When lockdowns, social distancing and retail closures brought the world to a standstill in 2020, consumers’ appetite for online shopping skyrocketed. Retailers with existing eCommerce sites flourished, while others poured their energy into the speedy rollout of online stores and developing innovative new ways of meeting their customers’ needs in a world gripped by a pandemic.

Now, as the dust begins to settle on eCommerce’s unpredictable yet profitable year, and retailers look to continue the momentum, the question is – what’s next for global online commerce? 

One thing is certain – online marketplaces are going to be bigger than ever.

Marketplace 101

Throughout history, the marketplace has been central to trade, commerce and community. A marketplace is a destination for multiple sellers to come together, and for buyers to gather, compare what is on offer and make their choice based on needs, wants and price.

From the traditional marketplace to today, online marketplaces still provide customers with one easy, convenient destination to compare a wide choice of offerings from a variety of curated sellers.

An online marketplace can be vertical-focused, offering a single item – such as car parts or activewear – from a bunch of retail sources. Or it can be horizontal, offering access to products grouped around an interest such as cycling or gardening. Or it can be global, giving consumers access to almost infinite products – think Amazon or Tmall.

But what gives marketplaces an edge over single retail offerings in a post-COVID world?

Creating a community of loyalists

As the saying goes, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.

Online retail competition is greater than ever, and there is only so much that one brand can offer. Shoppers will dip their toes for what they need, but there is a limit to how extensively they will engage with a single brand. Rather than viewing the competition as a roadblock, marketplaces treat it as an opportunity for everyone to grow. Marketplaces combine many brands and their loyal followers under one roof, united not just by a product but by a sense of community. By offering memberships, exclusive offers, premium content, and curated selections, a marketplace becomes a unified destination that customers return to again and again.

BikeExchange, for example, is not just a shopping destination but a genuine social network – a publisher of premium quality advice, reviews, guides, and news about everything bike. Buyers can come to the one site and buy, but also be informed beforehand. Sellers get the benefits of objective reviews and championing of their products, while shoppers are fully immersed in the community and can purchase everything on their wish list.

Brand-building opportunities

According to Shopify’s recent global trends report, the brand-building opportunities offered by marketplaces are enormous. Gone are the days when an online marketplace would present products at random; a great online marketplace is a destination that showcases individual brands and provides curated shopping experiences.

Marketplaces bring product pages to life with local, personalised content that differentiates each brand, gives the customer an opportunity to explore that brand in the best possible way, as well as providing the seller with endless capabilities to add more vendors and categories as desired.

SurfStitch’s new online marketplace technology, for example, has helped to rapidly scale the business into new product categories. Through a bespoke, headless integration connected directly to their ERP platform, the new marketplace functionality enables SurfStitch to rapidly onboard new vendors and dramatically increase the range available to their customers. With more changes underway, SurfStitch is aiming to extend its product catalogue into Homewares, Outdoor, Activewear, Wellness and Workwear.

Other merchants are now beginning to take notice and revaluate the branding potential of a marketplace listing.

Reduced admin with real-time product syncing 

Goodbye stock inventory, undertaking complex category additions, or managing the distribution of physical product. Aside from the labour cost, this will quickly erode any business owner’s passion for their product.

Marketplaces today are moving towards APIs and product experience dashboards to offer seamless, real-time syncing that saves considerable headaches on the merchant’s side, including connecting third party inventory and sales seamlessly with multi-vendor shopping carts and drop-shipping.

Scale at speed, with help 

Let’s face it, no retailer today can exist without an effective, scalable online shopping platform. But constructing and managing one is more complex than it looks. A great online marketplace offers the technology in-built from the outset, meaning a better online experience for the shopper and more technical support for the merchant. Marketplacer’s technology is modular built and comprises feature-rich marketplace core technology which can be complemented with a front-end solution, add-ons and a connected community of partner businesses so that customers experience a full stack technology solution that consolidates a market, allows for range extension, creates a community for customers and unifies the commerce experience for them. This, in turn, also generates modern revenue streams, greater potential for growth and produces valuable data and insights that better support marketing and sales strategies.

2020 was all about survival, but as the eCommerce space rapidly evolves and competition is fiercer than ever, online marketplaces offer a way to play the long game. Reduced admin, inbuilt technology, organic community growth, superior shopping experiences and endless scope to scale alongside competitors reduces short-term pressures while setting a brand up for future success.

Jason Wyatt is CEO and co-founder of Marketplacer