Last year was a particularly poignant year for online retail and innovation. Social commerce continued to flourish with Instagram adding exciting new ways to shop on the app as well as influencing the success of online fast-fashion brands, Marks & Spencer ramped up its efforts to become a digital-first business with the launch of a “Data Fellowship” , an innovative skills initiative to create “the most data-literate leadership team in retail” and DFS launched a new augmented reality feature on iPhones to bring the lounge to life.

Technology clearly shaped and shook up retail in 2018 and there’s no doubt that it will continue to do so in 2019 with more, new innovations within both eCommerce and retail more broadly. But, there’s a case to be made that 2019 will be the year for brands and retailers to think more deeply about their customers and truly engage with them through understanding, empathy and creating better experiences.

When shoppers change their habits, retail has to adapt. The surge online from the high street is clear. Our own research report looking into the future of eCommerce showed 55% of UK consumers shopped more online in 2018 than the year before. However, consumer demand is no longer solely focussed on products and services, we’re all increasingly looking towards experiences and lifestyles. This means putting the customer at the heart of the eCommerce strategy couldn’t be more important for brands and retailers. With that in mind, here are three of my own personal thoughts about where I see online retail heading this year:

  1. Firstly, I predict an increased human approach to retail; the aspiration of the so-called 360-degree view of the customer through data will not become quite obsolete, but certainly less important. Data will continue to be a part of how eCommerce is driven, for the foreseeable future at least. But, 2019 will be the year retailers pause to focus more on human understanding and treat shoppers as subjects as opposed to objects or numbers on a graph. It’s about truly understanding the customer and tailoring online experiences to make them feel special and unique based on real-time interactions, driven by a desire to generate emotion, joy and magic.
  2. Secondly, simplicity will be key to the experiences – yet with a richness in visuals and imagery. Many companies have already started to place imagery as a number one priority, with 52% of shoppers believing product images are the most important aspect of an online experience. We’ll begin to see an emerging trend this year for a more image-led eCommerce landscape, with brands using simpler user interfaces but putting emphasis on being extraordinarily intuitive with powerful images. Much like with the increased human approach, retailers will start to see a shift from a totalitarian mindset to a transparent one.
  3. Finally, and perhaps the most important, will be that of privacy, and respecting consumers’ rights to keep control over their own personal data . We will see retailers starting to focus on shoppers in the moment, abandoning the aspiration to spy and track the past, in a way that’s more open and transparent. In fact, privacy won’t just be a trend in 2019 but a brand differentiator. Retailers who continue to get this wrong will lose consumer loyalty, trust and business. This is about fair play, ethics and creating tailored, individual experiences that are more honest and genuine.

It’s clear that the future of eCommerce is bright and that this combination of a more human, empathetic approach, increased visualisation and consumer privacy will dominate the retail agenda in 2019. And while the pressure is certainly on for retailers trying to differentiate in the sea of brand websites and marketplaces, moments of joy in digital are real and the brands who embrace and adapt to these changes in consumer demand will see huge benefits and success.

Creating more memorable online experiences not only generates sales, it produces brand emotion, connection and loyalty. It’s no longer enough for retailers to offer great products or have the coolest store. It helps, yes, but in the end, it all comes back to emotions, to making people feel unique, special and understood. To succeed and thrive in the next wave of eCommerce, smart retailers need to be thinking more about people, relationships and creating memorable and joyful online experience. This year promises to be an exciting one for retailers; one that brings humanity back to retail, puts powerful imagery and simplicity at its core, and isn’t invasive of consumers’ privacy or data. I’ve got high hopes for retail in 2019 – let’s make it a year to remember!