It's essential to meet our customers where they are, both physically and emotionally. People don't often remember what they said or did, but they remember how something made them feel. 

Tiffany Rolfe

Tiffany Rolfe, global chief creative officer, R/GA

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically transformed consumer behavior. In the face of mandatory shutdowns and social distancing measures, the global economy was accelerated into a digital new world, causing us to reevaluate how we work, buy goods and connect.

Across the U.S. alone, major retailers permanently closed more than 12,000 locations last year, and approximately 800,000 businesses in total shut their doors (200,000 more than average).

These changes caused a significant shift in consumer spending habits. U.S. ecommerce sales increased by 32.4% year-over-year to more than $792 billion. Online purchases across Brazil, China, Germany, Italy, the Republic of Korea, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Switzerland and Turkey increased by 6 to 10 percentage points in most product categories, according to a survey by UNCTAD

While the U.S. economy is making a comeback, the pandemic put online shopping in the spotlight. Now, the acceleration of online shopping worldwide underscores the urgency for brands to adapt to a tech-led customer experience on all fronts.

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I was fortunate enough to serve as jury president for the Cannes Lions Creative Ecommerce Lions awards this year. After reviewing the submissions, some clear themes emerged, which were reflective of today’s ecommerce environment, and I’d say it’s fair to argue that the “e” in ecommerce now stands for so much more than “electronic.”

Ecommerce is (e)ngaging, (e)xperimental, (e)thical, (e)quitable, and ultimately, an (e)cosystem. Brands that want to get ahead in the post-pandemic global economy will need to cater to these factors.

(E)ngaging commerce

Ecommerce has transcended beyond simple transactions. With companies like Amazon making repeat shopping as easy as clicking “auto-replenish,” brands now see the necessity in imaginative and engaging shopping experiences.

For example, Jeni’s, a beloved Ohio-based craft ice cream brand, teamed with country singer and American icon Dolly Parton to release a limited-edition frozen dessert. The launch was so popular that Jeni’s site crashed minutes before its launch.

Creative collaborations such as these will be a differentiating factor for consumers. 

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(E)xperimental commerce

Some of the best ideas are born out of a crisis. COVID-19 broke down a lot of barriers for companies to quickly solve retail challenges. There were many one-off boutique-like digital shopping experiences from big brands, such as Pepsi’s Pantry Shop and Heinz to Home, which delivered snacks and beverages directly to customers. 

Moreover, with delivery costs on the rise and the high demand for fast service, companies are getting creative and leveraging technologies like self-driving vehicles, drones and robots to redesign experiences. Just weeks ago, Domino’s rolled out a robotic car delivery service to select customers. For those who opt in, their pies will arrive in a fully autonomous vehicle. 

Now that these household names have tested these strategies, we can expect to see more brands piloting such experiences.

(E)thical commerce

Ethical commerce is the practice of buying products based on how the manufacturers made them, where they are from, and/or how harmful they are. This phenomenon is critical as consumers continue to want to buy according to their values. It also provides a way for brands to demonstrate their values by making and selling their products. 

As an example, The Big Issue, a UK-based street newspaper offering homeless individuals a way to earn a legitimate income, displayed incredible ethical problem-solving skills at the start of the pandemic. The effort won the newspaper top honors in the Cannes Lions Creative Ecommerce awards.

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The brand trained a select group of Big Issue vendors to use LinkedIn to find opportunities and make sales while city streets were largely empty—and the results speak for themselves. Big Issue boosted its conversion rate from one sale for every 50 interactions on the street to one sale for every 10 interactions on LinkedIn. Not only that, but there has been a permanent perception shift in the way people view the Big Issue’s vendors, transforming them from people in need to business professionals with a right to operate on LinkedIn.

(E)quitable commerce

When I say “equitable,” I’m not talking about equity in the traditional business sense. Still, equity in terms of who makes sells, and receives the benefits from consumers’ products. 

In the last year, we needed to support small businesses during the pandemic, so we saw many initiatives supporting that—StandforSmall from Amex, Shopy by Shopify, DealWise by ING, and Verizon’s PayItForwardLIVE. Another Creative ecommerce Lions winner operated in this space, AB InBev. The company’s Tienda Cerca offered small shopkeepers across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Panama and Honduras a platform to fulfill and deliver online orders, saving thousands of small businesses in the process. 

Additionally, as the racial crisis unfolded last year, many brands incorporated social justice and diversity initiatives into their strategies. But brands need to ensure they’re not just “checking a box.” They must commit long-term to be genuinely authentic around these issues. Some brands, including Barbie, Bombas and Foot Locker, have invested in long-term programs and products that celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion. Facebook also launched #BuyBlack Friday to bring greater attention to Black-owned businesses. 

Commerce is a critical piece to building a more equitable future for Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities and one that customers will be hyper-aware of as they make purchasing decisions. 

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An (e)cosystem

The path to purchase is no longer linear. There are countless physical and digital touchpoints that consumers encounter in their commerce journey. The key is creating an ecosystem that bridges these touchpoints to create an engaging and seamless experience in a way that’s still on-brand. 

In R/GA’s research found 75% of customers don’t just enjoy, but expect a seamless experience delivered across all devices and channels.

Ecommerce no longer must be contained in one site. Potential customers can purchase products embedded within existing content, distributed across channels and platforms (e.g., Instagram shops, QR codes, AR/VR experiences, brick-and-mortar stores, etc.). Purchase is always on, and brands are always there. The most successful brands will discover how to capitalize on this intersection of data and creativity.

In the end, ecommerce in 2020 was mainly (e)motional. Brands largely shifted from just thinking of commerce as transactional to building relationships with customers. They showed up in meaningful and helpful ways and even fun ways—after all, we sometimes needed some levity. 

Ultimately, it’s essential to meet our customers where they are, both physically and emotionally. People don’t often remember what they said or did, but they remember how something made them feel. 

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Modern brands have many opportunities to meet customers at this emotional crossroads, using their products and services to humanize experiences, accelerate joy, remedy pain points, and build lasting relationships.

R/GA is a digital agency and innovation consultancy and part of The Interpublic Group of Companies.

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