There is no doubt about it. Covid-19 has generated a wave of digital transformation among retailers large and small.

For those already on the path to transformation, the pandemic has accelerated their journey, pushing the need for better tools and services alongside improved processes. For those just starting out, it has been a ‘fight or flight’ moment, with the need to adapt quickly or miss out on the opportunity altogether. As a result, revenue for the online shopping industry is anticipated to rise by 6.3% in 2021, purely from bricks-and-mortar firms either establishing or accelerating existing online operations.

But it’s not been smooth sailing for retailers or for customers. We recently spoke to 1,000 Australians about their shopping habits and found that 2021 brings with it even more challenges for retailers.

The push online

Before Covid-19, Australia’s online shopping industry was growing. Over the last five years this has been driven by increased internet and broadband penetration, alongside improved sentiment towards eCommerce brands.

But Covid-19 changed the game, with record-high numbers of people pushed towards online shopping over a short period of time. What’s more, with international supply chains disrupted, and overseas shipping dragging to a halt, more people started looking closer to home while online shopping. Globally, the balance is starting to shift towards online taking more of a lead in nurturing shopper experiences. However, according to our research, Australian’s are on the fence about the experience, with almost half (45%) not “enjoying” shopping online last year.

eCommerce sites are in danger of letting go of the immense long-term opportunity to grow, deliver better customer experiences and to complement brick and mortar environments. While Covid-19 forced people online in 2020, this year is pegged to be one of hope, vaccination and a return to normal. And, if people did not enjoy the experience of shopping online with certain brands last year, they are likely to be the first to head back to bricks and mortar stores in 2021. The responsibility now sits with retailers to improve the online experience. The ultimate goal is to ensure customer retention stays high, across channels, as the lowering of restrictions brings people back to the high-street. So, where should they begin?

Finders keepers

It’s important not to forget why people started shopping online in the first place: unprecedented choice, with less cost, more convenience, and no geographical boundaries. Put simply, variety and value bring potential customers online. At the same time, not being able to find what they’re looking for drives them away.

It sounds simple. However, the way we shop online is changing. The majority (62%) of Aussies go to online stores for research and browsing purposes. It takes just three clicks for brands to lose a shopper online. Nailing down search capabilities is therefore critical to online retailers.

It’s about the journey, not just the destination

Search is more than just a query typed into a search bar. Increasingly, consumers want inspiration, advice, discovery and richer connected experiences embedded into their journey. In fact, almost a third (30%) of shoppers cited retailer content, such as articles and guides, as useful in their path-to-purchase.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is swiftly becoming the means for eCommerce sites to shift away from function to experience. Creating product discovery experiences at significant stages of the journey. For example, AI-powered search enables brands to predict and respond to customer needs and desires. Natural language processing, and deep learning, allow brands to continuously learn customer intent based on context such as behaviour, searches and actions. Delivering the more merchandised experiences they would expect from in-store.

Nine in ten online shoppers need a tour guide

In a world where the customer is king, it’s a retailer’s job to build them a personalised kingdom. With only 13% of shoppers sure of what they’re looking for online, it’s the experience and theatre that powers their path to purchase. While shoppers can easily create tailored experiences in-store – asking for advice, direction and sizing from store staff – they need guidance in the online customer journey.

Again, AI plays a significant, evolutionary role in the eCommerce journey. Rather than viewing it as a single solution for a specific moment or interaction, savvy brands should view AI and personalisation as a thread that runs across the entire customer journey. Where each touchpoint is enriched; from search through to purchase. When done properly this is a mutual exchange, not an imposition on the shopper. It has the power to cultivate deeper connections and loyalty for brands.

Finding the key to success

2020 will forever be the year that catapulted Australia’s online shopping into action. In 2021, we will see it reach new levels in terms of maturity. Successful eCommerce brands will take the leap from understanding ‘what people buy’ to ‘why people buy’ – this is the key to improving the shopping experience. Well-executed AI and personalised search journeys hold the key to success. The more brands can understand engagement and sentiment, the more they can act on it.

Russell Godin is regional director for Asia Pacific at Attraqt.