Even in its inaugural iteration, ecommerce was never outright inconvenient — certainly not when compared to traditional retail. And as the digital world has matured, almost everything has become easier to use. Interfaces have improved, accessibility has expanded, and educational resources have flooded the web. Today, it’s possible for a complete beginner to get selling in remarkably little time if they’re dedicated enough.
Still, ecommerce certainly has its fair share of challenges. In addition to knowing the sales industry, and being able to network and negotiate, an ecommerce seller must understand technology. This makes it a tough field for anyone who isn’t tech-savvy. And then there are the various practical problems of running an ecommerce operation.
Thankfully, that same steady design progress that made ecommerce the powerhouse it is today shows no sign of slowing down, ensuring that each year brings fresh technologies and tactics for making online selling easier. Here are some notable ecommerce challenges that are already being addressed through technology:
Trust is a tricky thing to achieve as an online business. When you have physical premises, you have various ways to encourage visitors to trust you: you can show professionalism through maintaining a spotless environment, hire capable and helpful store assistants, and — most importantly — showcase your products.
When people can closely examine products, even interacting with them, they can feel confident about their purchasing decisions. Online, you can’t showcase your products that way. All you can do is provide relevant materials, and that only goes so far. It’s better to have ten product images than just one, but even a hundred images won’t give you a great idea of what it’s like to view the product in person.
While this problem will never be fully overcome, AR/VR product resources stand to massively diminish its effects. A seller can create a 360-degree view of a product, allowing a shopper to view it far more closely. By adding the dimensions to a mobile AR app (along the lines of Ikea Place), they can make it possible for someone to preview the product in their home, getting a better idea of how it would look there than they would from viewing it in a physical store.
The advantage of doing retail the old-fashioned way is that it doesn’t need all that much upkeep. You bring in stock, open your store, and surf that wave until you need more (or different) stock. Most of the ongoing effort is dedicated to staffing the place and keeping it tidy.
Because an online store has no physical presence, though, it needs consistent effort to keep it viable in a hotly-competitive online marketplace. That typically calls for running PPC campaigns, updating website copy, producing blog posts, and — often the most time-consuming part — communicating with customers regarding their orders.
General admin for an ecommerce store can easily take up a lot of time, making it hard to scale the business, but it’s getting easier with the consistent improvement of chatbots and AI store assistants like Drift or Conversica. One well-designed chatbot can handle the bulk of the support requests for a store, and an AI assistant can make it easy for a store owner to make major updates from their smartphone — even starting a new programmatic PPC campaign with a single tap.
Additionally, the process of maintaining warehouse facilities can be smoothed out through the use of facilities management software such as FacilityBot. Keeping track of stock and dealing with the errors and failures that are unavoidable when you’re trying to handle high-level logistics can be hugely stressful, so putting a system in place to productively deploy artificial intelligence is an excellent long-term investment.
Design standards in the ecommerce world change quickly. Any fresh feature or convention can catch fire unexpectedly, leaving everyone scrambling to jump on the bandwagon. We’re actually seeing this happen with the aforementioned chatbots. In a short period of time, they’ve gone from being disregarded as novelties to being considered practical necessities by most brands.
For a small (or even medium) business, it can be really tough to keep up with the pace. A brick-and-mortar store design can remain unchanged for decades without business being adversely affected, but an ecommerce store that goes without updates for a year or so will start to look very dated. How quickly can a new social media channel enter the zeitgeist?
This is a problem for SaaS to solve, and it’s doing just that through the ever-increasing use of templates, set platforms, and automatically-updated layouts. Massively-scalable systems like Shopify Plus or Magento Commerce Cloud allow sellers to sit back and let their CMS providers seamlessly keep everything in line with shopper expectations. It’s a far cry from the original need to manually implement code changes every so often.
One of the fundamental strengths of ecommerce is its suitability for expansive selling. You can sell across regions, across state barriers, and even across national borders if you’re so inclined. While you could always do that from a brick-and-mortar business, you’d struggle to sell anywhere you didn’t have a physical presence — since a website is accessible from across the internet, it’s not an issue.
However, that opportunity brings a lot of complexity. Calculating taxation can be quite the annoyance, particularly given the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to allow states to pursue sales tax from out-of-state sellers. The more you sell, the more you need to calculate — and then there’s the paperwork of registering to pay tax in different areas.
Usefully, the industry has adapted quite quickly, and an ecommerce seller can use an automated tax solution like Avalara to handle everything on their behalf — even down to filing the required forms and confirming their acceptance. This allows online merchants to benefit from the immense potential of selling online without being encumbered by the associated demands.
As time goes by, running an ecommerce business is only going to get easier. Some elements keep getting harder, of course, but those are the creative aspects, and if you don’t have compelling ideas for a store, you’re not going to be successful anyway. Technology enablers are about getting the roadblocks out of the way, allowing you to drive in any direction you think is best.