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2021: A Fork in the Retail Road

Tim Rentowl, VP Product Management, explores the different directions retailers can take when it comes to boosting their online offering.

COVID-19 shook the world of retail to its core and the global impact is set to be felt for the foreseeable future. UK Retailers suffered their worst annual sales performance on record in 2020, but e-commerce grew by 46% year-on-year, with non-essential categories increasing by up to 80%. It was a similar story in the US, where 2020 retail sales were anticipated to fall to $4.89 trillion from around $5.47 trillion in 2019, while e-commerce grew by 44.0%. Without a doubt, 2020 marked the start of a new retail horizon.

Shoppers have embraced digital commerce so the rapid growth of e-commerce looks set to stay. Where e-commerce was often seen as complementary to a commanding physical presence, for many retailers, it’s now the predominant sales channel and the place where customers have that all-important first interaction with a brand or products. This means it’s more vital than ever for retailers to have a strong e-commerce offering, delivering a great retail customer experience across multiple channels.

This has led to a seismic shift in the retail landscape, with customers transitioning rapidly from physical to online retail. It’s left some retailers on the back foot, having to decide which e-commerce path to take as they reach a fork in the road.

At this fork in the road, two distinct e-commerce routes are emerging. The first route available to retailers is to sell online via a third-party marketplace solution; the second is to take full control of their e-commerce strategy in-house, building a compelling online presence and growing their online business. Both are clearly very different and both have their merits. Ultimately, it’s down to the individual retailer to choose which path is right for them.

Third-party marketplace

A popular solution for retailers selling commodity goods, the third-party marketplace approach ensures orders are fulfilled efficiently and quickly. Presenting all products in a standard format, this is a great fit for common, everyday items such as batteries and lightbulbs, and frees-up the retailer to focus on other areas of the business, leaving the e-commerce side of things to the marketplace specialists. What this approach doesn’t provide is much, if any, product differentiation nor opportunities for customer engagement, two things that are extremely valuable when it comes to selling non-commodity items.

A compelling e-commerce presence

Once the sole preserve of larger retailers, the ability to deliver a great customer experience online is now accessible to all, with tailored solutions available to enable retailers to build their own compelling e-commerce presence. This route is more suited to retailers of non-commodity items, such as furniture or mobile phones, whose customers want to shop via an engaging and informative website, with a buying experience that’s tailored to their specific needs and the option to receive updates about similar products. This approach is much more nuanced and finely-tuned and the ideal solution for businesses who have traditionally struggled to make themselves seen and heard in an increasingly busy online space.

There are three main points to consider when choosing the tools and solutions to support this approach: how to secure a competitive advantage, how the right industry and software expertise can guide you to optimum results, and how to guarantee maximum ROI.

Securing a Competitive Advantage

First and foremost is the need to secure that crucial online competitive advantage. Creating a customer experience that is friction-free and engaging can be challenging but it’s definitely not impossible. Features such as the appearance of images when customers search for items, or predictions about what shoppers are most likely to buy and presenting suggestions to them right at the start of their search, or even offering an easy way to sign up for emails about future price reductions, can all help retailers stand out from the crowd and drive greater revenues.

Industry and Software Expertise

The right software solution or suite of solutions can deliver a competitive advantage. But, to maximize the business benefits, retailers shouldn’t go it alone. An e-commerce solution implemented and supported by industry and product experts can ensure retailers squeeze every ounce of value out of their investment. Rather than spending valuable time in-house devising e-commerce strategies, plans and campaigns, many retailers are outsourcing e-commerce management, taking full advantage of the skills and knowledge of expert partners whose main focus is online retail . This supercharges their online presence, enticing new customers and prompting existing customers to return for repeat purchases, time and time again.

Maximizing Return on Your Software Investment

Smart retailers are moving away from the traditional technology stack and multiple, expensive IT contracts, instead consolidating their solutions and software spend. Retailers should be considering new, subscription-based models from vendors who are experts in the industry and are able to provide all the e-commerce solutions a retailer could need, from website through to warehouse. This results in a better return on investment, freeing software from expensive, locked boxes and making it readily available to retailers whose ambitions may outstrip their budgets.


The new retail horizon requires all retailers to reassess their e-commerce offering in-line with their particular business requirements. Non-commodity retailers can use the simple but effective route of a third-party marketplace to ensure regular and reliable sales, while commodity retailers can opt for the more bespoke route of a tailored approach. By choosing the right direction to suit their specific business needs and working with the right partners to achieve optimum results, retailers can steal a much-needed march on the competition, securing a place at the forefront of the e-commerce revolution with the sales figures to match.


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