Native digital brands and retailers that have invested in e-commerce over the past few years saw significant online revenue growth during the pandemic. Still, many brands were not digitally prepared for the consequences of COVID-19. 

The impact of shuttered stores, reduced capacity in contact centers and a lack of client-facing meetings resulted in operational challenges and declining revenues. With the economy slowly reopening, the shift to digital buying from both consumers and businesses is permanent. Online retailers need scalability to handle the kind of surge that occurred during the pandemic and to ensure growth in the years to come. 

Every retailer needs to future proof their investment in e-commerce, and the following trends illustrate ways they can achieve that goal.

Headless commerce is offering agility to retailers

A headless platform creates a separation between the user experience on the front end and processes on the back end. 

This separation has become critical in today’s environment. Retailers need the agility to test new experiences with their users without any constraints. A headless platform gives retailers the flexibility to build, test and deploy innovations independently of any back-end changes. 

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are changing customer journeys

AI is driving parts of the consumer shopping experience. It is beneficial for the customer journey lifecycle — from ad spend to site personalization and content creation to fulfillment optimization. AI and machine learning can drive efficiencies on the back end and automate time-consuming tasks. It can also optimize fraud detection and supply chain operations to increase margins. In the future, websites are predicted to run on autopilot and create hyper-personalized experiences. 

Visual configuration is supporting online shoppers

The pandemic has changed the consumer mindset and created high expectations around product discovery. Consumers often see less value in visiting a physical store, even for large product purchases. Retailers are moving away from static photography to leveraging 3D models and interactive augmented reality experiences. Consumers can now customize 3D products online or preview how a product will look in a room of their choice. 

Key mistakes are preventing retailers from leveraging the trends

Despite the trends, retailers are making platform technology mistakes. 

The first and foremost mistake is procrastination. Historically, retailers took years to build a business case and then go live on a new platform. The average time to market has reduced quite dramatically. Retailers need to focus on a rapid rollout of capabilities across the enterprise, leaving no brand, division, product line or market behind. 

The second most common mistake creates the Band-Aid effect. Retailers may not be able to secure budget or internal alignment to change platforms. Consequently, they take short-term measures to modernize parts of their platform or add vendors to correct their existing e-commerce platform’s worst-performing features. 

The problem with this approach is that retailers are not addressing the root of the challenge. Instead, they’re layering solutions on top of an existing platform, which creates more complexity. This approach often creates integration issues, points of failure, data synchronization and monitoring performance bottlenecks. The Band-Aid effect makes it harder to replace an e-commerce platform down the road.

The way forward for retailers is agility and flexibility

How can retailers avoid these mistakes and follow the right trends? The answer lies within agility. 

If a retailer is building a list of requirements for a new platform, they should focus on the quick wins first, selecting a pilot project or proof-of-concept program. Teams should resist the temptation to overload their request for proposals; every conceivable future requirement is not always necessary at once. 

Flexibility is also a best practice. An ideal e-commerce platform enables retailers to operate across all their divisions, brands, markets and product lines from a single cloud-based instance, to innovate and roll out enhancements rapidly and it provides significant operational efficiencies that come from having a centralized, single platform. 

Every retailer has learned (potentially the hard way) that e-commerce is critical to sustaining revenue in recent months, and the pivot to digital buying will not swing back after the pandemic. Putting off upgrades due to constraints, risks or other technology investment priorities is no longer a viable strategy. At the heart of those upgrades, the trends tell us, will be headless commerce, AI, machine learning and visual configuration.