Ecommerce: Here to stay
Europeans have embraced ecommerce when it comes to shopping – and the trend shows no sign of stopping
The Centre for Retail Research recently revealed that combined ecommerce retail sales in Western Europe came to £328.91billion in 2022, up 116% on the 2015 figure.
When it comes to comparisons with overall retail sales – including bricks and mortar stores – the online market share in Europe has climbed from 4.8% in 2012 to 15.4% today. The UK leads the way with a 26.5% share in 2022, up from 10.6% in 2012, followed by Germany with 19.6%, up from 5.9%.
For comparison the US has an 18.8% share up from 9.7% in 2012 whilst China has a 27.2% share, up from 10.6% in 2014.
There are many drivers behind the growth particularly the Covid pandemic lockdowns, which largely closed high street stores. As a result, shoppers went online to buy essentials, such as groceries, as well as games to keep everyone at home entertained. Sales of hot tubs in the UK, for example, soared by 490% on eBay in the first lockdown.
Shoppers who may have been wary of spending online – preferring the buzz and simplicity of in-store shopping – began to enjoy the freedom of doing all of this at the click of a button.
That click wasn’t just via a computer but increasingly via mobile phone apps. Insider Intelligence expects this so-called 'mcommerce' to account for 43.4% of total retail ecommerce sales in 2023, up from 41.8% in 2022.
Another obvious driver is the explosion in choice for shoppers including the pure-play ecommerce retailers and the growing online presence of brick-and-mortar retailers.
In addition, there has been growth in new destinations such as the Metaverse, social commerce sales via Tik-Tok and Instagram and online marketplaces where new, often small third-party brands can sell their wares.
There are also more delivery options for customers such as same day services and innovations, including lockers, where they can pick up and return parcels.
“Ecommerce isn’t a fad anymore. It is very much part of the modern consumer landscape. The experiences of Covid have become the norm,” says Struan Wood, CX Partner at brand and customer experience agency New Commercial Arts.
The customer experience must be enhanced
But there are pitfalls on the road to further growth particularly the use of technology and customer experience.
“Many thought the lockdowns would mark a permanent shift away from physical retail,” says Simon Cope-Thompson, MD Arrowpoint Advisory. “The reality is that once the retail world re-opened for business, many consumers drifted back to their old buying habits.”
Indeed, according to the Centre for Retail Research, the online share of total retail in the UK surged to a high of 35% between the end of 2021 and early 2022 before it dropped to its current figure as the high street returned to life.
“In addition, many retailers scaled up their ecommerce channels so rapidly that they had not focused on getting the basic building blocks in place first,” says Cope-Thompson. “Whilst consumers may have given brands the benefit of the doubt during the pandemic when faced with poor customer service or delays in shipping, retailers who have continued to disappoint have seen their customers move away.”
Sam Richardson, customer engagement consultant at Twilio believes that for consumers the ecommerce experience often feels like it has stagnated, barely evolving beyond an online catalogue.
She says: “Customers are presented with the same homepage as everyone else, and must filter for size, price range and other preferences even if they’ve visited before. Filtering the choices down can be time consuming, and likely turns a lot of customers off from browsing.”
Other pain points have included order fulfilment being too technical or costly with compliance and regulations, particularly when going cross-border, also a concern.
Other barriers to growth include fitting in online home deliveries with more people returning to the office full-time, the inconvenience of having to parcel up returns, environmental concerns around the logistics of ecommerce, checkout processes and payment options which are too complex and time consuming to complete.
Wood says one glaring issue is the lack of brand connection between shoppers and ecommerce firms. “The functionality of ecommerce is quick click, quick buy, easy transaction,” he says. “You can’t rely on great staff service to be the halo, so ecommerce firms need to find ways to create loyalty. One way is ensuring that the customer visit to your website is seamless – that all the forms work, the pages open and the journey to sale is simple. You also need ‘Wow’ moments such as Selfridges with its Yellow Draw service where you sign into its app for a chance to win latest edition products.”
Finding the right technology is certainly key to success. Product and customer data analysis as well as AI can be utilised to offer more personalised services including new products and more convenient and predictive delivery options.
AI can also help customers find the exact right shape and size of clothing before they buy, reducing returns and associated environmental impact. Knowing more about their customers, where and how they shop will also help ecommerce firms offer the most convenient payment solutions either online or in-store.
Omnichannel model provides a personalised experience
Indeed, going omnichannel and merging the online and the physical, such as ecommerce only firms opening up pop-up stores, is another way to give existing and new shoppers a more personal experience.
Wood says platforms such as BigCommerce can help firms tackle these issues to scale consistently and support good customer experience.
Despite the strains, the long-term forecasts for the e-commerce sector look promising with, according to Statista, global retail ecommerce sales tipped to rise from $5.2trillion in 2021 to $8.1trillion by 2026.
Ecommerce firms need to be ready to grab their share.
“We are at an important juncture for e-commerce firms in terms of usability, the lack of personal customer touch to develop sticky relationships, and the crippling return rates in cost and sustainability,” says Richardson. “It's about being more human and recognising customers as individuals.”
5 ways to use ecommerce to optimise and scale your business
Ecommerce: the key to business expansion, data optimisation, an improved user experience and productivity
Whether you are looking to open new stores in your home country or abroad, ecommerce can make the process so much easier. By selling through your website or online marketplaces – which according to marketplace Boulevard will account for around 59% of global ecommerce by 2027 – you can find new customers without the cost, time and hassle involved in opening new physical stores or finding trusted distributors.
But you shouldn’t ignore the physical side. More companies are looking at taking an omnichannel approach, seamlessly integrating online and brick-and-mortar retail experiences rather than looking at them as separate and often competing channels. A recent study from in-store digital entertainment provider M-Cube revealed that 86% of UK retail leaders believe having a strong in-store omnichannel strategy is important for success. It found that since implementing omnichannel strategies, 69% of businesses have seen an increase in sales or revenues.
“Physical stores never died and are adapting themselves to a new generation of digital shoppers, whilst online only are adjusting by opening up pop-up and experiential stores,” says Alexios Blanos, UK Business Director at M-Cube. “A customer should have a journey starting from ecommerce and ending in the store, or the opposite.”
That could mean browsing in store, touching, perhaps trying on products and then either buying online in store or doing so back at home. It can also be QR codes within stores, which offer personalised products or customer discounts, sales staff looking at customer data and online buying history and suggesting new products at checkout or at dedicated click and collect points. Returns are another opportunity for salespeople to help customers find alternative products when in-store.
Data from ecommerce can be collected, managed and analysed to give a deeper and richer picture of who a company’s customers are, how they shop and the type of products they prefer. First-party data can be collected in a variety of ways from lead generation forms to find out about your customers demographics, jobs, favourite products, polls, quizzes and chatbots, to data-tracking tools that discover how much time people spend on a site and the type of device they use to engage.
Data from customer and product purchase is also crucial. “Many retail businesses drag their feet on data maturity due to the absence of an internal data culture. But there is a pressing need for retailers to stay in touch with rapidly evolving customer behaviour and data-driven technologies,” says Simon Ratcliffe, principal consultant at Ensono.
“Behavioural analytics and purchase monitoring have proven return on investment and are scalable for retail businesses of all sizes. Many organisations have a treasure trove of data from years of interactions, but it is too often disconnected and stored in different silos across the business. We can gather the data from this multitude of legacy sources and turn it into valuable information that can drive a retail business forward.”
According to recent research from Manhattan Associates, only 20% of the retailers studied provided personalised product recommendations and offers. Personalisation matters because being able to predict their needs, tastes, preferences and pain-points can make customers feel special and drive loyalty.
Retailers can use data to give customers personalised experiences across multiple touch points, including product recommendations; prices based on purchase history, demographics and location; and homepages. They can also use AI chatbots to offer personalised support 24/7. It can also help strengthen omnichannel strategies. US electronics group Best Buy has a ‘local store mode’ on its app, which automatically activates when a customer walks into a store. They are then sent personalised push notifications tailored to the store’s inventory.
Ian Truscott, chief marketing officer at the Spotler Group, says: “You can have functionality like personalised site search, live chat, recommendations and integrated email that supports cart abandonment campaigns, order tracking and invoicing. And, in the back office, understanding the customer’s likes, preferences and behaviour in a customer data platform.”
He adds that “a composable commerce stack” approach can help retailers create an IT platform that meets their needs and budget, and grow “rather than be encumbered by the cost and complexity of a monolithic solution”.
BigCommerce believes that composable commerce gives ecommerce firms the flexibility they need to quickly respond to changing customer needs and trends. For years, the server, the all-in-one monolithic structure which ties together the front-end – the digital storefront – and the back-end has held sway.
But for firms launching multiple brands or websites and expanding into new regions, or selling through marketplaces, the needs are more complex. Like LEGO pieces, composable commerce allows users to quickly join and detach software components – from a variety of vendors – like virtual shopping carts or new payment systems to your tech stack when needed.
“At the heart of composable lies packaged business capabilities. Given their lack of rigidity, these are easy to add and integrate,” says Casper Rasmussen, global SVP of technology at Valtech. “Composable tech stacks enable brands to interact across all relevant touchpoints – whether its physical or online – and have all the customer data that is collected feed into the same core. This enables business retailers to deliver more personalised customer experiences.”
Your ecommerce platform should be viewed as an essential business asset. As such, there should be a clear focus on the total cost of ownership such as setting up, supporting and maintaining it. By following the above actions and having a scalable, pluggable and flexible ecommerce solution, you can reduce the cost in time and human resources.
For example, with a composable approach you buy the software you need rather than all services from a monolithic provider. Having strong customer and product data also improves the productivity of your customer, sales and marketing teams as you know much more about who is shopping with you and why.
Why BigCommerce is retail’s secret weapon for driving growth
Headless ecommerce allows businesses to custom build on their website's front-end, using pre-integrated APIs or bespoke options, to build a superior customer experience
European retailers are increasingly turning to headless commerce in their quest to stay ahead of their rivals in the ever-competitive ecommerce marketplace.
As explained by Mark Adams, senior vice president and general manager for EMEA at BigCommerce, headless commerce software architecture means the splitting up of the front-end of a website – the part the public see when they click on, browse and hopefully buy from – and the back-end, the systems that help you manage operations.
Instead of worrying about those technical back-end necessities through their legacy platform, retailers can offload those to a specialist provider, such as BigCommerce, and concentrate on the creative and design aspects of their ecommerce site instead.
“With a headless architecture,” says Adams, “you can either custom build on the front-end using our pre-integrated APIs or build what you want. Whatever the choice, enterprise-grade merchants with sophisticated businesses really want to do this. They want to offer a very unique customer experience.”
Related, and at the core of SaaS providers like BigCommerce, is a growing demand for composable commerce solutions. In essence, this is where retailers, instead of signing up to a suite of software services from one monolithic vendor, replatform and take a plug-and-play approach. This implies picking the software components that can quickly meet specific business needs, in the manner of a virtual shopping cart or click-and-collect. Such a composable tech stack can be assembled and disassembled like a giant Lego train whilst being powered by a core back-end platform.
Ecommerce can offer services to B2C and B2B customers
“Retailers are struggling with the cost of ecommerce acquisition, service, delivery and their entire technological infrastructure,” said Adams. “They need to ensure that the technology they invest in delivers a return on investment, a strong customer experience and increase in conversion rates, particularly when consumer budgets are so tight in the cost-of-living crisis. We are the secret weapon that can help them achieve these goals, accelerate their speed to market, cut costs and drive revenue.”
BigCommerce now helps tens of thousands of mid-market and enterprise businesses across 150 nations. The ability to grow alongside its customers and adapt to ever changing trends has helped BigCommerce create a number of market-leading unique selling points.
One of those is the ability to offer services to both B2C and B2B customers, such as manufacturers and retail wholesalers.
“The majority of our customers are B2C ecommerce but over the last few years we have seen a significant number of B2B merchants with online businesses coming to us asking to use BigCommerce,” explains Adams. “Following a couple of acquisitions in this space over the last 18 months, BundleB2B and B2B Ninja, we have increased the functionality, such as quote and account management to our core platform. Now around 20% of our customers use BigCommerce primarily for B2B sales. It is a fast-growing area. We are the only multi tenant SaaS platform with out-of-the-box functionality for B2B and B2C on the same platform.”
Its second unique selling point is its omnichannel functionality that allows ecommerce firms to mix the online with the offline in terms of physical stores and new channels, such as online marketplaces and social commerce.
“Within our platform, we’ve natively integrated to a number of marketplaces that offer third-party solutions, like Amazon and eBay, as well as social platforms like TikTok and Instagram,” says Adams. “We want our merchants to be able to sell on any channel and have multiple storefronts if required for different regions, brands and segments. This includes showing a customer in store the full inventory they can order from in real-time on their device. It helps cut fulfilment costs and improves sustainability.”
Adams says another recent acquisition, Feedonomics, delivers rich, channel-specific product data to help create a more unified and personalised shopping experience. “Feedonomics allows you to optimise the right products on the right channels for the right customer – and adapt quicker to changes in their behaviour,” he explains.
“This should improve conversion rates, give you a greater return on advertising spend and lower the cost of acquisition. Our broad omnichannel strategy is now really evolving into true market leadership.”
Of course, there’s little point in offering omnichannel options to consumers if, when they come to pay, they find the process so cumbersome that they switch their phone off or slam down their laptop lid.
Adams says it is important for B2C and B2B merchants to offer a range of payment systems and options to their customers. “We offer a very flexible checkout solution thanks to the integration of different payment providers, such as Buy Now Pay Later, pay by bank transfer or credit card,” he says. “A merchant can create their own checkout features across all of their channels. Whatever option they think is best for their business and customers,we can support that flexibility, allowing for better conversions.”
Europe: an innovation hub for digital commerce
Adams says that its merchant services crucially lead to a lower total cost of ownership, compared with its enterprise competitors including Adobe or Salesforce. “We offer a rock-solid ROI,” he says. “I think US and European retailers have got used to conversion rates of around 2%. We believe that’s not good enough, especially when you’re spending a lot of money acquiring that traffic. That becomes uneconomical. So, if you focus on conversion, cost and customer experience, including product data, payment solutions and fulfilment, you can grow your business efficiently. You can increase speed to market and expand geographically by using marketplaces to reduce fulfilment costs.”
Europe, Adams adds, is one of the best regions to make these changes in. “Europe is an innovation hub in digital commerce, particularly payments. It’s even greater than the US. In addition, composable and headless commerce has much more traction here.
“Europe is a more forward-thinking, vibrant market because you have to solve problems in different ways depending on each and every territory. It will certainly be the centrepiece of our growth strategy in the years to come, with digital experience central to most retailers’ growth prospects.”
He reiterates that technology will be the main differentiator between success and failure for those firms. “Technology will enable you to outpace your competition,” he says. “But the key is not to make bets on stuff. You need to focus on technology that has a strong ROI business case. It’s about understanding your core market and being cost effective. It means getting better about executing and I don’t just mean headless commerce.”
How composable ecommerce can help organisations scale up and become futureproof
Through its ecommerce platform, Bluespresso, the Dutch distributor of Lavazza, improved its B2B offering while boosting efficiency and saving revenue
When it comes to realising the power of B2B e-commerce you could say that Lavazza by Bluespresso has already woken up and smelled the coffee.
Bluespresso BV, the distributor of the Lavazza coffee brand in the Netherlands and Belgium, recently teamed up with BigCommerce and tech partner rb2 to build a scalable, future-proof e-commerce platform. The goal was to improve the service it offers to over 5,000 business customers across the two countries and cut operating marketing and sales costs.
“The main aim of the project was to replatform from a previous provider to BigCommerce, so from one monolithic application to a composable B2B e-commerce implementation with headless architecture,” explains Zhangpeng Chen, Technical Lead at rb2. “The platform needed to host three channels – Lavazza Nederland, Lavazza Belgium and the Bol.com marketplace. So, it was also aiming to combine B2B and B2C on the same platform which is something quite unique to BigCommerce.”
Bluespresso, which offers various blends of Lavazza coffee, machines and accessories to hospitality firms and office workers needing a quick pick-me-up during the day, wanted the focus to be on B2B because 90% of its existing webshop transactions come from this sector.
Despite the demand, there were a number of pain-points with its original e-commerce offering, including being able to onboard new, loyal business customers.
Previously, account managers, after visiting restaurants and businesses, had to inform their sales colleagues about the customer-specific product catalogue and price list. The sales staff then used this information to issue quotes. The brand felt this was a time-consuming and error-prone process.
Headless commerce engine
In addition, there were limited opportunities for business customers to view agreed-upon terms and conditions, the selection of products they ordered and specific prices and discounts. It was also a challenge for the marketing team to carry out targeted and personalised campaigns towards B2B customers to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Lavazza by Bluespresso also wanted to better service both private and business customers in the Netherlands and Belgium by being multilingual and supporting Dutch, English and French languages. They also wanted to brew up better product content with images, tags, allergen information and sales channels.
“The old platform was not extendable or scalable and adding new features and integrating with additional applications required a lot of effort,” explains Chen. “There was also a lack of quality insights and details on the store’s performance to drive more revenue. Another problem was that the performance and page speed of the old platform was not very good affecting user experience and SEO.”
The solution was to combine a powerful, headless commerce engine from BigCommerce in the back end of the new commerce platform, with the front-end – what the public sees – developed by rb2.
rb2’s B2B features include allowing Lavazza by Bluespresso field sales staff to quickly and easily enter product requirements, special pricing and other conditions during customer appointments via a mobile app.
The headless webshop also had to integrate seamlessly with existing applications, such as Adyen, Prismic and Zegris. In addition, the brand wanted to add a loyalty platform – Piggy – to its ecommerce environment to drive revenue.
rb2 built a composable architecture for Bluespresso, choosing best-of-breed applications rather than developing them themselves.
"CoreConnect, built to accelerate composable B2B commerce with BigCommerce, is used to centralise all product data received from the ERP system through our standard PIM integration,” adds Chen.
“The CoreConnect B2B app is used to manage all B2B customers – companies, company employees, company address book – allow payment by invoice and connect the company with the BigCommerce customer group and price list. In such a large project, we had a lot of challenges of course, but with the help of CoreConnect, we removed a lot of complexity and saved time and money with a ready-to-use solution.”
The benefits of the change are clear – a powerful, flexible and future-proof commerce platform for Lavazza by Bluespresso in the Netherlands and Belgium.
“Lower costs, a better user experience and of course high SEO scores are the main results,” says Chen. “In addition, thanks to built-in analytics from BigCommerce there are now greater insights on the store’s performance which will drive up more revenue.”
He strongly recommends that more companies consider replatforming into composable B2B e-commerce.
“B2B companies and solutions often require more integration with external systems. Most of the time you end up with a complex architecture that is difficult to maintain,” he says. “By going headless, B2B companies can eliminate the dependency on a single solution with limited capabilities, experience fast and easy deployment, changes, iterations, and strategy modifications. They can also deliver seamless, relevant, and personalised experiences across channels and touchpoints without making any performance tradeoffs.”
Something is certainly brewing for B2B e-commerce as the competition for online customers increases.
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