Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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    The internet has grown in the last decade, so why hasn’t e-commerce grown with it?

    The last decade has brought new frontiers in measurement and attribution. But for The Drum’s e-commerce deep dive, Journey Further’s James Addlestone argues that this made us addicted to short-term tinkering at the expense of what really matters.

    Has our experience of buying online really improved over the past 10 years? 

    Sure, we can get deliveries quicker. We can access more products, more sizes and more brands. But has our experience of purchasing online become more enjoyable or more efficient? I’m not convinced.

    E-commerce has grown around 5.4x over the past 10 years from $1tn to $5.4tn. Hardly the sharpest insight, but bear with me. In 2012 there were just over 2 billion internet users spending 83 minutes online a day. Now there are over 5 billion, spending 192 minutes a day. That’s 166 billion internet hours to 960 billion internet hours. In 10 years. 

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    The market has grown 6x in 10 years, yet e-commerce spend hasn’t grown in line with internet use.

    There are of course many reasons: lower-income individuals are browsing the internet, unable to match the spend of early adopters. General use cases for ‘the internet’ have proliferated, with far more time spent on social media per user (up about 50%). 

    Fundamentally, we simply haven’t really improved e-commerce over the past decade. 

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    Exploring the Amazon

    Look at a like-for-like comparison of Amazon’s website in 2012 v 2022.

    A comparison of Amazon shopping screens between 2012 and 2022
     
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    After around 3650 days of ‘optimization,’ what differences do you notice? The site in 2022 is a little cleaner and slicker. The product has more pop, and the nav bar is... easier to navigate. But given we live in a world where the only constant, we’re told, is that the world is changing faster than ever, and where (according to Gartner’s hype-curve) we’ve been swamped with industry-changing technology over the last decade, the improvement is at best underwhelming. 

    Surely, though, given the millions Amazon spends on their data science capability, the recommendation engine and UX are far better and slicker? 

    A comparison of Amazon shopping screens between 2012 and 2022
     
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    The similarity is staggering. When internet speeds are 5x higher than in 2012; when photography is higher-resolution and more accessible than ever; when we can shoot videos in 10k; when websites can be created at the push of a few buttons; when there’s more competition, more investment, more data, better algorithms and more experience available... we’ve spent a decade fiddling within the confines of what we believe best practice to be. 

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    Why haven’t we done better? 

    E-commerce has made it (ostensibly) easier than ever to measure short-term impacts of activity. This has had far-reaching consequences. 

    It’s made digital channels inherently short-term focused. We’ve become addicted to A/B testing. There’s a parallel universe where this makes for braver decision-making, riskier creative, expansive ‘blue-sky’ thinking – knowing that if the test fails, we’ve learned something and can fall back to the status quo. But this world hasn’t materialized. The best experimenters understand the opportunity long-term A/B testing provides. They understand that a series of short-term tests will only ever help us reach local optimums. Sadly, there is not an overabundance of the best experimenters. 

    This has sucked investment from other ‘long-term’ areas of business. Why risk money on an unproven step-change when we can actually prove what works with our experimentation program?

    We would rather know, with certainty, that we’ve achieved small-scale improvement than gamble on genuine transformation. 

    Ours is a world geared toward short-termism, whether that’s through relatively short-term private equity holding periods (around five years), or average tenures of chief execs (4.8 years for FTSE 100s). 

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    Why I’m (surprisingly) optimistic about the future

    We’re starting to adopt a more scientific field-based approach to assessing the impact of short-termism v long-termism. Take Binet and Field’s The Long and the Short of It: back in 2013 they showed empirically that, generally, investing around 60% in longer-term brand marketing provides optimal results.

    This empirical evidence is finally cutting through. As more field research is conducted, we can make a more compelling case to business owners for bigger transformational risks. 

    Meanwhile, challengers are starting to disrupt the market, potentially forcing a change in mindset of e-commerce giants from ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ to a genuine need to change. For example, we’re seeing more people using video-rich platforms such as TikTok as search engines. We’ll start to see more video-rich, interactive content used to help us navigate through e-commerce sites as competitors imagine different ways customers might fundamentally engage with content. 

    James Genchi, Journey Further’s UX design lead, tells me that we’re starting to see retailers reimagine how we use on-hand data to revolutionize shopping. Not necessarily more data or ‘AI,’ but simply better customer-first use cases. Take Thread or Stitch-fix: online marketplaces that genuinely save users time and energy with curated lists based on individual preferences. 

    I expect to see a shift away from efficiency and toward experience; e-commerce that provides less choice but more clarity. We’ll see more gripping product visuals; the ability to interrogate products with higher fidelity; and (at some point) the ability to dive into some form of metaverse to ‘try on’ different articles of clothing from different retailers. 

    The future looks bright. I sincerely hope that in 10 years’ time I look back to 2022 and laugh at our terribly dull and functional e-commerce sites. 

    For more dispatches on the future of selling online, head over to our e-commerce deep dive hub.

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