What Will E-Commerce Look Like in a Post-Pandemic World?

The last year was a game changer for many sectors of the American economy, and it altered the marketplace in sweeping and permanent ways. The pandemic changed how we choose, purchase and receive consumer products of all kinds.
One inevitable result: e-commerce has never been so popular. Lockdowns, travel bans and widespread retail closures have forced even the most technology-averse consumer to shop online—globally nearly 150 million people tried it for the first time in 2020. Savvy retailers large and small upped their game to accommodate the tidal wave of new demand. Some sold direct to consumer (DTC) for the first time.
According to shopify.com, in 2020 the world experienced the equivalent of 10 years of e-commerce growth in just 90 days: “As countries locked down and retailers were forced to close, e-commerce reached an all-time high of 16.4% of total global retail sales. It’s not just Gen Z and millennials driving this trend—older shoppers have also moved online.” A Shopify global survey across 11 markets showed that 84% of consumers have shopped online during the pandemic.
In 2020, retail e-commerce sales growth was 18.1% in North America. Other regions saw even more explosive numbers. Central and Eastern Europe experienced a 21.5% jump. The change is almost certainly permanent, according to most experts, and those businesses that don’t make the adjustment to a world of robust e-commerce will be left behind in 2021. “If you’re waiting for this to end, you say we’re gonna be back to normal in two months, that we’re just biding our time and getting through it, then you’re gonna be screwed,” said Jill Manoff, Editor in Chief of Glossy.
After such a sea-change year, what does 2021 hold in store for e-commerce? Here’s what industry experts are saying about trends and who’s driving them.
New shopping habits will remain after the danger passes
More consumers have shopped online than in-store since the pandemic began: 84% to 65%. Despite the promise of vaccines, 79% of consumers said they will continue to shop online regularly six months from now. Only 57% say they’ll shop in-store regularly in six months’ time. And 50% of consumers would like the ability to schedule a time for in-store shopping even after the pandemic eases.
Informed by social media, young consumers lead the way
Millennial consumers are driving the e-commerce trend, with 67% shifting more of their spending to online shopping compared to earlier this year, ahead of older age groups (57% for consumers 35-54, 41% for 55+). And 54% of younger consumers who purchase from independent retailers discover brands via social media compared to 43% of middle-aged consumers and 25% of older consumers.
Green is good—so is generosity
Consumers who shop online, especially if they’re younger, are increasingly drawn toward sustainable and green products (62% say that’s important to them). Other demographic cohorts are less influenced by the preference, but the numbers are still significant: 53% of middle-aged consumers and 44% of older consumers like to shop green. And 49% of consumers say they would support online retailers that make charitable donations.
Consumers care about delivery cost and flexibility
Traditional shipping still holds the lion’s share of the delivery market (54% of online purchases were sent this way in 2020). But alternative methods are getting popular: This year, 28% of e-commerce consumers received items through local delivery; 23% picked up their items in-store or curbside; 21% went to a pickup-point. 59% of consumers say free shipping would improve their experience with a company. 75% of merchants who generated online sales between March and September have free shipping.
Three cheers for the little guy
Online consumers of all ages increasingly lean toward supporting smaller and locally owned businesses over larger ones and franchises. 65% say they actively support small businesses, and 66% say they like to shop locally to support the local economy. 57% are willing to shop at new brands or stores for the first time if they fit those criteria. In contrast, only 31% of consumers purchased from a traditional big box retailer in the past six months, and only 28% say they’ll do so regularly in six months’ time.
Getting more vocal
People are increasingly relying on voice assistant devices to do everything, from waking them to buying products online. This is a trend that is quickly saturating the market—75% of U.S. households will have smart speakers by 2025. Voice commerce sales are anticipated to reach $40 billion by 2022.
Phoning it in
As consumers' trust in online shopping increases, they feel more comfortable making purchases using their mobile devices. By the end of 2021, mobile devices are expected to account for 73% of total e-commerce sales. According to 3dcart, 30% of online shoppers will abandon their carts in the middle of shopping if they find out that a company’s website is not mobile-friendly.
AI and AR will help us shop
Online sellers will spend $7.3 billion on Artificial Intelligence by 2022, and more than 120,000 stores will be using Augmented Reality technologies by the end of that year. AI offers the consumer personalized guidance and recommendations, using shoppers’ past purchase history and browsing behavior to guide them toward products that might interest them. AI can also automate important tasks such as 24/7 customer support with chatbots. Augmented reality (AR) shows customers how a certain product would look on them, bringing comparison shopping to a whole new level. According to 1Digital Agency, 35% of consumers say they would increase their online shopping if they could virtually interact with a product before buying it, and 22% would be less likely to visit a brick-and-mortar store if AR was available via their favorite e-commerce store.
Go online or go home
The cumulative message of all these emerging trends is obvious: go with the e-flow, or be left high and dry. 3dcart predicts that by the end of 2022, e-retail revenues will rocket to 85% above their 2019 totals, from $3.53 trillion to $6.54 trillion. “By 2022, organizations using multiple go-to-market approaches for digital commerce will outperform (other) organizations by 30 percentage points in sales growth,” according to Gartner Research & Advisory.
Watch for other trends to gain strength as the year unfolds: more methods of payment, dynamic pricing, omnichannel shopping. Businesses that are early adopters of emerging trends can find a crucial edge in an increasingly competitive online marketplace.