January 26, 2021
By Tricia Kemp, Oak HC/FT
This article is the second article of a three-part series on e-commerce addressing the merchant experience, improving consumer experience, and the next generation of technology.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted American businesses across the board, the retail sector more than most. Online retail sales have jumped more than 30% since the pandemic's onset, a massive shift in consumer behavior that merchants have scrambled to address. The rise of e-commerce has also seen a surge in new software products aimed at helping merchants and their customers adapt.
The first installment in this series, "E-Commerce in the Age of Covid-19," focused on merchant-centric software designed to fix flaws in retailers' online platforms and improve the merchant experience. Too often, however, the fixes have weakened the customer experience, which ultimately matters the most. Some, for instance, require shoppers to enter personal information more than once in order to deter fraud. While fraud is a serious problem for merchants, and easier to execute online than in a store, taking aggressive steps to discourage it can drive customers away.
This second article looks at software solutions that improve the customer experience online, a hotbed of innovation during the pandemic. A welcome feature of the latest and best online platforms is that while they fight fraud, they don't alienate customers in the process.
New developments in online shopping, in addition to fighting fraud and elevating security, aim to streamline each step of the shopping experience, from ordering and processing to shipping. Amazon was the pioneer in this area, building end-to-end capability into the "1-Click" online platform it introduced some years ago. Today, a set of competing platforms has emerged that improve on Amazon's features, while making a hassle-free experience available to a wider universe of shoppers and merchants.
Take Bolt. Launched in 2018, the Amazon-like, one-click checkout platform has a faster interface and fewer fields than Amazon asks customers to fill out. Fast, which brands itself "the world's fastest checkout," is another merchant platform that is attracting buzz in the space. As platforms like Bolt and Fast rapidly extend their network of brands and merchants, consumers can have a seamless experience across all their favorite online shops.
Lately, Bolt and Fast have focused on mobile shopping applications that log in and authenticate customers automatically. Prove, an Oak HC/FT company, is another leading player in the space that helps enable frictionless authentication. Prove swiftly and seamlessly matches users' phone numbers with their identities without the need of a password and can go a step further to prefill checkout information. In all these examples, both the customers and merchants win, by reducing checkout friction and fraud at the same time.
E-commerce technology has simplified buying online in other ways. Shipment-tracking apps keep buyers abreast of when their online purchases will arrive. There are new platforms that speed processing of returned items. Online financing apps, such as Afterpay and Affirm, allow buyers to pay for goods over time.
Rapyd, another Oak HC/FT company, has expanded the utility and geographic reach of digital wallets and alternative payments, putting payment preferences back in the hands of the consumer. While the advent of e-wallets, such as Apple Pay and Venmo, substantially increased consumers' payment options, local preferences in e-wallet and payment methods vary, with ~2,000 methods globally. Global merchants may be ill-equipped to accept payment methods that are popular in any particular local region. Rapyd has built the infrastructure to bridge that divide. Bundling the world's payment methods into a single platform, it allows global consumers to pay by their preference and transact with global e-commerce merchants.
Despite all the advances that have occurred, gaps remain in online service that cry out for technology to fill. A key one concerns data usage. To help merchants run their businesses better, Square and other state-of-the-art merchant platforms enable sellers to gather detailed data on their customers' buying preferences. Harnessing customer data in ways that benefit the very people whose behavior it depicts would seem a no-brainer. Given in-depth data that breaks down their own buying habits to the item (SKU) level, people could better assess, control and be rewarded by how and where they spend their money.
Just now, there is limited ability to do so. But the need and opportunity is great, and software companies are working to answer it.
While the pandemic has hastened innovation in online commerce, shortcomings remain, and those left behind need to be addressed before holistic e-commerce fulfills its promise. Three years from now, the technology will be far more versatile than it is today. In the third and last article in this series, we will take a look ahead.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.