7 to Stay, 1 to Go: Retail Trends in E-Commerce That Will Outlast the Pandemic

The retail world on the other side of the pandemic will not look the same. Here are seven retail trends in e-commerce that are sure to last, and one that is likely to expire.

COVID-19 had once seemed like a temporary inconvenience. However, two things are abundantly clear now: the virus will linger for some period of time and multiple pandemic-driven changes in retail trends are here to stay. Not every trend, of course, has staying power. Many recent trends came about because of health concerns and local restrictions regarding which services could remain open. But the trends that do persist will continue to impact online shopping in the fashion industry for years to come.

If the pandemic has had any positive effect, it has helped us all become a bit more adaptable. For retailers, it has been an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine how they attract and serve customers. Further, the pandemic turbocharged e-commerce growth. According to United Nations research, e-commerce increased its share of all retail sales from 16% to 19% in 2020 alone.

The retail world on the eventual other side of this pandemic will look significantly different. Let’s take a look at eight trends that emerged during the pandemic. Keep reading to discover which trends will remain as we adapt to the new reality.

7 Trends That Are Here to Stay

1. Radio Frequency Identification 

Although not new technology, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a technology that helps to reduce costs in the challenging omnichannel operating model. RFID can check availability across the entire supply chain, track inventory, verify shipments, and identify trends and customer preferences. The next generation of RFID, known as RAIN (an acronym derived from RAdio frequency IdentificatioN), uses cloud technology to help businesses seamlessly connect the online and physical store shopping experience.

Prediction: RFID technologies are expected to continue to be an important tool for creating a frictionless customer experience.

2. Buy Online, Pick Up in Store 

Curbside pickup experienced a surge during the pandemic. A McKinsey survey found that 59% of customers who used Buy Online, Pick Up in Store (BOPIS) services in 2020 would continue to enjoy this convenience in the future. Advances in RFID mean that the service is more reliable than ever, giving retailers a better view of inventory and helping to eliminate canceled orders and issues that can mar the customer experience. In order to ensure that BOPIS is working as it should, stores must be able to use the data to meet customer demands.

Prediction: BOPIS appears to be here to stay, although its usage may diminish somewhat as customers return to physical stores. Vogue Business has a great piece on the future of stores here.

3. Retail Stores as Fulfillment Centers

As footfall declines, many stores have had to rethink their channel strategies. Target says 95% of its 4Q 2020 sales were fulfilled by the stores. In fact, during the pandemic, some brands completely transformed existing storefronts into fulfillment locations, so they were close to where customers live and work. To do it well, stores must use RFID tracking that provides availability at a granular level, allowing even the largest clothing stores to operate when brick-and-mortar stores are closed.

Prediction: This trend will continue, although it is likely that many customers will still want the social in-store experience. It may be that a hybrid model emerges, or is emerging as we speak.

4. Boomers Shopping Online More

Don’t rule out baby boomers. Not only do they outspend the younger generations in multiples, but they are also increasingly more likely to shop online. Over the past year, 20% of online shopping revenue came from boomers. Their rate of online spending is increasing faster than that of both millennials and gen Zers. According to an NPD study, during the first seven months of 2021, boomers increased spending on apparel five times faster than millennials and twice as fast as gen Zers.

Prediction: By 2030, all boomers will have reached age 65, with the oldest at 84. So this is a trend that is likely to intensify for those who may find it physically inconvenient to visit stores.

5. Social Media for Research

A recent NPD survey found that customers use social media to discover fashion brands and retailers. A significant 41% learn about brands on Facebook. Of those, 51% say that they buy the brands they discover. Instagram and Pinterest, at 35 % and 21% respectively, are popular social media platforms for brand research, as well. Recent months have seen an absolute explosion in social commerce and in brands shifting their emphasis here.

Prediction: Social media use surged during the pandemic. Usage may level off and platform preferences may change, yet social media will continue to be a popular way for customers to research brands, particularly as social shopping tools proliferate at an exponential rate.

6. Virtual Try-Before-You-Buy

Returns aren’t just a pain for the business, they also put a damper on the customer’s positive shopping experience. Customers are using virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 3D technologies to preview their purchases. Virtual dressing rooms, for example, can allow customers to mix and match apparel or share a photo on social media for immediate feedback.

Prediction: As virtual try-before-you-buy solutions appear in physical stores, customers will request them online. The Metaverse only accelerates this trend. ‍

7. Artificial Intelligence for Seamless Integration

What customer doesn’t appreciate accurate, pinpoint-correct online product recommendations? Artificial Intelligence (AI) can deliver the personalized shopping experience that customers gravitate towards most. AI can do much more, however. There are many advancements, both nascent and in full bloom, that push the bounds of what’s possible. These include technological developments that take data gathered both online and in-person to provide things like the following:

  • Micro location solutions that allow marketers to alert customers to in-store promotions.
  • Robotic assistants that fulfill orders or deliver parcels via drones.
  • Virtual changing rooms that allow customers to try on garments via the internet, raising conversions and decreasing return rates.
  • IoT and wearable technology that tracks, for example, how often an item is worn, provides styling tips, or measures a baby’s sleeping pattern.
  • Voice assistants that enable voice ordering via smartphones and speaker devices.

Prediction: These are relatively early days for advanced technologies using AI and the use will only continue to grow. Without a doubt, AI is here to stay.

One Trend That’s Likely to Go

Customer Switching

During the early days of the pandemic, customers tried new brands. According to a McKinsey study, 75% of customers made a switch in the consumer goods area. That was in the consumer goods area. But before you breathe a sigh of relief, here’s what happened in fashion: Some 44% of millennials and gen Zers tried new brands. The jury is still out on the long-term implications. But early research does provide a bit of wisdom (that we probably didn’t need a team of investigators to uncover):

  • During a crisis, there are opportunities created by sudden shifts in consumer habits.
  • It is costly to change consumer preferences.
  • When daily life is disrupted, people are more open to change.

Still, we can’t be sure whether customers will have the same preferences post-pandemic as before. Will it result in pent-up demand or completely new buying habits?

Prediction: It’s unlikely that high levels of switching will continue post-pandemic. However, the window of opportunity to capture brand loyalty from those who have switched to your brand is short-lived.

Providing the Best Customer Experience

Of course, many of the in-store trends that started during the pandemic will fade away, particularly those regarding hygiene protocols, which have mostly disappeared already. Yet the digital trends listed above are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Companies can’t respond to every trend. Select those that provide the most value to your customers and execute them flawlessly. According to Aberdeen Group, brands that provide consistent service across multiple channels are likely to retain 89% of their customers versus 33% of those who don’t.

The key is to strike the right balance between technology and the human touch.  Customers will continue to want both. E-commerce retailers that do this successfully will thrive.

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Fashion model holding a teal purse while posing in a maroon sweater.