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Meeting e-commerce customer expectations in 2022: 4 strategies for success

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[Updated post from January 19, 2021]

If there’s one thing we know about e-commerce, it’s that consumer expectations are always shifting. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital landscape has never been a more dynamic – or competitive – place to do business.

Legacy retailers who were once solidly brick and mortar have been forced to invest heavily in their online presence to stay relevant. From same-day delivery to social commerce and self-service solutions, the pandemic has put a lot of pressure on merchants to keep pace with consumer expectations for near-instantaneous, omnichannel service.  

We begin 2022 just as a fresh wave of the virus surges around the United States, threatening the recovery of the physical retail sector. Omicron has exposed not just that the pandemic is far from over, but how consumer behavior is still being shaped by ongoing supply chain disruption and shifting motivations for shopping online. 

With consumers once again flocking to e-commerce out of necessity, this is changing what consumers are looking for in the merchants they support. 

The bottom line? Flexible, reliable service at every touchpoint in the customer journey.  

If you don’t have the following strategies well-integrated into your operation, it’s going to be tough to meet customer expectations in 2022. By taking action now, you can give your business a competitive edge as we head further into the new year:

1. Offer a variety of payment options

It’s no longer enough just to accept the standard credit card options at your online store. As digital shopping capabilities have expanded, so has the number of payment options available to consumers.  

The rise of digital wallets and cryptocurrency has led to major changes in consumer shopping behavior. Studies show that credit cards are dropping in popularity, thanks to debt-conscious Millennials and Gen Z opting for debit-based payment methods. 60% of millennials and Gen Z reportedly view credit cards as ‘too risky’ – attitudes that haven’t been helped by banks choosing to tighten credit limits during the pandemic. 

While credit card spending returned to normal levels during the 2021 holiday season, this doesn’t mean there’s been no change to preferred payment options. The use of Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) programs almost doubled compared with the same period in 2020 thanks to heavy patronization by young consumers. 

In a 2021 survey by C + R research, 60% of respondents had used a BNPL service during the year, with 59% using it to purchase an unnecessary item they shouldn’t otherwise afford. Notably, 36% of BNPL users in the United States are under 25, while 41% are 26-40 years old.

If you’re aiming to attract the discretionary spending of younger consumers, it’s vital to offer a variety of debit and layby options. A lack of desirable payment options is one of the biggest reasons for cart abandonment in e-commerce. If it’s a choice between you and another vendor who offers a BNPL service, it’s pretty obvious who consumers are going to pick.

By offering consumers flexibility and choice in how they progress through the checkout, you can maximize conversions and meet customer expectations for a smooth payment process.

2. E-commerce returns as a strategy for growth

There are a variety of reasons for customers wanting to return items, from a simple change of mind to more complex issues like damaged or defective merchandise. It’s been estimated that the 2021 holiday season is going to bring in as much as $66.7 billion in returns during Q1 of 2022 – a 45.6% increase over the previous five-year average. 

Supply chain issues are playing a major role in consumers ‘hoarding’ products due to concerns about stockouts, resulting in excess returns. With supply chain challenges set to continue for some time yet, return management is going to be one of the most important CX management strategies in 2022.

If merchants view returns as the end of a customer relationship, rather than as an opportunity to build customer loyalty, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to build revenue-saving activities into your return workflow.

As the pandemic forces greater reliance on online shopping, consumers are showing increased expectations for a plurality of return options to suit their circumstances. According to Magneto Solutions, 69% of consumers want the ability to return items bought online to a physical store, while over half want to see longer windows for returning/exchanging products.

Investing in a range of strategies such as in-store returns, self-service return portals, and free return shipping for exchanged items enables your business to streamline the return experience and maintain customer relationships. If consumers know that the return process with your brand is easy to navigate, they’re much more likely to shop with your brand in the future.

3. Bringing in-person experiences online

While many consumers are gravitating towards e-commerce out of necessity, there’s a growing appetite for immersive shopping journeys that mitigate the often impersonal experience of shopping online.

Meta’s (formerly Facebook’s) recent announcement about the growth of the metaverse didn’t unveil anything that groundbreaking. What we’re now calling the ‘metaverse’ is really a combination of technologies that already exist – Virtual/Augmented Reality, personalization, and social commerce, just to name a few. 

These innovations are helping to bring the best parts of in-store shopping into people’s browsers, enhancing the e-commerce experience at a time the pandemic is making in-person retail impossible or impractical for many consumers. 

Over a fifth (22%) of returns take place because the product looks different from how the consumer imagined when purchasing. Augmented Reality has been a game-changer by offering the immersive quality that e-commerce often lacks, allowing consumers to ‘try’ products in advance and visualize how they will look. Paired with real-time conversations with customer service personnel via live chat, such techniques go a long way towards lowering return rates.

Some digitally-native brands are taking this a step further by bringing online shopping away from static product catalogs to 3D-rendered virtual store environments, where shoppers can browse ‘real’ product displays and even speak to avatars in the form of store associates.  

As these tools become commonplace, not embracing their capabilities will make your brand look out of step. The more engaging your shopping experience, the more likely it is that shoppers will convert to paying customers.

4. Investing in social commerce

We’re currently in a climate where acquiring new customers has never been more difficult – or more expensive. Even as more consumers flock online to meet their needs, increased competition, lower organic reach, and higher costs for paid search have made many customer acquisition strategies untenable in the long term.

The more cost-effective alternative? Meeting your customers where they already are.

Social commerce, where consumers can complete their entire shopping journey within a social media app, has taken off as social media platforms become the preferred method for researching brands and products. 

According to a survey by Facebook, 81% of those surveyed said that they regularly used Facebook and Instagram to research products. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of consumers say they would be more likely to buy products from a brand if they could shop entirely within a social platform.

One of the biggest advantages of social commerce is that the majority of digitally-native brands are already very dependent on social media for brand storytelling and community-building, especially in the age of COVID-19 where in-person activations are risky. Social commerce is simply an extension of these capabilities by no longer requiring you to send prospective customers away from your profile to make transactions – a point of friction that can result in shoppers falling out of your funnel. 

But if you’re going to invest in social commerce, you need to be very in-tune with what customers want from your brand. High levels of social proof are essential to foster consumer confidence and willingness to purchase from your brand, which means being very active in engaging with your customers across platforms. Responding to comments, asking for feedback on new products, and identifying pain points in the shopping journey are all strategies to nurture your followers on the path to purchasing.

Change presents opportunity 

As the e-commerce sector evolves rapidly in the face of seismic changes to the retail sector, there are numerous opportunities for merchants to grow their footprint by catering to these shifting consumer demands. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces consumers to re-assess their shopping habits, inter-channel connectivity and online-to-offline experiences have never been more important to ensuring customer satisfaction. By focusing on the above strategies for 2022, you can meet consumer expectations head-on – and even play a role in shaping them.

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