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4 ways the online shopping experience is radically shifting because of the pandemic

June 7, 2021, 7:30 PM UTC
A livestreamer sells biscuits in Tianjin, China on May 21, 2021.
VCG/Getty Images

When I joined Stitch Fix just a year and a half ago, I could not have imagined what was ahead of us. Among the many things the pandemic has changed, one crucial one has been what we wear and how we shop.

Before the coronavirus hit, our shopping habits were changing, but slowly. Online’s share of total apparel retail sales consistently increased by just 1% every year, with analysts estimating around 75% of dollars remaining in stores. Online retailers struggled to replicate the experience of shopping in-person, such as the delight of discovering something new and access to expert advice.

Then, as the seismic events of 2020 took hold, thousands tried apparel shopping online for the first time—and we saw nearly five years of adoption in one year alone. We believe the shift online is permanent and nearly half of U.S. apparel spending will move online by 2025.

While digitally savvy brands are well-positioned as retail transforms, a path to sustained growth requires much more than a powerful website or app. Consumers are increasingly turning to brands who offer inspiring, simple, convenient, engaging interactions to make it easy to find what you love—combined with highly curated personal experiences that bring the human touch and empathy of the offline world to online shopping. (Stitch Fix already incorporates some of the advice and ideas in this piece.)

As we look ahead to the next 10 years, here are some of the biggest shifts we believe brands need to align with:

First, as shoppers move online at historic rates, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in consumers’ expectations of their shopping experience: away from search and filter toward browse and discover. The continued rise of TikTok, with its unique ability to surface relevant content and inspiration in real time, has further heightened the expectation of personalized, curated experiences.

Consumers are growing tired of the search-based infinite scroll that many e-commerce sites still offer today. Instead, they expect experiences that are personal to them. Imagine that instead of a site offering you hundreds of pairs of jeans at once, you see instead five that are perfect for you. If you never wear shorts or strapless tops, you’ll never see them, saving you time and effort.

Second is the evolution from transactional e-commerce to relationship-based shopping. We need to bring human connection and greater trust into the heart of digital shopping by focusing on building community. 

For example, Alibaba’s livestream channel, Taobao Live, gives brick-and-mortar retailers a platform to foster customer dialogue and solicit feedback through its in-app chat function. It lets consumers shop while watching hosts review and recommend products, thereby mimicking the social interactions found in physical malls and stores. Unlike many retailers who are shifting more to e-commerce, Taobao Live announced in April it is planning to invest in 300 physical livestream centers this year.

Third, the static shopping experience is becoming more dynamic, with gamification and augmented reality enhancing customer experiences. This allows for improvements on a real-time basis. For the consumer, this means more interesting and engaging experiences, and for the brand, more ways to gather valuable insights that can enable a more personalized shopping experience.

Finally, as an industry we must strive to create more spaces and opportunities for more people to be seen and heard—regardless of what they look like, what they prefer, and what their budget is. It’s a radical shift for retail, an industry that has traditionally been driven by exclusivity. As we move toward a more personal shopping experience, we also need to move toward a more inclusive one.

The accelerated disruption of retail brought on by the pandemic is forcing many to play catch-up with their customers. Those who can see this shift as more than simply in-store to online will have an unmatched advantage. Consumers can only benefit, enjoying more personal, inspirational, and fun shopping experiences.

Elizabeth Spaulding is the president and incoming CEO of Stitch Fix.

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