If You Sell Anything Online in 2024, Make Sure You Take These 5 Steps

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We keep hearing that ecommerce is an unstoppable force, but the truth is that it’s hit a wall. Even though online sales keep climbing, growth has been flat lately. It might not be a hiccup, either.

I take no pleasure in sharing that news. After all, my whole business is about helping online retailers succeed. But for brands that want to keep thriving, it’s critical to acknowledge this trend and what’s fueling it.

My suspicion: Shoppers are tired of all things digital.

Just look at the resurgence of brick-and-mortar shopping post-pandemic. U.S. retailers opened twice as many stores as they closed in 2022. Shoppers — especially younger ones — like browsing IRL, and I don’t see that shift reversing anytime soon. Overall, online shopping’s share of U.S. sales has stagnated since 2020, hovering around 15%.

Why? Part of the reason is that people still crave the human touch, which can set retailers apart from their rivals. That’s why smart brands — even in the age of AI — are prioritizing ways to humanize the online shopping experience.

With that in mind, here are five ways to stay ahead of the curve in 2024, from my perspective working with hundreds of the world’s top online retailers.

Related: 5 Ways to Show Your Customers You Understand Them in a Digital-First World

As retail tech finally delivers real value, take full advantage

Historically, the harder you try to make online shopping like real life, the more the gulf widens. Fortunately, retail technology is turning a corner, in large part thanks to AI.

Take chatbots, which used to leave most customers frustrated. But generative AI is finally making them useful. In one poll, more than half of people who have used ChatGPT said they were more likely to shop from a brand with a similar conversational bot.

Personalization is also making strides. The gold standard here is tech that’s as thoughtful and perceptive as your favorite real-life salesperson — the one who always remembers what size you wear, the colors you like, and your favorite designers. Online, we’re starting to get there. Each time I visit the clothing site Farfetch, for instance, its AI gets better at showing me products that match my preferences.

Augmented reality has raised its game too. This tech is far from new — I remember AR games at the arcade as a kid. But we’re finally seeing seamless integrations with ecommerce. Shopify’s new AR tool lets retailers add 3D models and videos directly to their product pages. Then there’s Apple’s Vision Pro headset, which could become a virtual changing room.

My advice: Be open to using the latest retail tech, which is more likely to win customers over than to alienate them.

But make sure AI gets a human intervention

But slow down. Yes, generative AI is a game changer for the shopping experience, but smart brands are tempering new tools with human oversight in 2024.

The laziest retailers will hire a robot army and turn it loose, leaving shoppers to wrestle with GPT’s growing pains. The growing number of major brands offering little to no human customer support attests to the popularity — and serious pitfalls — of this approach.

A better way? Smart retailers are treating AI tools like new employees — ensuring that they’re onboarded, trained and supervised so that they truly deliver value to shoppers.

To handle this new digital workforce, retailers should be open to introducing brand new human roles in 2024: dedicated bot managers to monitor AI conversation and train agents; digital specialists to fine-tune AI merchandising; AI sales enablers to sharpen automated sales efforts.

To me, it’s like when retailers woke up to the fact that having a website also required a digital team. Just like that digital store was never going to run itself, AI needs care and attention.

Related: Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Human Interaction? 4 Ways AI is Impacting and Empowering Customer Experience

Help customers move away from mindless consumption

It’s no secret online shopping can be wasteful, unfulfilling and even addictive. A shiny new purchase and its attendant dopamine hit are always just a click away. But progressive retailers are tapping into a growing backlash and finding ways to encourage more purposeful consumption.

Patagonia — which urges people to buy less of its own and others’ products — doesn’t do Black Friday sales. Same goes for Typology. Last Black Friday weekend, the vegan skincare brand donated $2 of every purchase to fighting ocean plastic pollution.

The recommerce movement — reuse, recycle and resell — will also help carry that torch. Expect the explosion of secondhand retail sites, led by the likes of Poshmark, Facebook Marketplace, thredUP and Depop, to continue into 2024. Contrary to the stereotype of shabby thrift stores, recommerce is big business. The U.S. market alone stood at more than $160 billion in 2021 — up 15% over the previous year. By 2025, it could grow to $245 billion.

I’m not suggesting that you open a secondhand marketplace. But the fact that many people no longer want to shop til they drop, for sustainability, mental health and other reasons, should figure into online retailers’ product and marketing strategies.

Double down on community

In a similar spirit, retailers are going to increasing lengths to prioritize building true community in 2024.

The fact is that acquiring new customers online has gotten more complex, cutthroat and prohibitively costly. Data privacy laws are stricter than ever. And partly thanks to the fallout between Apple and Google over tracking people, customers’ digital trails have gone cold. Meanwhile, retailers seeking to advertise on social media face dwindling options: X is a mess, Facebook’s rates are soaring and TikTok only reaches a narrow demographic.

Overall, ecommerce — and direct-to-consumer retail in particular — has become a seriously saturated market. The bottom line: the average cost of picking up a new customer surged over 220% between 2013 and 2022, from $9 to $29.

So rather than chase one-off sales, savvy retailers should play a long game, going the extra mile to build and cement ties with loyal customers. One standout is lululemon, which hosts thousands of yoga classes and other events at its stores. Meanwhile, Harley Davidson brings people together through the Harley Owners Group, which offers membership benefits along with rallies and other gatherings.

Related: A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Community for Your Business

Find new ways to surprise and delight shoppers

In 2024, online retailers that make a conscious effort to dazzle customers will have an edge. With more consumer interactions governed by predictive algorithms, brands that break the mold and add a truly human touch are poised to stand out.

I’m still floored when I get a handwritten note with a product, even if it’s from the warehouse worker who packed the box. One study found that such messages double the likelihood of repeat purchases, build connection and help retailers stand out. Personalized QR codes, which can tailor offers to each customer, are another way to surprise and delight shoppers.

Brands can also take a marketing cue from the makers on Etsy, who flex their creative muscles in ways that big businesses might not. I recently ordered a pencil case crafted by a small Polish company. It arrived with not just a free pencil but a coffee sample from its region. Needless to say, they’ve got a customer for life.

The takeaway? Always be thinking about how to enchant customers who have come to expect the same old thing from brands large and small. In a world where human connection still matters to people, retailers taking such steps in 2024 could also find themselves pleasantly surprised.

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