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Companies embraced new sales channels in 2021. How can they be integrated post-pandemic?

Companies embraced new sales channels in 2021. How can they be integrated post-pandemic?

Capitalizing on social commerce, consolidating data and innovating on fulfillment are key to ongoing success, according to members of Protocol's Braintrust.

Good afternoon! We're in your inbox a couple days early again with a special edition of Braintrust about the future of commerce. With the pace that changes happened in the past year, we asked the experts to think about the best ways to bring sales channels and operations together in a cohesive way and prepare for a post-pandemic landscape. Questions or comments? Let us know at braintrust@protocol.com. We'll be back on Thursday with a real estate technology edition.

Kaz Nejatian

VP of Merchant Services at Shopify

For all businesses, but particularly for SMBs, COVID-19 underscored that commerce can happen everywhere — online, in person, on social platforms and anywhere in between. The retailers who pivoted quickly to adopt new sales channels saw them become a lifeline for their businesses, a defining determinant in whether or not they survived the pandemic.

Social commerce has emerged from the last year as one of the fastest growing subsets of new sales channels. TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat are just some of the social platforms that Shopify merchants are now using to connect with customers. Our Future of Commerce report found that 54% of consumers aged 18 to 34 discovered brands on social media. March through April 2020 saw Shopify's Facebook and Instagram channels grow by 36% in monthly active users — a trend that has continued since.

Evolving consumer behavior means merchants must not only show up where their consumers are spending time, but they must do it with experiences that feel native to the platform in question. On TikTok that might mean a casual short-form video with little to no production where the product plays a secondary role, while a perfectly-posed lifestyle image is better suited for Pinterest.

The determining factor in a merchant's success post-pandemic will be the extent to which they can use these channels in tandem, adopting an omnichannel strategy that empowers all channels to share transaction, product and customer information, giving merchants a unified view of their business.

Carrie Tharp

VP of Retail & Consumer at Google Cloud

Post-pandemic, retailers need consider how their consumers will continue to evolve their shopping behaviors and habits and, in turn, proactively incorporate this into the digital commerce strategies — both online and in stores. For brands, it's all about getting in front of the consumer during that discovery phase, figuring out how to grab new shoppers' attention and drive ongoing engagement with current customers.

This past year, we saw many retailers accelerate the timeline to modernize their ecommerce infrastructure to keep up with unexpected peaks in site traffic, as well as to enable better channel integration through omni services (e.g., omni checkout). Consumers are using mobile devices more than ever to search and shop —including while in-store — making it important for retailers to continue to evaluate their infrastructure in order to keep up with consumer demands. By creating flexible architectures and platforms, retailers can do rapid tests and incorporate new experiences and services, regardless of channel. As a part of this, "a single view" of the customer, inventory and the end-to-end supply chain is more important than ever.

Data is at the center of driving these channel-less experiences of the future. By investing in these data and platform fundamentals — first assessing your current state against the end experience objectives you have — retailers can create a foundation with the flexibility needed to evolve experiences at their own pace. Those who can meet their customers where they are, across many channels, will be best positioned for the future.

Lidiane Jones

EVP and GM, Commerce Cloud at Salesforce

Offering multiple channels and meeting your customers where they are is key to providing a great customer experience, but of course more channels lead to more data in multiple systems. Companies need to consolidate their data in one platform and engage at scale, with the help of AI. By consolidating customer data, companies will then have a "single source of truth" and single view of their customers.

This data consolidation and single source of truth makes life easier for companies but also delivers a better experience for their customers, resulting in tangible business growth. With this single source of truth, every touchpoint is personalized, relevant and consistent — from the marketing email received to the products recommended while they're shopping online and the customer service support throughout their journey.

Joe Jensen

VP and GM, Retail, Banking, Hospitality and Education Group, IoT Solutions at Intel

Digital transformation and consumer expectations were already changing the retail landscape in a major way in the lead up to 2020. The onset of the pandemic therefore accelerated a digital shift that was already in progress. What was once a necessity to meet temporary health and safety requirements, will remain long after the last vaccine has been distributed, because consumers have become used to hyper-convenience. The challenge will be scaling new channels like touchless checkout or micro fulfillment centers for same-day delivery in a way that eliminates all friction. Consumers' patience for things like delivery delays, out-of-stock inventory and long wait times will continue to shrink. When presented with two choices, they will almost always opt for the one with the least amount of hassle, even if the product is slightly less preferred. When people do choose to leave their homes or their vehicles, they also expect to be delighted. Digital media that constantly exposes shoppers to new products has shifted the brick-and-mortar value proposition from in-store discovery to hyper-curation.

Companies should seek out technology solutions, like AI analytics and IoT sensors, that allow them to create experiences that are both hyper-convenient and curated, by transforming the massive amounts of data already in their possession into actionable insights. For instance, to learn more about customer preferences and to reduce the risk of running out of inventory, retailers have begun to deploy IoT load sensors that identify when an item is picked up or placed back on a shelf. While the learning curve can be steep, this next normal of retail also offers huge opportunity for brands to have a lot more say and control over the shopper journey, with the decision to purchase moving from "discovery in-store" to "discover everywhere."

Learn more.

Taylor Schreiner

Director, Adobe Digital Insights at Adobe

In light of COVID-19, our economy has shifted from a world with digital to a digital-first world. The pandemic has made all of us active participants of the digital economy, and our reliance on ecommerce will only increase over time. Moving forward, retailers should not only see themselves as competing with offline alternatives, but rather, an integral part of helping consumers meet their daily needs. Adobe's analysis shows that there's been monumental increases in online purchases of staples during the pandemic: everything from groceries to school supplies, and even outdoor furniture for socially distanced get-togethers.

In the future, retailers will need to foster and live up to more ongoing, consistent interactions with their best customers. To succeed, this not only requires a holistic view of the shopper, but retailers must also be able to anticipate their needs and guide them to the products they're looking for. Retailers must also engage loyal customers in a useful and helpful (not creepy) way across platforms. And most importantly, they'll need to continuously improve the fulfillment process for their customers' preferred channels, whether it's parcel lockers, curbside pickup, same-day delivery or others.

Assaf Feldman

Co-founder and CTO at Riskified

The future of ecommerce was always one of evolution and innovation. Elevated customer expectations and the technical means to meet them have — and will continue to — change how we shop. The pandemic turbocharged those changes. Customers expect to be able to easily interact with merchants in whatever way they see fit — whether via web browser, mobile app or in a brick-and-mortar store. And they expect to receive their goods in whatever way is most convenient, via next-day shipping, in-store or curbside pickup or digitally. A year on, offering this level of service went from extraordinary to expected, as retailers adjusted their ecommerce infrastructure to sell in an exceedingly challenging environment. As the pandemic eases, they should continue investing in these efforts.

At the same time, retailers must also remain flexible. The beginning of the pandemic was marked by seismic shifts in customer behavior as people scrambled to adjust to stay-at-home life, forcing retailers to make business changes quickly. The post-pandemic era will likely bring about a similar set of changes. Will people flock back in-store or will they stick with ecommerce? Will desktop orders go up as people go back to the office? Will shopping peak hours change as people begin commuting again? These are the sorts of questions merchants must consider in order to anticipate customer needs as the economy re-opens. Whatever happens, being able to adapt while maintaining a seamless and secure shopping experience will be what it takes for retailers to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Ruslan Fazlyev

CEO at Ecwid

Pandemic or not, consumers continue to be in the driver's seat and convenience remains a top priority. Sellers realized that operating on one single sales channel would no longer suffice. Despite talking about multichannel strategies as they related to ecommerce for decades, sellers finally realize how important this is in a post-pandemic world.

Social media has played the biggest role, incorporating tools that allow purchases to be made with the tap of a finger. In a world where everyone is constantly scrolling on their phone, it's easy to get caught up with having a wide range of sales channels that produce high customer engagement. But in a post-pandemic world, as a first step, companies will need to take a very close look at how they're actually performing across their channels. How engaged is their audience on each channel? How much revenue or awareness has a channel driven in the last six months? Brands are going to have to look inwards more frequently and be real with themselves about what channels actually have an impact.

Customer preferences and behaviors have also shifted in the last year. To keep pace with customer needs and demands to inform selling strategies, companies need to conduct deeper assessments, gathering the right data to better understand their buyers.

As we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel, multichannel is no longer a nice-to-have, it's a necessity. Ultimately, implementing these strategies will help companies maximize their sales and maintain customer engagement in the long term.

Jeremy King

SVP of Technology at Pinterest

The pandemic accelerated technology in a way no one saw coming. At Pinterest it meant moving faster to launch products like the Today tab, which features daily ideas from expert information from the CDC to ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement and AAPI community, to ideas for turning your closet into an office (a "cloffice") and homeschool inspiration.

When the world changes in the blink of an eye, new behaviors and expectations are created, and you need to meet people where they are. For Pinterest, this included more tools to help brands bring their products online and making it easier for creators and business owners from underrepresented groups to get discovered.

This moment in time has forevermore required brands and platforms to bring the joy of shopping and exploring offline, online, introducing new terms like distributed commerce along the way. Shoppers are eager for the personal shopping experiences they could find in-store, but want the convenience of online. During quarantine, we found people were buying more than ever, but they missed shopping.

To move forward, businesses should continue responding to the changing needs of the customer and bring products online for dynamic distribution and embrace technologies like augmented reality. Take advantage of Pinterest features like a company storefront, catalogs and our integration with Shopify. It's also imperative to understand the importance of consumers seeking out brands and products that align with their values, from sustainability to supporting local shops and business owners of color.

See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated March 30, 2021).
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