PCR September retail analysis: eCommerce The click culture

Cas Paton, Founder and CEO of OnBuy.com talks to Michelle Winny, Editor of PCR about how shopping trends have evolved following the pandemic and the way we have embraced eCommerce as part of everyday life.

It’s almost impossible to ignore the importance of online shopping today – eCommerce has become a crucial part of retail. The pandemic encouraged so many consumers online, including those who’d never tried it before, and in many cases, it’s led them to develop new shopping habits. Here’s what OnBuy’s Cas Paton had to say.

Why is it now more important than ever for retailers to develop an eCommerce strategy?
The eCommerce industry has accelerated faster in the past 12 months since the pandemic, than it would have done over five years, had circumstances in the industry played out as ordinarily projected.

It’s clear that these shopping patterns created by the pandemic are here to stay, and customer expectations are high. There was a grace period at the start as customers appreciated the time businesses needed to adapt, but that’s a distant memory now. Buyers expect retailers to meet their needs, and to be at the top of the game when doing so, each and every time.

Retailers need to think about how they can evolve their business model to meet the needs of the modern consumer. Building your eCommerce strategy doesn’t need to be daunting, and marketplaces like OnBuy.com can help you take a step in the right direction. If you haven’t yet ventured into the world of eCommerce, marketplaces are a great way to get started.

Due to their large buyer audiences and prebuilt ecosystems, marketplaces provide you with a ready-to-go online sales function that doesn’t involve complex development or huge investments. They’re low-cost, relatively risk free and give you the opportunity to refine your processes to learn what works and what doesn’t – all of which can inform your eCommerce strategy going forward.

How is OnBuy seeing the digital retail landscape evolve post-pandemic?
Buying habits have seen a fundamental shift as the 2020s have got into gear. The purchase of home goods, luxury items and pet-care products through online channels grew enormously during the pandemic.

Yet the items that were historically bought in a physical store have seen the biggest transformation, and are influencing the way the online retail landscape is evolving as we emerge from the pandemic. This includes groceries and household goods – bought online initially due to shortages in the earliest lockdown era, many customers are now opting to continue buying household goods online for simplicity. There are even subscription models based around this concept too.

Having a one-stop-shop hugely appeals to customers as well, which is a big reason why marketplaces remain popular. As an example, OnBuy has 17 departments and over 35 million items onsite, with each listing contributed by an independent business. A customer can buy a £30k engagement ring, their dog’s kibble and a new shelving unit for their home, all from one online destination, as a single transaction that eats very little into their time.

That convenience and variety is what customers are looking for, and that is what is driving the evolution of digital retail. As such, it’s not just about having a big and varied inventory, it’s also about meeting customers where they are – be that on their computers, on their mobile devices, in a physical store or, increasingly, via embedded purchasing options in social media apps.

This omnichannel approach is exciting, as it slices through the previous rhetoric that physical and digital retail ought to be at loggerheads. While it’s true that, classically, the advantages of one would be touted as a reason to outperform the other, today it’s increasingly recognised that there are numerous ways in which the convenience of online retail and the tactile browse-factor of brick-and-mortar stores can work in harmony.

What trends in buying patterns is OnBuy experiencing?
One pattern that stands out, looking at the first five months of 2021, is that the average order value has increased, with customers spending on average 24% more on their first purchases and 26% on repeat purchases in May 2021, when compared to January this year.

The crucial element here is transparency, together with trust and convenience. While there’s no denying that fraud and cybercrime have grown in lockstep with the rise of online shopping, customer caution has also grown in kind. Online shoppers today are smart, and with search engines at their fingertips it’s never been easier to find the best deal for the best product. Likewise, they can deduce if a website offering a standout deal or a hard-to-find product is legitimate or not in short order.

Notably, customer loyalty has taken a hit during this process, driven by the fact that customers who had their lifestyles disrupted by the onset of the global health crisis have been forced to shop around. If a customer needs something and your platform never has it in stock, it’s only natural they’ll broaden their horizons – however loyal to your brand they otherwise have been.

The advantage there, of course, is that retailers have had the chance to put their best foot forward and win new and loyal customers by offering viable, efficient and satisfying alternatives to the ways a given customer may have shopped before. The floor is still open for retailers to showcase their trustworthiness, transparency and commitment to excellence in service today, meaning there’s everything to play for.

How has the online customer experience evolved?
The closure of non-essential retail during the pandemic has pushed eCommerce providers to ensure that their customer experience is as good as it can be. Customer retention and reducing basket abandonment have been two key areas of concern.

Expected delivery dates and delivery costs are highly influential in a customer’s buying decision, so making that information easily accessible to the shopper is critical – and living up to your promises in this regard even more so.

Remember, the goal today is to replicate the experience of physically seeing and handling an in-store product as much as possible when making an online listing – including ways to anticipate any questions a customer might have.

Without the ability to go into physical stores during the pandemic, customers have had to find other ways to determine the quality of a product before ordering online. That has been a huge driver in evolving the customer’s online shopping experience.

Verified reviews and clear product photography are the best ways for customers to get a feel for the product they want to buy, and so have become even more important than ever before. Descriptive, informative copy and online video overviews from third parties and influencers have also had an increasing stake in the buyer journey, and this will only grow as we all move forward into the new normal.

Where is eCommerce lacking most in terms of the buying experience?
The biggest challenge is that online shopping has historically been quite faceless – lacking in the personal touches you get when shopping face to face. Altogether, things have been very product-focused, and the seller has often had very little visibility.

Yet with the rising trend of supporting independent businesses very present in buyers’ minds today, it’s going to become even more critical for customers to get a sense of that personal shopping experience when buying online.

At OnBuy, we’re responding to this by developing ways that we can showcase our sellers even more – bringing a human touch to a digital experience. Because every seller on our marketplace is their own unique business, we give them the chance to create their own storefront profiles and let their brands shine on our marketplace, without harming the uniformity and ease of use of our website.

How is OnBuy supporting traditional high street vendors in making the transition to eCommerce platforms?
We’ve aimed to make selling with OnBuy as barrier-free as possible, because we recognise the growing use of eCommerce for business growth. OnBuy has fixed, transparent selling fees for all retailers, no matter their size or sales volume.

This element of trust is important, because just as customers have been wary when moving more of their shopping habits online, so too are businesses cautious when transitioning from physical to digital retail, or when joining a new marketplace to complement their existing network. The sheer size of the market alone is enough to intimidate even the most seasoned business minds.

Yet once a sense of ease and fluidic strategy is introduced, businesses gain a level of insight and understanding into eCommerce that lets them move into the market with confidence – and that’s a massively exciting part of why this is such a vibrant industry to be in today.

How has OnBuy achieved recent successes?
We’ve truly disrupted the market. Our traffic is at 2% of Amazon’s, 40% of John Lewis’, 50% of Very’s, 130% of Not On The Highstreet’s and 930% of Fruugo’s – all in under five years.

We’ve been able to do this by filling a gap – there was a clear demand for a marketplace like OnBuy, where independent sellers are supported unconditionally, all while customers still enjoy variety, convenience and trustworthiness.

OnBuy is the UK’s fourth biggest marketplace. Expanding into overseas territories, giving UK sellers the opportunity to expand their cross-border trade around the world and offering overseas retailers the chance to participate in our growth all means OnBuy will continue to expand. We’ve been growing our workforce to respond to increased demand, while remaining true to our values and mission.

This success reflects the discourse taking effect over much of eCommerce today. Throughout the value chain, everyone applauds the efficiency and convenience of eCommerce, but often raises concerns about its environmental impact, workers’ rights in fulfilling billions of orders worldwide, and the efficacy of the returns process. These are all crucial details we’ll continue to give our attention as we expand.

Where do you see the future of eCommerce headed?
I believe that we’ll see a shift in where customers spend their money. They’ll be looking for ways to support small, independent businesses when shopping online. The pandemic has influenced this mindset and I’ll think we’ll see that have a knock-on effect on where people spend for years to come.

In the coming years, hybrid retail will become the norm. This way of working will allow online sales to complement, rather than be at loggerheads with, a brick-and-mortar presence. This is something that many brands have already adopted and will be instrumental in the evolution of the high street.

Click-and-collect services help to drive footfall into brick-and-mortar stores, and the more businesses can encourage the use of these systems the better. It really helps to support the entire retail ecosystem.

The ‘reCommerce’ market is one to watch in the coming 12 months too, and is something I see growing massively over the next 10-15 years. With an increasingly environmental-conscious society, and pressure mounting to change habits that harm the planet, the second-hand market is set for a boom.

We have thousands of refurbished electronics for sale on OnBuy, many of which are practically box-fresh. This type of shopping limits the impact that device disposal and e-waste has on the planet, which is a huge conversation in the world of technology today.

While other retailers destroy returned or outmoded stock in highly destructive at-scale ways, we believe this approach gives a new lease of life to perfectly functioning products – as well as giving a revenue stream to the independent businesses who specialise in them.

Similar conversations are happening in the fashion industry today too, with a growing repurpose, reuse and upcycle mindset taking hold.

Furthermore, this all offers customers a more cost-effective option compared to buying new, so I think we’ll see a surge in refurbished goods sales within the year, and huge thrifting trends in the UK over the next decade. This is an area that I think eCommerce can really own.

What further plans for evolution and growth does OnBuy have?
The future looks bright! OnBuy has created an eCommerce ecosystem that benefits the retailer and the customer equally. We have exciting plans to continue evolving.

One of our priorities is to maintain our position as the marketplace with the most compelling seller proposition – offering a transparent partnership, rather than competition. With simple, transparent fees and immediate payment on product dispatch, OnBuy is the marketplace of choice for a growing number of retailers.

On the flip side, we’re also focused on enhancing our offering for our customers. We’ll launch an app to make shopping on OnBuy even more convenient, alongside a new loyalty scheme and plenty of other exciting initiatives that we’ll reveal in time!

The international expansion of OnBuy is already underway, and that will see the marketplace in a wide range of countries – including the USA, France, Spain, and the UAE – by year-end 2023. We will have the widest reach of any online global marketplace – and this growth will be shared by businesses selling with us, as proactively or gradually as they choose.

What message can you offer to vendors to optimise their eCommerce sales?
One of the simplest but most effective things that retailers can do to improve and maximise their online sales is to ensure products are presented with high quality images and descriptions. A potential buyer will want to know exactly what they’re getting, and a series of detailed and clear images will help the customer get a feel for your product and its quality through their device.

Pricing is also important. Not only should you price your products competitively where possible, but think about strategically using charm pricing, a tactic which is proven to increase sales dramatically.

Explore what supporting functions your eCommerce platforms can offer too. OnBuy’s Boost ad service adds another layer of tailored product marketing for sellers, providing greater visibility of their products. With Boost, sellers only pay when they make a sale through the listing, making it a risk-free and cost-effective way to attract more customers.

Most of all, stay honest, trustworthy and transparent. This, beyond anything else, is what customers want – and the best way to cement loyalty and encourage repeat transactions.

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