Nobody could predict what the rise of eCommerce would look like and how it would change whole industries. But its effect on our culture and economy is hard to overstate.

And while nobody can know the future—there will always be new surprises in store for us—we can make some educated guesses about what’s to come based on the current state of eCommerce. 

Here are a few predictions of what may be in store in the future of eCommerce.

1. An explosion of new eCommerce businesses will rise in the wake of COVID-19.

The coronavirus has already started to reshape how the economy looks. Brands that previously had a business model entirely dependent on people showing up in store must now either evolve or shutter. And evolving in the age of shelter-in-place orders means eCommerce. 

In addition to the existing businesses scrambling to evolve, the U.S. has seen an increase in unemployment numbers unheard of since the great depression. Those workers both have a strong incentive to consider new career paths and a lot of time on their hands. It’s a safe bet that at least some of them will treat this as an opportunity to explore entrepreneurship. And the most obvious type of business to start in the current state of things is an eCommerce one.

While there aren’t good numbers yet as to how many new eCommerce businesses this crisis has spawned—and even less known about which of those businesses will survive to the other side of it—it seems highly likely that the coronavirus will produce an influx of new online businesses. Some will be an evolved version of brick-and-mortar businesses from before the pandemic, and others will rise entirely in response to the new world. 

2. Many services that go online during the pandemic will stay online.

Some types of services require in-person meetings. You can’t organize someone’s closet without going to their house, or draw someone’s blood for tests without having them come into the doctor’s office. But service providers and their customers are now learning just how many services can be effectively provided over digital channels. 

Telemedicine and teletherapy are nothing new, but people who may have been hesitant to try them before are now forced to. Some of those that do will find that the digital version works just fine, and removes the headache of sitting in traffic or dealing with parking. The same calculations will happen for other types of service-based businesses, like coaching and IT consulting. 

While there will definitely still be people who prefer the in-person experience with service providers they hire, others will come to take for granted at least having the choice for a more convenient option. 

3. Website builders will be the design option of choice for small eCommerce businesses.

The influx of new eCommerce businesses we predicted above will largely be started by people with little coding or web design experience. In the past, that would have been a significant hurdle to getting an online store off the ground. But in 2020, it’s no problem at all.

Now, new website owners have a number of affordable (or even free) eCommerce website builders they can turn to for creating a website, regardless of their skill level. Website builders provide templates designed by professionals that incorporate user experience (UX) best practices. New eCommerce entrepreneurs can change up the templates by switching out colors, uploading custom images, and moving elements using drag-and-drop functionality. And in a matter of hours, or even minutes, they’ll have a functional customized eCommerce website ready.

In uncertain economic times like these, the ability to get an online store up fast and affordably will be more attractive to most than taking on a more complicated web design project. Many of the next wave of online stores will therefore be built with the popular website builders now available—or potentially with new ones that come onto the market to address the growing interest. 

4. Online marketplaces will take over a significant share of the eCommerce landscape.

So far, we’ve mostly addressed the eCommerce businesses that create and sell through their own website. But that ignores what’s already a big sector of the eCommerce industry: online marketplaces. Sites like Amazon, Etsy, and ebay give individuals and businesses a way to tap into the audiences built by a larger band. You can set up an account on the relevant marketplace(s), list your products, and sell through their eCommerce platform.

Some eCommerce brands base their entire business model on finding buyers through popular marketplaces. Some start there to test out a product idea, then branch off into building their own website once they’ve confirmed there’s a market for their services. And others use a hybrid model—selling products both through their own website and on the marketplaces. 

While there are pluses and minuses to selling your brand’s products on a marketplace, there’s no denying that the influence of these eCommerce sites—especially Amazon—on the way people shop and buy makes them an important part of the eCommerce landscape. Competing against them is difficult, and a certain portion of online businesses will choose instead to work with them. 

5. Mobile shopping will be the norm for a large portion of the population.

This is an easy prediction because, well, it’s already true. eMarketer research found that over a third of all eCommerce sales happen on smartphones. So while this isn’t a trend that will be new to the future, it still bears mentioning because of how significant a role mobile devices will continue to play in the future of eCommerce.

The continued popularity of mobile shopping will mean businesses must continue (or start) to include mobile devices in their overall marketing strategy. That means determining whether or not building a mobile app for the business makes sense. It may include investing in mobile-specific channels like SMS ads (short message service, the more technical term for text messaging) or running ads on mobile apps. And it definitely, at minimum, means making sure your website is mobile friendly.  

6. Consumer security concerns will change the way eCommerce businesses use and think about data.

Personalization and big data have been big buzzwords in business for the past several years, but in the background of those trends has been a small and growing backlash. Many of today’s consumers are uncomfortable with how much data brands collect about them and how businesses use that data. That concern is reflected in recent laws regulating business data, most notably Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). 

Many eCommerce businesses will continue to collect as much customer data as they can, regardless of consumer opinion. But some will see this as an opportunity. While competitors casually and sneakily collect as much information as possible, they’ll gain customer favor with data transparency. That doesn’t have to mean scrapping data collection entirely—70% of U.S. consumers in one survey said they were fine with sharing personal data if they knew the brand would store it safely and securely. But 65% worry now about how their data is being used by companies. 

Savvy eCommerce companies will see an opportunity to be the differentiator here and take a much more cautious and open approach to consumer data collection and use. 

7. Eco-conscious consumers will inspire a growth in environmentally friendly eCommerce brands.

Half of consumers worry about the environmental impact of their shopping choices, according to the Global Web Index.  Those numbers are even higher for young generations.

preference for eco-friendly products by generation

And consumers are willing to put their money toward those values. A CGS Survey found that over a third would willingly spend up to 25% more for a more sustainable product. For entrepreneurs, green eCommerce is an opportunity. 

For some eCommerce brands, going green may simply mean giving more thought to the kind of packaging you use for your products. But there are also opportunities to build businesses entirely on sustainability. You could create products with recycled materials, like Indosole’s sandals made from recycled tires. Or produce products that help customers cut down on more wasteful habits, like Stasher’s reusable bags that replace plastic ones. 

ecommerce brand mission page
ecommerce brand mission

Eco-friendly eCommerce brands are already out there. But with a growing consumer interest in spending based on values, there’s room for eCommerce growth. 

8. Customer service and values will become top differentiators.

You’ll always have consumers that decide on price, that’s unlikely to change. But with eCommerce behemoths like Amazon and Walmart able to provide lower prices than everyone else due to their size, smaller eCommerce brands must find other ways to differentiate. And the smart way to do that in the coming years is to focus on two things: standing for something, and creating an amazing shopping experience for customers.

As the political world grows more polarized, consumers care more about knowing what brands stand for, and want to make sure they’re choosing companies that match their personal values. Accenture research found that:

  • 63% of consumers prefer to buy from purpose-driven brands
  • 65% want to know a brand they buy from treats its employees well
  • 62% care that they’re working to reduce their use of plastic and other unsustainable materials
  • 74% value transparency in how products are sourced, how safe working conditions are, and any testing done on animals

Having a clear cause, and making sure your eCommerce business actions match your rhetoric around it can pay off. 

That’s one big way to separate your brand from the Amazons and Walmarts of the world (who don’t fare well in consumer opinion on most of those counts). The other is providing a better customer experience. Smaller eCommerce businesses can stand apart by providing genuine, personal customer service that consumers remember and talk about. Qualtrics found that 95% of customers who consider a company’s customer experience (CX) very good will recommend it, and 94% will purchase from them again. 

Customer retention is at least as important for eCommerce brands as customer acquisition. A solid CX is one of the best ways to turn first-time buyers into loyal customers. 

9. AI-driven chatbots will take over a share of marketing and customer service.

In recent years, the chat boxes that pop up at the bottom of business websites have become a common sight. While sometimes these have a human behind them answering questions in real time, a lot of the time these are chatbots that serve up answers based on artificial intelligence.

AI chatbots can provide a lot of tangible benefits for eCommerce businesses:

  • They can provide answers to common questions visitors have 24/7 (while human customer service employees need to sleep).
  • They can offer personalized product and content recommendations to website visitors based on their interests.
  • They can cut down on the time customer service representatives spend answering basic questions.
  • Every interaction they have with visitors teaches them something about your audience, which makes future answers and information they provide even more useful.

AI chatbots are a prime example of how eCommerce has transformed marketing. As the technology that powers them becomes more affordable and accessible, more businesses are likely to adopt them. They’ll offload some of the work marketing and customer service departments do now, and provide website visitors with useful information at the moment they’re looking for it. 

10. Voice will become a common part of the buyer’s journey.

Smart speakers are already a sizable industry. Combine them with the voice assistants included across smartphone models, and voice search has become a regular part of life for many of today’s consumers. While that hasn’t translated to people doing their shopping entirely via voice, it does now mean that people do a number of shopping-related activities that way.

Digital Commerce reports that around 20% of consumers that own smart speakers have done some kind of shopping-related activity with the speaker, whether that’s product research, making shopping lists, or making purchases. If the smart speaker industry continues to grow, and brands find ways to make shopping-related activities easier to perform via voice alone, it’s likely to gain a greater prominence in how people shop online. 

eCommerce brands that haven’t started factoring voice into their marketing strategies should consider doing so now. The sooner you know how to appeal to the voice-based customer, the better you’ll be able to adapt as this part of the market grows. 

Prepare for the Future of eCommerce

Nobody knew at this time last year that the world would be so thoroughly changed by a contagious virus. And none of us can know for sure what next year will bring. The best you can do is to stay on top of researching eCommerce trends and predictions, and do what you can to prepare for the changes likely to come.

Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.