Beyond Technology: How Commerce Will Change in 20 Years

One thing is constant, and that is change. We already know that ecommerce is typically fueled by technology and how much of the market adopts it–hello mobile revolution–but what about the trends we see now? Physical retail stores are closing left and right, traditional malls are going extinct, shipping is changing, and the way we interact with brands is becoming more personal than ever. What and how we buy today will only be a reflection of how we shop 20 years from now, and many of the human factors will have been removed.

So what’s likely to change beyond the technology? Let’s dig in.

Shift in Physical Retail

There’s no doubt that the retail world is experiencing a renaissance period, and we’re all taking guesses at what the future will bring. Though there are some predictions to be had, one thing is certain: physical retail is in trouble. According to analysts at Credit Suisse, by 2022 nearly 25 percent of all traditional malls could become defunct in the U.S. This in turn could push ecommerce to new heights moving from 17 percent to 35 percent of all retail sales.

So what will likely change within the next 20 years for physical retail?

  1. Less is more
  2. Experiences matter
  3. Pickup locations for omnichannel

Big-box stores are closing, and that’s the reality of today.. Which means that less will mean more, and quality will reign over quantity. But what exactly does that mean? Experiences will matter more. From showrooms like Tesla’s to brand-focused floors like Apple’s to stores that excuse the organization’s impact, these will just be the start of retail experiences. Beyond what we can physically see will be a layer of smart technology, embracing things like beacons. Customers will be supported regardless of their location.

Omnichannel experiences are proven to increase foot traffic to physical retail stores, meaning more brands like Walmart are going to modify their offerings to make the process easier. Whether you buy on mobile or desktop, if you expect your goods to be at the store within a few hours, the process should be no more difficult than picking up a pizza or Chinese food. Some stores will even offer automated solutions that simply allow an access code to be used as verification and then out pop your items like a vending machine.

Specialized Retail Stores, A Renaissance

What happens when a generation of consumers who never grew up with big box retail stores and malls transition into the majority of purchasers? Change of course. Right now we are at a crossroads where physical retail stores are closing left and right in place of ecommerce or digital solutions, but nostalgia is a powerful weapon. Between millennials and Gen Z, the things they have either grown up with or will eventually hear about will possibly lead to a renaissance for retail in 15-20 years from now. What is already beginning to transition into a more experiential offering could very well revert back to aisles filled with products, cashiers and baggers, or some sort of tech-hybrid in the future. Physical retail will constantly change, and there is a good chance nostalgia will put it through a circular pattern.

Browserless Shopping

Hey Alexa, buy me a case of toilet paper. Ok Google, I’d like to buy tickets for Wonder Woman tonight. Voice assistants are slowly picking up steam, and with that will be the rise of browserless shopping. Audio such as podcasts have already created a resurgence of audio-based advertising that will no doubt port over to these sudo-AI platforms, but the boldest move is to get consumers to simply tell them what you want to buy. For each platform there are optional steps that do introduce a screen so that you can approve a purchase, but if these systems do take off, we’ll see a need for brands to quickly integrate or Amazon will have full control over the experience.


What do Burberry, Hilfiger, Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Estée Lauder have in common? Chatbots. It feels like almost overnight that chatbots exploded across a few messenger platforms, like Facebook, and one after another, brands began building them. Back in April 2016, Facebook launched their chatbot platform, which truly fueled the growth and experimentation with these bots. Though touted to be a form of AI, this technology is really just a series of advanced automations that respond based on common language input. In other words, if you tell the bot you have a customer service issue or would like personalized recommendations for products, it can easily do that on a daily or weekly basis.

In March of this year, a chatbot development company, [24]7, is projected that by 2018 their revenue will see a 30-35 percent increase, bringing it up to about $400 million. This also correlates with Gartner’s projections that human involvement in customer interactions will be reduced by as much as 85 percent by 2020.

Shoppable Social Ecommerce

To say the ROI on social-media-based ads is low may be a bit of an understatement, but through retargeting and other features conversion rates are improving. However, native advertising is becoming more important, and many platforms are looking at new ways to monetize their solution and create a more frictionless sales process within it.

Facebook and Facebook Messenger are prime examples of ecommerce sales. They recently re-introduced the local marketplace feature, which is actually just a rebranding of an old, unused system that works like Craigslist. Assuming all goes well, there is no reason that brands can’t eventually tap into this solution in the future. Their advertising system is also getting smarter, now allowing retailers to call out specific products within their posts, driving consumers directly to items.

In addition to regular Facebook, their messenger platform already supports chatbots, apps, and payments, making it just another way to drive consumers to products.

Pinterest may not be the largest network, but when it comes to ecommerce, they were ahead of the game. Their Buyable Pins, released in mid-2015, allow consumers to make purchases right on the platform. Either using Apple Pay or a credit card, as people pin items, a special call out will show if the item listed is purchasable through the platform.

Twitter attempted to do a similar thing as Pinterest, but it never really took off. Either using a special hashtag or a weird process of receiving a DM with a request to input your payment info, you could buy limited goods and even pizza (using the pizza emoji). It didn’t go well for them.

Instagram is the latest platform looking to add ecommerce into the mix and has begun adding things like interactive, native ads to user stories, and simple features like a buy it now button on their profile. Will Snapchat follow suit? Most certainly, but for now they are primarily focused on ads running after user stories.

Data-Infused Decision Making

Big data is everyone’s favorite buzzword, but that’s for good reason. When you combine a brand’s data set with the proper tools or platforms, business process becomes streamlined and more effective.

Without data many of these organizational divisions will be left to make decisions based on either experience or assumptions, which in turn will likely hurt KPIs and goals.

Recommendation Engines

Currently there are a lot of ways products get recommended to consumers, some more data-centric than others. Of the more ingenious versions, the tools use personalization to suggest other items or vertical purchases to go along with a sale. Post-sale, there are upsells, and before anything is sold, the homepage can easily highlight a trending item. Sure, some brands still prefer to curate this content based on what they think will be the hot new item of the season or they may be the trust trendsetter, but for everyone else, data should be in play.

In the future recommendation engines will only get smarter, and truly embrace the concept of personalization. Much of the insight and experience that can be found within a seasoned ecommerce director will soon be bottled up as an algorithm and then delivered through platforms like Magento and Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

AI and Machine Learning Everywhere

Undoubtedly, artificial intelligence and machine learning will be the largest drivers of change for ecommerce. The topic probably deserves its own article, a book even, but the short of it is that AI and machine learning will prove every possible aspect of ecommerce, from the marketing and promotions that drive customer acquisition down to the shipping of goods and even returns. Once perfected, this technology will allow the industry to tap into an almost infallible system that removes human error.

The biggest change? Being able to anticipate customers’ needs, even before they realize when they may need or want to make a purchase. AI and machine learning will have that covered.

The Rise of B2B Ecommerce

Perhaps one of the largest areas of expected growth in the ecommerce world will be in the business-to-business (B2B) space. While many of the larger brands do support B2B through ecommerce, the majority are still either reluctant to change simply because the technology is not a norm. In a recent study conducted by Blue Acorn iCi, we found that B2B brands were not only reluctant to adopt ecommerce, but they were not really researching platforms or technology related to it either. Over the next 20 years as more B2B brands begin to implement ecommerce solutions, the rest will follow.

Is your brand starting its Digital Transformation journey? Download Blue Acorn iCi’s B2B Digital Transformation Workbook for key insights and an interactive worksheet.

How Consumers Will Get Their Goods (Shipping)

Shipping is often one of the more challenging friction points in ecommerce, mostly because it’s managed logistically through vendors or the likes of USPS/UPS/FedEx. While large brands like Amazon are already beginning their research into replacing the antiquated systems with things like drones, where does that leave mid-size or smaller brands? The speed of delivery will be a turning point as more companies and legislation begins to allow things like last-mile robots, self-driving vehicles, and tapping into the sharing economy, and all ecommerce brands should be able to benefit from them. Think less traditional means and more peer-to-peer or even robotic means for transporting goods.

If patents give us any insight into the future, Amazon is certainly thinking outside of the box. Not only are they testing out drones, but they are also looking into the feasibility of flying warehouses. These flying warehouses will be able to spit out drones, allow them to refuel, and of course collect their items for delivery.

Instant Gratification

More than anything, consumers have no patience for long shipping times. Whether we want to blame that on Amazon Prime or technology as a whole, two-day shipping is practically the norm now. Over the next 20 years this time window will only get smaller, and begin to move from two days as a luxury into more of a requirement. This means the standardization of one-day shipping and, soon after, same-day delivery.

How Ecommerce Technology is Changing

Not only will ecommerce change on the backend and with vendor interactions, but emerging technology of today may play a vital role in how the industry works in the future.

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