forbes.com and the properties of Conde Nast, that rely on advertising in order to exist. GDPR is forcing these brands to make difficult decisions, such as whether or not to continue their presence in Europe. Because abiding by GDPR is difficult, publishers are beginning to build virtual walls around their content in order to block EU citizens from accessing it.
I believe this is fundamentally anti-web. The open web has always been about unfettered access to content. Yet here we are approaching 2019, marching into a future where that isn’t the case anymore.
The other dark pattern I see is: companies like Forbes will allow customers to opt out of cookie tracking, but enforce stringent behavior restrictions for that decision. For instance, a consumer who opts out of cookie tracking on Forbes.com can still view content, but he or she must wait a full two minutes in order to do so. This amounts to punishing consumers for opting out of tracking, which I find incredibly disturbing, because it too means the web is less open.
I’m not sure what this all means or how it will play out. But it behooves us all to recognize that we are wading into uncharted territory of a web that is no longer open or global, and that it has the potential to become the new norm.
So those are my predictions for 2019. Check in this time next year to see how well I called the future.