Recently, I had the opportunity to talk about agile ecommerce with Holden Bale, GVP and Head of Commerce at Huge, a global experience company that I’ve always admired. Minutes into our conversation it became clear what sets Huge apart: They put the user at the center of everything. And they started with this at their core over 20 years ago — long before “user-centric” became the buzzword it is today.
From a user-centric perspective, the conversation about agile ecommerce becomes a conversation about the role of digital in the total commerce experience. Users are moving fluidly between channels, including the physical.
What does this mean for the future of ecommerce? Read on for highlights from our chat, or watch the video below.
Ecommerce has expanded into new categories
In the first few months of the pandemic, ecommerce grew rapidly, fueling a lot of conversations about its importance. Holden astutely points out that a shift to online shopping during the lockdown wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was the change in digital penetration.
We saw rapid adoption of ecommerce where we weren’t expecting it in terms of demographics and products, he explains. Older generations started shopping online and orders included fresh food and produce items typically bought in stores. People were buying things we thought people would never buy online, including multi-million dollar homes and $75K designer watches and bags.
“There's one thing you take away from this: anything that can be bought online will be bought online,” says Holden.
Covid triggered more category penetration, blurring the line between digital and physical commerce. The question is what happens next? We’re still learning where digital is strong versus assistive and how ecommerce fits into the total commerce experience.
User experiences can’t be divided by channel
As the lines between channels blur, it's a mistake to think of ecommerce as a channel separate from physical retail. We want users to interact with us where they are, be that in online channels, at physical locations or through digitally assisted buying experiences. It’s all commerce. It’s all part of that total user experience.
“When you put people at the center of what you do, amazing things happen to your brand and your business,” says Holden.
Consumers want one unified experience with the brand. When a customer receives a sponsored post or email for a product they bought in person a few months ago, that’s not a technology problem. It’s an extension of an organizational disconnect.
Holden recommends that companies break down the walls between channels and reimagine digital across the organization. This might mean reorganizing the entire organizational structure in the context of the user journey.
We need to rethink how we measure success
Shifting away from a channel-centric approach will require new ways to measure success and incentivize teams. You have to adopt a mindset where digital’s not a cost center, it's an accelerator, according to Holden.
Traditional channel-centric KPIs don't always tell the whole story. Brand stories on your blog might increase sales at retail locations. Developing a better customer experience might reduce order size — a measure brands typically want to increase. But if that decrease is combined with a decrease in returns, it could be a sign that customers are finding what they want instead of buying multiple sizes and returning items, and may be a net positive for profitability.
What you measure is what you value as an organization. Narrowly focused measures can miss the big picture. Better measures might be total lifetime value or the total quality of the user experience.
Do everything you can to increase your organizational agility
Holden shared some of the ecommerce trends he’s seeing in China and the Horn of Africa. These hold clues to what might come next — more QR codes, distributed commerce and telling stories in other people’s digital spaces. But Holden cautions that we don't know what terrain we're going to be operating on in three to five years.
Reducing risk in this period of rapid change requires a capability strategy that is focused on modularity and business agility. Brands need to be agile and avoid locking too much functionality inside one vendor or one ecosystem.
“How can we develop once, publish anywhere? I think that is a test that all digital business leaders should be applying to their capabilities,” says Holden.
Focusing on the consumer and having the ability to develop that user experience and publish anywhere will reduce the risk of over-investing in a single channel. Ask yourself, what’s the experience, what’s the story and then think about deployment mechanisms. Enable people-focused teams to develop brand stories that can be applied to any channel.
Holden offers this parting advice to brands:
Keep innovating on your product and be prepared for distributed commerce beyond your owned touchpoints: selling across multiple platforms, whether they be social, marketplaces, publishers, search engines, or in the metaverse.
Telling stories about your business and your brand has never been more important.
Do everything you can now to increase your organizational agility — reorder teams, rethink your underlying technology and databases.
Next steps and action items
Demo: Contentful’s agile ecommerce solution can help you increase sales now and become future-ready.
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