Commerce strategy: Ecommerce is dead, long live ecommerce
25 April 2024
5 min read

In today’s dynamic and uncertain landscape, commerce strategy—what we might formerly have referred to as ecommerce strategy—is so much more than it once was. Commerce is a complex journey in which the moment of truth—conversion—takes place. This reality means that every brand in every industry with every business model needs to optimize the commerce experience, and thus the customer experience, to drive conversion rates and revenues. Done correctly, this process also contains critical activities that can significantly reduce costs and satisfy a business’ key metrics for success.

The first step is to build a strategy that’s focused on commerce, a channel-less experience, rather than ecommerce, a rigid, outdated notion that doesn’t meet the needs of the modern consumer.

“It’s about experiential buying in a seamless omnichannel journey, which is so rich that it essentially becomes channel-less.” Rich Berkman, VP and Senior Partner for Digital Commerce at IBM iX

A successful commerce strategy then is a holistic endeavor across an organization, focused on personalization and fostering customer loyalty even in deeply uncertain times.

Ecommerce is dead

The idea of an “ecommerce business” is an anachronism, a holdover from when breaking into the digital realm involved replicating product descriptions on a web page and calling it an ecommerce store. In the early days of online shopping, ecommerce brands were categorized as online stores or “multichannel” businesses operating both ecommerce sites and brick-and-mortar locations. This era was defined by massive online marketplaces like Amazon, ecommerce platforms such as eBay, and consumer-to-consumer transactions conducted on social media platforms like Facebook marketplace.

Early on, ecommerce marketing strategies touted the novelty of tax-free, online-only retailing that incentivized consumers to select an online channel both for convenience and better pricing options. Those marketing campaigns focused on search engine optimization (SEO) and similar search-related tactics to drive attention and sales.Personalization on an ecommerce website might have involved a retailer remembering your previous orders or your name.

In the world dictated by these kinds of ecommerce sales and touch points, an effective ecommerce strategy might prioritize releasing new products on early iterations of social media, or retargeting consumers across marketing channels with an email marketing campaign. Later in the journey, tactics like influencer marketing and social media marketing encouraged channel-specific messaging that still separated a retailer’s digital operations from its in-person activities.

But the paradigm has shifted. Fatigued by endless options and plagued by the perception of bad actors, today consumers expect more. The modern shopper expects a unified and seamless buying journey with multiple channels involved. The idea of discrete sales channels has collapsed into an imperative to create fluid, dynamic experiences that meet customers exactly where they are.

That means every business, no matter the industry or organizational plan, needs to prioritize the three pillars of an excellent commerce experience strategy: Trust, relevance and convenience. Experience is the North Star of conversion. By cultivating those pillars, any retailer, from a small business to a multinational corporation, can elevate its experience to increase its relevance and remain competitive.

Building trust in an uncertain world

Research shows that today’s customer is anxious and uncertain. Most consumers believe that the world is changing too quickly; over half think business leaders are lying to them, purposely trying to mislead people by grossly exaggerating or providing information they know is false. And, in of 2024, brand awareness means little without trust. The integrity of a business’ reputation remains among the top criteria for consumers when they consider where their dollars go.

Customer acquisition and customer retention depend on consistently excellent experiences that reward consumer trust. Making trust a priority requires building relationships through transparent commerce experiences. It means implementing systems that treat potential customers as valued partners rather than a series of data points and target markets to exploit. The necessity of trust in a relationship-focused commerce strategy is perhaps most obvious in terms of how a business treats the data it acquires from its customer base.

But trust is earned—or lost—at every interaction in the customer journey.

  • Prepurchase
    • Can the customer trust a business to maintain competitive pricing, and generate digital marketing campaigns that are more useful than invasive?
    • Can the customer trust a business to make it easy to control their own data?
    • Is the user experience intuitive and cohesive regardless of whether a customer is shopping at an online sale or in a store?
  • Purchase
    • When new customers view their shopping carts and prepare to complete checkout, does the business automatically sign them up for services they do not want?
    • Does the payment process frustrate a customer to the point of cart abandonment?
  • Post purchase
    • If a package is set to deliver during a specific window, can the customer trust it arrives during that time?
    • Does the brand make it convenient to do business with them post purchase?

By addressing the issue of consumer trust at every stage, an organization can eliminate fiction and consumer pain points to build long-lasting relationships.

Navigating ethical personalization

Personalization in commerce is no longer optional. Just as search engine optimization is essential common practice for getting a business’s webpages in front of people online, personalization is essential for meeting consumer expectations. Today’s consumer expects a highly customized channel-less experience that anticipates their needs.

But those same consumers are also wary of the potential costs of personalization. According to a recent article in Forbes, data security is a “nonnegotiable” factor for boomers, 90% of whom said that personal data protection is their first consideration when choosing a brand. And for gen X, data protection is of the utmost priority; 87% say it’s the primary factor influencing their purchasing behavior. This puts brands in a delicate position.

“You cannot create an experience that resonates with consumers—one that is trusted, relevant and convenient—without understanding the emotions and motivations of those populations being served.” Shantha Farris, Global Digital Commerce Strategy and Offering Leader at IBM iX

The vast amounts of data businesses collect, combined with external data sources, can be used to present cross-selling and upselling opportunities that genuinely appeal to customers. Using automation, businesses can create buyer personas at a rapid pace and use them to improve the customer journey and craft engaging content across channels. But in a channel-less world, data should be used to inform more than FAQ pages, content marketing tactics and email campaigns.

To create precise and positive experiences, brands should synthesize their proprietary customer data—like purchase history and preferences—with third-party sources such as data gleaned from social media scraping, user-generated content and demographic market research. By using these sources, businesses can obtain both real-time insights into target customers’ sentiment and broader macro-level perspectives on their industry at large. Using advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms, such data streams can be transformed into deep insights that predict a target audience’s needs.

To ensure the success of this approach, it is crucial to maintain a strong focus on data quality, security and ethical considerations. Brands must ensure that they are collecting and using data in a way that is transparent, compliant with regulations and respectful of customer privacy. By doing so, they can build trust with their customers and create a positive, personalized experience that drives long-term growth and loyalty across the commerce journey.

Creating delightful, convenient experiences

As mentioned earlier, experience is the North Star of conversion, and building convenient experiences with consistent functions remains a key driver for a business’ sustainable growth. In a channel-less world, successful brands deliver holistic customer journeys that meet customers exactly where they are, whether the touch point is a product page, an SMS message, a social platform like TikTok, or an in-person visit to a store.

The future of commerce, augmented by automation and AI, will increasingly provide packaged customer experiences. This might include personalized subscriptions or a series of products, like travel arrangements, purchased together by using natural language and taking a specific customer’s preferences into account.

“Once you have the foundation of a trusted, relevant and convenient experience, building on that foundation with the power of generative AI will allow businesses to deepen their customer relationships, ultimately driving more profitable brand growth.” Rich Berkman, VP and Senior Partner for Digital Commerce at IBM iX

The moment of conversion can take many forms. With careful planning, the modern retailer has the potential to create a powerful buying experience—one that wins customer loyalty and cultivates meaningful brand relationships. And new technologies like generative AI, when used correctly, provide an opportunity for sustainable and strategic growth.

Rich Berkman Senior Partner, Global Leader, Digital Commerce, IBM iX, Customer Transformation, IBM Consulting
Shantha Farris Global Digital Commerce Strategy and Offering Leader, IBM iX
Molly Hayes Content Writer, IBM Consulting, IBM Blog

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