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Notes from Retail Without Borders, London, 2023: Unveiling the Future of Commerce

I recently had the privilege of attending the 8th edition of Europe’s largest online marketplace conference and expo -  Retail Without Borders, in London. I was invited by Emma Jones to join her panel with Jennifer McCloskey, Global Government Affairs and Public Policy, from Google; Mollie Pearse, Head of Marketing EMEA, from Meta; Oliver Yonchev, CEO of Flightstory, and Lucas Perraudin from MULA Digital. We had a very insightful conversation on the intersection of AI and social commerce, and the impact and opportunities  it is having  on brands and retailers on a global scale. 

Allow me to share the key takeaways from the discussion which I hope you’ll find as useful as I did.

1. Social commerce is The Way, and that's not a cliché!

One resounding message from the panel is that social commerce has significantly permeated all aspects of our lives.. Research suggests that an average internet user today will spend half of their life online; and most of it on social media. This phenomenon extends beyond borders and holds for individuals worldwide. 

For online sellers, this marks the starting point to comprehend the correlation between social platforms and online selling. In the past, the purchase decision followed a simple, linear process: visit the nearest store, find the desired product, and make the purchase. But today, consumers engage with a wide range of social posts, reviews, videos, and blogs, leading to a complex and intricate journey before reaching the final decision to buy.

Even though the actual act of buying might happen in the physical world, it is important to understand and accept that the decision to make that purchase originated days ago in a moment of inspiration provided online. 

To sell online, therefore, is to not just have a presence on an online platform like Instagram or TikTok, but to understand how your target audience uses these platforms and to what end. 

Pro tip: Intentional, curated short-form videos remain an engaging and powerful way to connect with customers. The videos should however, be truly informative and add to the customer journey for them to have any relevant impact. 

2. Discovery commerce is the new face of value-driven social selling

While social commerce expands a brand's reach and opportunities, the true differentiator remains the value a brand provides throughout the customer journey. Today's customers grow more discerning by the day, evaluating brands on every aspect of their offerings. The ‘value’ they speak about goes beyond the product itself; it encompasses the entire experience provided to the customer, including various touchpoints, activities, and issues the customer might face while attempting to buy a product. Aspects such as refund processing, communication, or customer service are becoming critical metrics of a brand’s standing. 

Brands that prioritise value-driven social selling will undoubtedly capture the hearts and loyalty of consumers, and ‘discovery commerce’ can be the new trick of the trade. 

Discovery commerce refers to the practice of guiding customers through personalised and engaging shopping experiences, enabling them to discover products that align with their interests, preferences, and values. The central idea is to curate a seamless and enjoyable shopping experience by presenting customers with relevant products they might not have been aware of otherwise.

In a nutshell, using discovery commerce strategies allows companies to infuse ‘value’ into the daily task of internet surfing. Imagine being on your phone scrolling through Instagram, and a company you’d never heard of pops up with an interesting kitchen gadget. Maybe you'll end up buying; maybe you won’t – but you WILL remember this brand because their product spoke to your needs, and added value to your mindless Instagram adventures. 

When value-driven selling and discovery commerce are combined, brands can create a powerful synergy that resonates with today's discerning customers. Personalization plays a crucial role in both approaches, with value-driven selling seeking to understand customer needs and preferences to provide tailored solutions, while discovery commerce leverages data and customer insights to deliver personalised product recommendations.

3. AI is here to stay, changing the way we search for our next buy

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in retail was another pivotal topic we discussed. Existing research from Google demonstrates that most purchasing decisions involve extensive mobile research. Now AI in itself isn’t new. Companies have been using automated tools for data analysis and pattern recognition for a while now. What's new is the integration of AI-based solutions into the buying process. 

At a recent conference in California, developers presented over 100 AI-based solutions that build upon existing technologies like Google search and maps - all of which were customised for retail commerce. AI in e-commerce is going to be a game changer. Think about it - a decade ago people were looking for “black dresses” online. Today they want a “black dress made sustainability and locally with organic dyes”. 

The technology we use has changed the way we search, and the things we search for. A black dress is an easy Google search; the latter is a custom query which will throw up a subset of results with the relevant tags. That’s the power of AI - personalising and customising search results and learning from the buyer’s needs.

Harnessing the power of AI is essential for brands to inform their actions, invest in relevant technology, and adopt profitable business models. Brands must understand that the stories they tell customers are curated by algorithms. Therefore, feeding the correct data and content to these algorithms becomes paramount to connecting with the right consumers. 

Additionally, the emergence of generative AI in online advertising presents exciting possibilities for the e-commerce industry. Imagine receiving an AI-generated video of your favourite celebrity endorsing a new product or having your child's beloved cartoon character promote a brand. If used correctly, AI can amplify a brand’s ability to create eye-catching content and ads, and target them to the right audience at the right time; thereby directly affecting the sales funnel.

AI can also streamline editing, content generation, translation, and design, fostering productivity and creativity. As a leader in the AI landscape, the UK stands at the forefront of this transformative future. In 2022 alone, it witnessed the creation of £180 billion in new economic activity, with projections estimating this figure to reach £400 billion by 2030. Needless to say, these projections are highly dependent on how well the e-commerce community in the country adapts to the use of AI.

4. All said and done, never lose sight of the customer journey

Amidst the influx of new tools and strategies within the e-commerce space, it has become even more imperative for businesses to never lose sight of the customer journey. The road taken by a potential customer has inarguably become more complex than ever before, and yet the customer journey remains at the heart of every brand's core marketing strategy. 

Despite the fact that most buying journeys begin online, not all customers go through the same paces. It is crucial to understand the path taken by a potential buyer as they start interacting with your brand, and then plug in automation at the right steps. Mindless use of tools or platforms can break more than it fixes, and severely hamper your customer experience. This is particularly crucial when targeting customers across borders and utilising AI for geotargeting ads and content. If you haven’t yet understood their journey, you could be showing the right ad to the wrong audience, and suffer a loss in sales.

A bird’s eye view of your customer’s buying journeys can also help you recognise the need for creativity and an omnichannel approach. Let’s take the holiday season as an example. 50-80% of holiday season sales still originate from physical stores. So, brands that want to cash in on the holiday magic have to ensure they are intertwining their physical and online messaging, and targeting and retargeting the same customers for maximum effect. AI can be a friend here, and help you automate your content; but the strategic decisions are born from a holistic understanding of the audience's mindset in different regions, and seasons.

The last word…

E-commerce, by virtue of its very nature, is a domain that is intrinsically interlinked with tech changes, and AI and social commerce are the current drivers of this change. What stayed with me, long after this event was over, was this grounding belief that AI-driven social selling presents way more opportunities for sellers - both big and small - than the fearmongers would have us believe. AI is not here to take away jobs, or make online selling boring and predictive. If anything, it can help small businesses get more work done without breaking the bank, and make lives easier for enterprises that want to expand into new regions by making it easier to analyse customer journeys, behaviours and patterns. 

As almost everyone on the panel noted, the future is indeed exciting. We at SHOPLINE are grateful and privileged to be a part of the AI revolution in the e-commerce industry and to be able to support our local sellers in driving business revenue through our easy, scalable out-of-the-box solutions. The future of e-commerce is here, and we are ready for it. 

And I hope, so are you. 

Note:  Deepak Anand is the GM of SHOPLINE UK, and reflects his insights and experiences at the Retail Without Borders event in London.

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