Living through the pandemic saw many shoppers shift their behavior to better accommodate changing circumstances. It is essential that retailers be aware of such shifts and monitor changes as the coming year may prove to be just as volatile, writes Lauren Freedman, senior consumer insights analyst at Digital Commerce 360.

It is that time of year when retailers set their priorities for the coming year. Digital Commerce 360, in conjunction with Bizrate Insights, annually conducts our post-mortem of the holiday season, including the shopper’s 2021 wish list. This year, 1,137 online shoppers weighed in.

With Adobe reporting that U.S. online spend during November and December reached a record $188.2 billion, up 32.2% over the year-ago period, readiness means taking advantage of growth opportunities.

Living through the pandemic saw many shoppers shift their behavior to better accommodate changing circumstances. It is essential that retailers be aware of such shifts and monitor changes as the coming year may prove to be just as volatile.

The online channel dominated 2020 year-round, and holiday behavior with expectations for continued growth in 2021. 45% of online shoppers ordered most of their holiday gifts online while 59% of the survey respondents said they plan to order more online this year. Reducing their dependence on physical stores was noted for 35% of participants with ecommerce the primary beneficiary.

Physical stores are challenged to capture traffic, often resulting in sales declines. One upside, however, was that curbside pickup grew in importance for store-based retailers in 2020 with 14% of online shoppers mostly taking advantage of buy online for curbside pickup and 9% utilizing in-store pickup.

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Where shoppers make their purchases sees both opportunities and challenges. Shoppers seek out Amazon with 44%, increasingly searching there for products, and 37% mostly buying there, which contributes to its record growth numbers. Buying mostly from marketplaces is becoming standard fare for more shoppers as 27% indicate such activity as they hunted for available inventory. The reality that 28% are concentrating their shopping with a handful of retailers makes it more challenging for smaller retailers to capture the attention of shoppers. One positive was that 20% of shoppers sought out local retailers who had faced especially tough times during the pandemic, with more store closures looming on the horizon.

Retailers will need to be vigilant when it comes to inventory and their supply chain. Paying attention to where products are in stock received strong attention among 55% of survey respondents. Faster continues to be the mantra of online shoppers as 38% wanted orders to be delivered quickly. And despite the warnings posted at many retailer sites, only 21% ordered earlier. Saving time also manifests itself in that 35% indicate they make most purchases on mobile devices.

Being competitive regarding free shipping is a given while monitoring and optimizing prices should be on the retailer radar screen. This shopper is vigilant in how they go about their online shopping behavior. Promotions remain core to online selling. Based on our survey results, 39% only buy from retailers that offer free shipping, 28% purchase from retailers that have the lowest price and 26% never pay full price. Flexibility and vigilance with pricing will remain relevant in 2021.

As mobile growth accelerates, ensuring mobile devices are optimized allows for better shopper experiences.

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When asked how shoppers choose the retailers they shopped with over the holidays, their selection was predicated on free shipping, stock status and experience with retailers.

Free shipping topped the list at 71% and continues to be first on many a shopper’s list. Plus, appealing promotions came in at 36%, email offers at 28% and deferred payment options a factor for 9% of online shoppers surveyed. The perks that come with belonging to loyalty programs also drive shopper behavior and 27% indicated they were a factor when selecting retailers.

Product assortments also remain important. Featured products still matter to 40%, and exclusive items captured the attention of 20% of survey respondents.

More critical than ever, 59% cited product being in-stock. Along with that, 37% looked for guaranteed delivery times amidst the logistical challenges faced. With speed increasingly of interest among online shoppers, 20% sought out retailers with express delivery times.

Customer service including return policies can serve as differentiators as past experiences with the retailer was the No. 3 answer. Shoppers also favor flexible return policies, as cited by 36% of online shoppers. The ability to take advantage of wish lists made 21% of shoppers choose a particular retailer, simplifying gift-giving interests.

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2021 should be an important year for omnichannel growth. With stores compromised in 2021, omnichannel options grew in importance for shoppers as 18% made selections based on BOPIS and 15% curbside. This learned behavior is expected to see further investment among retailers in 2021.

Retailer improvements should begin with inventory and delivery followed by the customer experience.

From a stock and delivery perspective, almost half (47%) wanted to see retailers hold more inventory. Almost as important from an improvement perspective was faster delivery, cited by 45% of those surveyed. Of course, as marketplace growth continues to flourish, greater product availability across marketplaces becomes more important to 25% of buyers. Improvements from a delivery perspective are in line for BOPIS (16%) and adding curbside (14%), as retailers best position all channels regardless of pending circumstances.

Online shoppers always seek out efficiency as 33% hope to see both improved search results and efficiency of checkout. Website speed improvements are desirable for 30% and making it easier to shop on mobile devices makes the cut for 30%, given the growth patterns seen. Information goes hand in hand with efficiency as 37% hope for better product information and imagery. Along with this comes the increasing need for category education, which was a factor for 18% of those surveyed.

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Customer service still shows room for improvement as 37% would like to see better service delivered in 2021. Along with that, 19% specifically mentioned live chat. Retailers should be mindful of consumers’ privacy as 35% hope to see less tracking of what they do on websites along with fewer targeted ads.

If I were to take a few bets on what lies ahead for 2021, time-savings and convenience will be the winners. First and foremost, I see Amazon continuing to grow exponentially. Its marketplaces and other competitors in that arena will make important contributions from retailers. The in-stock factor and ability to deliver at ever-faster rates will be on the minds of every shopper. Price savings will remain a critical selection driver for shoppers. The meaning of convenience will evolve and curbside will be mandatory for most store-based retailers. We can only hope that vaccines are commonplace, and the pandemic allows shoppers and retailers to see the world in new ways.

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