You know that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Willy Wonka describes being able to reach into your television screen and grab a candy bar right out of an ad? Well, we’re not quite able to create goods out of thin air yet, but the e-commerce industry does keep developing incredible new technologies and conveniences. At first they seem like science fiction, but soon consumers take them for granted. And the pace of innovation shows no sign of slowing.
Just in the past two years, several growing trends seem on track to become ubiquitous. We’ve seen same-day delivery go from a pipe dream to an option that many consumers expect — with Uber delivering UberEATS, for instance, with the tap of an app. Omnichannel commerce continues to blur the line between online and traditional retail with offerings such as “endless aisle” kiosks in stores, where shoppers can order out-of-stock items. And social buying seems poised to dominate e-commerce: Instagram recently became the latest social media platform to add a purchase button option for sponsored posts, joining Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.
But those advances are nothing compared with what’s coming. Here are some of the radical innovations in the works that will almost certainly transform e-commerce as we know it.
Facebook is helping lead the push toward these programs intended to mimic human customer service in text and messaging apps. E-tailers hope to not only speed up customer service response times but help customers do things like order a pizza, search for travel deals or shop for clothing. Uber’s Chris Messina coined the term “conversational commerce” to describe this new way of shopping and buying. Much still needs to be done to work out the bugs and to overcome consumer resistance to chatbots before they dominate e-commerce, but it’s a question of when, not if.
Virtual Reality Shopping
On Nov. 11, 2016 — known as Singles’ Day in China and the biggest online shopping day in the world — Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba moved the needle in a big way on virtual reality in e-tail. In preparation, Alibaba sold 150,000 cardboard virtual reality headsets for about 15 cents apiece, and from Nov. 1 to 11, shoppers were able to virtually shop in participating stores such as Macy’s, Costco and Target. Alibaba exec Mike Evans called the event “a test bed for the future of commerce.”
Payment by Selfie
Facial recognition software identifies an individual’s unique features and could someday become a standard payment feature, bypassing the need to remember passwords and keep them secure. Early in 2016, Amazon filed a patent for a process that would enable consumers to pay for online purchases with selfies. Alibaba is developing facial recognition technology whereby shoppers would be able to pay just by nodding or looking at the screen. And in October, MasterCard actually rolled out a selfie pay service in Europe.
There are currently services on the market for tracking packages’ location and condition in real time — including SenseAware®, a FedEx innovation — geared at high-value and sensitive shipments. But advancements could make it more commonplace. Intel recently demonstrated technology that uses a tiny sensor node requiring very little power to process and communicate information for a smart label containing low-cost sensors. It may never be practical to make real-time shipment tracking standard, but expect to see it become more common as an upgrade option.
It’s impossible to forecast which of these up-and-comers will someday dominate the e-commerce industry and which will be passing fads that don’t live up to their promise. But whatever happens, you can bet on e-commerce continuing to become more connected, more automated and more omnipresent in our lives.