It’s 2017 and the future is bright—especially if you’re in ecommerce. With constantly-improving technology, sharpened logistics, and an endless supply of really freaking cool things to buy and sell, there’s never been a better time to run an online store.

The road to success, however, isn’t all sunshine and dollar signs. Merchants who want to stay relevant and get a piece of that $1.9 trillion pie will have to work hard to keep up with the evolving demands of online buyers. Changes to spending behaviour and technology have dramatically affected the way people shop, making it imperative that merchants take a long hard look at whether their store reflects the latest ecommerce trends.

While nobody can predict the exact direction ecommerce will take in 2017, we have an inkling of what some of the key trends and developments will be. Here are our predictions for what promises to be another record-breaking year for ecommerce.

Social commerce will take centre stage

Shopping used to be a social experience. You’d call up your friends, make plans to meet at the mall, and then roam from store to store, browsing products and asking whether this or that looks good. Online shopping brought an end to all that, turning what was once a stimulating social activity into a solitary individual one.

But did it really? Or did ecommerce just change where the conversations take place? According to marketer and journalist Heidi Cohen, evolving technology has meant that purchasing decisions—whether they take place online or off—still involve more than one person’s input. “Roughly three out of every four consumers rely on social networks to guide their purchasing decisions,” she writes. “As a result, it’s a no-brainer to sell where your customers are rather than trying to lure them to your site.”

Though sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest have been important promotional venues for a long time, they’ve only recently become key selling venues as well. Now, consumers can not only browse and compare products within the social channel, they can read reviews, solicit opinions, and place orders. And with more and more social platforms announcing their intentions to get into ecommerce in 2017—not to mention social commerce outpacing overall ecommerce growth by 10%—it’s clear that things are just heating up.

Customers will demand a more personalized shopping experience

Five years ago, The Havard Business Review published an article that prophesied the future of shopping. In it, a fictional character named Amy shops from her couch with the help of a personal concierge, selects a few items, and then drives to a brick-and-mortar store, where she’s greeted by name by a sales associate. She tries on her items, checks out using her digital wallet, and is presented with a personalized offer on her way out the door.

Fast forward to 2017 and all of this is possible—and more. The amount of data (BIG data) at merchants’ fingertips increasingly allows products and content to be shown to the right people at the right time. Instead of relying on retargeting to show ads to existing customers while they browse other sites, merchants can use programmatic advertising to individually tailor messages to new users. Rather than guess what kind of promotions will excite and entice customers, merchants can use predictive analysis to keep customers engaged with personalized offers.

If all this sounds incredibly expensive, we have good news: it doesn’t have to be. While it’s easy to invest a ton of time and energy into a personalization strategy for your store, there are simple, effective things you can start doing right away—like segmenting your mailing list, setting up targeted popups, or even just switching on “Related products” on your theme. There are also some great affordable apps out there (LimeSpot and Rare.io come to mind) that can help you make the most of the personalization trend.

Customer service will be run by robots

“Virtual assistants” have long been heralded as game changers in online shopping. But in 2017, things will take a turn for the futuristic when it comes to customer support, as many consumers will have their first interaction with a chatbot—a computer program that mimics conversation using artificial intelligence.

While the strict definition of a bot is a simple computer program used to perform highly repetitive actions (think trawling websites to collect email addresses), bots in 2017 can be quite complex, acting as human-like helpers to time-crunched shoppers. These tasks may include everything from giving personalized product recommendations to locating out-of-stock items to making group travel reservations—tasks that typically require lots of time and research.

Besides major brands like Amazon and Microsoft, which have already developed their own chatbots, smaller merchants are beginning to use apps like Kik, Slack and WhatsApp to integrate their customer service with the latest bot technology. Kik in particular has taken off, with more than 20,000 chatbots created in less than 12 months. (And given that live chat users spend 5% to 30% more, and buyer conversion rates are 5 to 10 times higher following a chat session, the rapid uptake is hardly surprising).

With the capabilities of chatbots growing quickly, and as consumers get more accustomed to talking to machines, we’re predicting it won’t be long before this functionality becomes more expected than experimental.

Mobile will continue to surge

This won’t surprise anyone who has been living at rock level or above for the past decade, but mobile is going to be huge in 2017. What could come as a surprise is when consumers start buying more from their phones, as opposed to just browsing from them. As recently as late last year, researchers have found that while mobile users account for more than half of all sessions on ecommerce sites, they make up less than 40% of revenue.

Those numbers are about to change, though—at least according to think tank Gartner, which predicts that mobile engagement will reach new heights in 2017, driving a full 50% of U.S. ecommerce revenue. Mobile conversions are already on their way up, with Black Friday 2016 becoming the first day in retail history to drive over $1 billion in mobile sales—an impressive 33% increase over the previous year.

Meanwhile, Google is hard at work on its mobile-first index, which will eventually primarily use the mobile version of a site’s content to rank pages from that site. That, combined with the emergence of larger-screen smartphones (which make it easier for users to input payment details and view products comprehensively) could make 2017 the true year of mobile commerce. All we can say is: it’s been a long time coming.

It’s all uphill from here

These are just a few of the trends we see having an impact on ecommerce in 2017. There are others we didn’t have time to cover—and probably a few we won’t see coming. While it can be challenging to keep up with ecommerce’s rapid evolution, it’s important not to fall too far behind and risk losing credibility and customers. Keep an ear to the ground and an innovative mind, and you’ll be sure to take some positive steps this year!

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