The Future of Commerce: 
Experiences and Experiments

In my role at Shopify Plus, I’ve been studying the fastest growing online brands, wondering how they set themselves apart from average companies. What differentiates them is their commitment to the best experiences for their customers and executing the quickest experiments in the market.

Why do these make all the difference? Because in a world where everything is becoming a commodity and attention is scarce, remarkable experiences are the currency of lasting customer relationships. And experimentation will get you at the front of the next massive wave of growth because no one knows what that next wave will be.

Let’s start with customer experience and how it’s done at the highest level.

Get to know your customers

In 2014, Allbirds launched their new shoe brand with a focus on simplicity and sustainability. They only sold online at first, but knew that in order to succeed they had to find ways to learn as much as possible about their customers. And what better way to do that than to sit down and help them buy shoes?

In the words of Allbirds co-founder, Joey Zwillinger, “With San Francisco, we put the shop inside of our headquarters and we carved out about 400 square feet just so we could learn from customers every single day.”

Here’s the current San Francisco store. Note the unique layout: how often do you see a bar in a shoe store?
The interior of the Allbirds store in San Francisco
As you enter, you sit at the bar and the store associate gets to know you and what you’re interested in. The full stock is behind the bar so you never have that awkward feeling when the salesperson walks away and leaves you sitting alone, waiting.

This creativity infuses everything Allbirds does, including how they make and even package their product. Allbirds knows that their customers value creativity and uniqueness, so they developed a shoebox with an entirely new design.

The novel Allbirds shoebox design

The company pours their learnings from in-person operations into their main sales channel: the online store. And they’ve seen incredible results: Allbirds’ recent funding round had them valued at $1.4 billion. Not bad for a four-year-old shoe brand!

A high-level takeaway here is that smart businesses invest in activities that set them apart and deliver exceptional experiences. Which means they’re also automating and offloading lower-value activities.

Automate what you can, and invest in what matters

Ecommerce automation products are becoming more popular since they allow you to focus on delivering exceptional customer experiences, in half the time. Successful merchants are automating inventory and order management, brand experience, smart merchandising, marketing segmentation, personalized experiences, and more.

For example, Saski Collection uses Shopify Flow to surprise and delight their best customers. When a customer reaches VIP status for Saski, a notification goes to customer service who then sends that customer a $100 gift voucher to the online store. Since implementing this, Saski has seen increases in traffic and many happy emails from customers, saying they already have or that they’re going to tell their friends about Saski Collection.

Shopify Flow discussion screenshot

It’s a bit counterintuitive, but this example shows that automation can assist in the very human activities of making people feel appreciated and more loyal to your brand. Those benefits are in addition to making backend business workflows easier and cheaper for your ecommerce team. Learn more about Building Klaviyo Automations with Connectors for Shopify Flow.

Continuing with the topic of letting the machines do what they do best, let’s look at personalization.

Personalize everything

Given the outsize results that personalization delivers, you’d think everyone would be doing it, but the truth is that way too many online stores neglect personalization, leaving piles of money on the table. Personalization platforms are becoming so powerful and so simple to implement that there are very few good reasons not to be doing it.

LeSportsac found compelling results from personalization, increasing sales 12% after implementing their program. On a customer’s first visit to the site, they show several trending products (surfaced in real time based on sales data).
LeSportsac offers first-time visitors items that are currently trending

But once someone makes a purchase, the system knows more about them and their preferences, so it shows items with a higher likelihood of purchase based on data from other shoppers.
LeSportsac uses prior purchases to alter future offers

Just considering how good narrow AI is becoming and how powerful computing is getting–trends that will no doubt continue–you sense how massive a force in commerce AI personalization will become.

But not everything can be done by machines. Some activities are quintessentially human, such as telling stories.

Tell your story

Stories give your customers an emotional experience of who you are. It’s one of your strongest assets, because if your brand doesn’t have a story, why should anyone care? Without a story, your product no longer stands out. So where do great stories come from and how do you tell them in a compelling way across different channels?

Consumers want brands to take a stand on issues that matter to them. In a Sprout Social study of 1,000 consumers from 2017, they found two-thirds of consumers (66%) say it’s important for brands to take public stands on social and political issues. But it has to be relevant: the issue must affect your customers, employees, or operations or else it will come across as hollow and inauthentic. That authentic stand you take is your story.

And it impacts sales: Nielsen’s Global Corporate Sustainability report shows that 66% of consumers will spend more on a product that comes from a sustainable brand.

Within a physical retail environment, telling your story is easier in some ways because it can happen in the space itself–think Starbucks with the images of the coffee growers on the walls. Digital provides more of a challenge because of the limited visual space available. After all, you don’t want people to lose track of where they are and leave your site without taking a look at the products you sell.

A company who successfully tells their story online is Outerknown. Here’s one of their recent homepages:

The Outerknown home page
Hover over the Sustainability link and the following menu flies out:
Outerknown Sustainability Menu Screenshot

It’s a rich format for telling their story within the context of the website. One additional advantage Outerknown has is that their agency partner gave them the tools to build new, customized pages without any coding required. They now can move at the speed of inspiration rather than waiting weeks (or months) to have a new page designed by a partner.

Once people are engaged with your brand in all the ways we’ve discussed so far, you need to make it easy for them to buy from you.

Payment as an experience

My favorite part of taking an Uber is paying by simply closing the door and walking away. What if your buyers could purchase products from your online store just as easily? What if there was next to no friction between decision and purchase? That’s the vision, and some merchants are doing almost exactly this.

Consider the rise of digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay and how they’re changing consumer expectations for the checkout experience. More and more we’re paying for things with our thumbprint and connected devices. Ecommerce stores that can leverage this and other accelerated payment technologies will prosper.

Fashion Nova, one of the fastest-growing players in the apparel vertical, makes excellent use of what’s called Dynamic Checkout. If a device is recognized to have Apple Pay or another digital wallet enabled, the product page the customer visits will show a button to purchase that product immediately with the enabled wallet. This means no cart page, no checkout flow, just thumbprint and go.

Fashion Nova dynamic checkout screenshot on mobile device

Think of the increase to conversions and drop in abandonment rates where a process that used to take between 2-5 minutes of clicking and typing is reduced to a single click and identity verification.

But as important as it is to let people buy your product with minimal friction, it’s even more so to help them get it–and return it–easily.

Optimize your logistics (in both directions)

Online shoppers today are spoiled by their experiences with the biggest players. If you aren’t getting customers their order within a few days, you’re already behind and need to stand out in another way. Are you surprising and delighting them when they get their package? Are you making returns stupidly simple to process? Without these elements you may never get that all-important repeat purchase, and all your marketing efforts to attract that buyer will be lost.

Remember, people are much more likely to buy if your shipping and returns are favorable. And they will abandon you if you make them jump through hoops to return a product. According to a Walker Sands report from 2018, the shipping and returns experience you offer has a huge impact on customer conversion and retention.

A table of data from Walker Sands
If you stop thinking about returns as a cost to your business, and start thinking of it as a natural part of the buying cycle for your best repeat customers, you may find that you need to invest more heavily in the returns experience. And that investment just may yield more of those ultra-valuable loyal customers.

While creating memorable experiences for your customers, you should also be uncovering new channels to find them.

Experiment with channels

The fact is, you’ll never know what channel is going to be the next big thing. And if you are an early player in the next hottest space for your buyers you will receive a major uplift from that. People have built empires by being an early influencer on a platform before ad prices and overall clutter reduced the effectiveness of that channel.

So how do you get out in front with these new sources of exposure and traffic? Frankly, you partner with a platform that will do that work for you. Otherwise you’re investing your company’s limited development resources in unproven acquisition channels. When you choose the right ecommerce partner, you can experiment much faster.

The latest source of explosive growth is Instagram Stories.

With over 400 million Instagram users viewing stories every day, you have a new way to reach an already engaged audience. Instagram recently launched stickers within stories, enabling sliders, polls, swipe up for Website, and of course, shopping.

Here’s an example of how Gymshark Women implemented interactive Stories for their Instagram followers recently:
A screenshot of Gymshark's Instagram Story
First I played around with a slider that allowed me to cast an emoji-based vote on the product.
Gymshark Instagram Story Screenshot
The next image contained an interactive poll and showed me how my vote compared to others.
Gymshark asks you to swipe up for more
After 3-4 interactive items, they invited me to swipe up…. landing me in the online store to purchase the items I was just engaging with!
Screenshot of the Gymshark online store

Instagram has made purchasing even easier with the introduction of the Product Sticker within Instagram Stories. It allows viewers to purchase directly within your Story, and the flow looks like this:
Purchasing integrated into Instagram
Click the price tag sticker and the screen turns into a shopping cart for buying the item directly.

Clicking on pricetag in an Instagram story brings you to this page

To summarize:

  • Create an unforgettable customer experience.
  • Automate what you can, freeing time for the meaningful.
  • Remove friction from your buying experience.
  • Great experiences rest on great logistics.
  • Experiment with channels, and fast.

The future of commerce is more diverse than ever. An experimental and experiential mindset will keep you in the game and thriving when the next big wave arrives for you to ride.

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