To deliver exceptional customer experiences at scale, retailers must layer automation and intelligent technologies technology to optimize each part of their ecommerce operations.

Megan Higgins

Megan Higgins, vice president and general manager of ecommerce and marketplaces at Avalara Inc.

As the path to purchase becomes increasingly digital-first, retailers’ mobile and ecommerce capabilities are taking center stage within the retail experience. Likewise, customer expectations of retailers have never been greater. As a result, leading retailers and marketplaces are turning to technology to optimize every step of a customer’s digital commerce journey.

To deliver exceptional customer experiences at scale online, retailers must optimize each facet of their ecommerce operations, layering automation and intelligent technologies into each point of the digital journey. A new look at the digital commerce journey outlines the five key stages of digital commerce and the key trends and technologies that should be adopted to drive best-in-class customer experiences. In the new digital retail paradigm, retailers that optimize each of the five customer experience stages in the digital purchase path will stand out among the crowd. The five stages are:

Shopper marketing and discovery

Consumers expect their everyday online environments—from social feeds and mobile applications to wearables and home technologies—to serve as a conduit for shopping. To meet these demands, retailers rethinking their marketing strategies to become data-centric to understand and target customers in a personalized fashion effectively.

As such, retailers are launching multi-pronged marketing campaigns to meet customers wherever they are by incorporating technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and contextual targeting tools that push tailored promotions to the right customers for in-the-moment engagement. These new, predictive digital market approaches lay the groundwork for the future of always-on search and discovery.

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We are seeing savvy brands revamp how they approach shopper marketing by providing shoppable content and leveraging visual search streams to reach customers where they are. For example, apparel retailer Adidas worked with social platform Snapchat to create an interactive game on the social media platform where users could make purchases while playing the game. Similarly, Facebook recently announced Facebook Shops, which allows customers to purchase products directly through in-app “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. For retailers, the shift in customer acquisitions means that they must understand where their potential customers are spending their time outside of shopping and integrate those channels into the purchasing journey.

‘Store’ experience and design

Once consumers make their way to your online store, they expect to have the same experience as if they were in a physical store. The expectation is that retailers will virtually provide a mirror of in-store shopping experiences by incorporating adaptive and interactive technologies into their online storefronts. To do so, retailers must leverage technologies that can provide lifelike interactions online.

Using AR technology, retailers provide augmented retail experiences through immersive 3D environments that allow shoppers to try-on and engage with products virtually. Instagram is leveraging AR to allow users to try on cosmetics and accessories using their social photos and videos. Likewise, Sephora allows customers to virtually try-on different types of makeup using their “virtual artist” application. Other retailers are extending their storefronts into live streaming social media channels to engage with customers in real-time and allow them to shop online without compromising the shared experience of in-store purchases. Retailers must push digital retail boundaries to incorporate an entire ecosystem of channels and devices to enrich the customer experience.

Shopper education and experience

Similar to in-store engagements, customers value brands that can assist them during their time shopping online. In fact, customers are willing to share information about themselves so that retailers will help them during their purchasing journey. One study found that 58% of millennials are willing to share their personal data to power product recommendations that best meet their needs. With predictive technologies that guide customer selections or real-time support online, retailers are rethinking how they can support and educate customers in the digital sphere. 

Moving forward, shoppers will lean toward retailers that make life easier for them. Shopper assistance is no longer a reactive service, but an expectation that consumers have to ensure that they are making the most informed decisions when shopping online. Retailers will need to prioritize customer support by leveraging technologies that can predict, support, and protect customer preferences throughout their time shopping. 

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Transactions, payments, and tax

Once customers have made their decisions on products, they expect that their seamless online experience will continue throughout the checkout process. Modern checkout processes should provide customers with ample payment options, automatically populate their payment information, accurately calculate any tax and shipping costs, and do all of this securely. With more than 87% of online shoppers abandoning their cart, checkout is complex, and the stakes are high for retailers.

Providing seamless and flexible payment processes like one-click point-of-sale systems and digital layaway can improve a customer’s checkout experience tremendously. It’s also important that retailers create a digital experience that can serve a global audience. An IDC report predicts that by 2022, cross-border ecommerce could account for more than 15% of the world’s online retail market. Consumers will expect a seamless checkout experience regardless of channel or geographic location, so global back-end capabilities like currency conversion will become essential.

Fulfillment and post-purchase support

For consumers, the post-purchase experience is no longer an afterthought, but a crucial component of the customer experience. Customers expect near-instantaneous fulfillment, with delivery options that suit their lifestyles and a frictionless returns process. Companies are responding by optimizing their fulfillment operation for customer density, streamlining logistics with multiple options, reducing costs associated with customs and brokerage fees, and addressing the headache associated with making returns at any (physical or digital) location. After checkout, retailers are going above and beyond to extend the relationship by offering how-to classes, expert advice, and convenient replenishment services for their valued shoppers.

Consumers not only want to be able to shop through whatever channel they choose, but they also expect to be able to receive their purchases in the same way. Providing frictionless logistics give consumers more control over how, when, and where they can receive purchases and return orders. For example, Kroger has reconfigured its supply chain in a pilot program with Walgreens to enable shoppers to order their groceries online and pick them up at Walgreens locations near them. Retailers must overcome complex supply and delivery chain challenges to ensure that deliveries and returns are a seamless extension of the digital commerce experience.

The key takeaway for retailers when it comes to the new digital commerce paradigm is that the customer is in control and it’s up to retailers to provide the options that align with their preferences. The separation between real-life and online shopping no longer exists, so the most effective digital retail will happen in-step with everyday life. Ultimately, retailers must invest in the tools and infrastructure needed to balance consumer expectations with their regulatory and responsibility commitments to avoid any unnecessary risk and focus on serving their customers in the best way possible.

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Avalara Inc. is a provider of tax management software. 

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