Top 5 Trends Driving Mobile eCommerce in 2021: Learning from B2C and China

The recent article in the January 2021 issue of The Economist argues that companies are better off looking to the East rather than the West for ecommerce clues and trends. Indeed the Eastern market is far bigger and more creative, with tech companies combining traditional ecommerce with a razzle-dazzle of social media, live streaming, TikTok-like videos, instant messaging, lotteries, gaming, and so forth. Many Western companies have already followed suit and adopted the effervescent business models from the East. The recent rebranding and remodeling of a Russian ecommerce store Ozon so far has shown to be an incredibly successful endeavor. Ozon now offers a blend of ecommerce and social services from digital payments, installment plans, credit cards, group deals, insurance payments, and live-streaming, among others.

To understand the evolution of ecommerce in China, and mobile ecommerce in particular, it is worth going back to the birth of 20-century consumerism in the USA, where the mall has become an epicenter for shopping, entertainment, and dining out. Objectively speaking, brick and mortar is still the retail’s bedrock in America. According to The Economist, “America has 3.3 times as much physical shop floor per person as China does.” Although Covid has greatly impacted the brick and mortar stores in the US, a typical American dreams of returning to the razzmatazz of a suburban shopping mall while shunning the drab of Amazon shopping. The Chinese consumer, on the contrary, is pretty comfortable with the virtual reality of shopping, finding it more rewarding and convenient. Armed with their smartphones, Chinese middle-class consumers browse dozens of ecommerce stores that look like digital replicas of a 20-century American mall with its mix of gaming arcades, entertainment, clothing stores, and food courts.

The Chinese digital market is enormous: there are almost 1bn internet users (compare that with 300mln in the US), and a mobile share in ecommerce accounts for 90% of all sales (in the US, it’s just 40%). Just by looking at the numbers, it is obvious that we should pay more attention to what is happening on the other side of the Great Wall. Moreover, one might wonder what is behind the dazzling success of mobile ecommerce in China and whether the same shopping paradigms can be applied to the Western market. Unfortunately, the answers are not that simple – Western consumers might not expect or want the same things. Yet, taking note of the major mobile ecommerce trends, which have originated in China but slowly powered through the trendsetting cranes of other markets, will give us insights into the future.

Social commerce as the major mobile ecommerce trend

The biggest trend in mobile ecommerce is perhaps the rise of social commerce, which rests on three pillars: live streaming, short-form video, and social networking.

According to Fitch, the market for live-stream retail in China reached $153bn in 2020. For the sake of comparison, consider the difference in the time it took to sell $7.5bn-worth of sales for the biggest live streaming platform in China Taobao Live on Singles Day and Amazon’s Prime Day in October – 30 minutes vs 48 hours. The interest in live-streaming surged during the pandemic when the Chinese found themselves confined to their homes and glued to their smartphones because Western alternatives like Netflix are still banned in the country. The discounts promised by participation in the live events and relatively low salaries of Chinese consumers justify watching the streams and participating in various group discussions held on WeChat, the biggest messaging platform in the country.

Many consumers organize bulk purchases and engage in haggling with the merchants within the WeChat-enabled groups, where like-minded people gather to order anything from children’s toys to groceries. Pinduoduo, which allows for such back and forth negotiation, is now worth $175bn.

Another app, Xiaohongshu, allows consumers, mostly females, to share their shopping experiences and advice via chat, video, and text messages, which makes it somewhat similar to a hybrid between Instagram and Pinterest.

Omnichannel experience

The second ever-growing trend is omnichannel. Omnichannel implies cross-channel and leveraging the power of both online and offline mediums.

China’s JD.com, which works with 6.8m local grocery stores, delivers products from physical stores to consumers and feeds its merchants with data to optimize operations. On the other side of the omnichannel, some physical stores offer digital coupons to encourage sales and live-streaming to generate buzz. Meituan, a Chinese online-to-offline local life service platform, connecting over 240 million consumers and five million local merchants, broadened its speedy deliveries during the pandemic from takeaway foods to groceries. Missfresh and other similar 30-minute delivery services of groceries are mushrooming across China.

Speaking of western experience in omnichannel, Amazon is, of course, ahead of the game. Amazon owns around 500 Whole Foods Market stores and has opened Fresh grocers that offer free same-day delivery to Prime members. During the pandemic, Walmart and Target have seen an unprecedented surge in in-store pickups of online purchases. Because of the enormity of America’s physical retail, hybrid shopping models are expected to become even more prevalent in the coming years.

Even before Covid, mobile had already become the intermediary touch in the buyer’s shopping experience, where shoppers use mobile devices in-between stages of their buying journeys. The intermediacy implies various ways of interacting with the physical reality through the mobile environment. It doesn't stop with using an app for grocery delivery, but it also means using an app to, for example, enhance the physical store-browsing experience, scan products availability, check if there is a queue in a physical store, and so forth.

One of the killer features the company might offer with a mobile app is AR. For example, Ikea connects the offline and online experience by showing users how the furniture would look in their homes. For just under six months, the app has become the second most popular free application built with the help of Apple’s ARKit. According to Fortune, the market for both VR and AR is expected to top $150 billion in the next few years with 3.5 billion people using mobile augmented reality applications by 2023. This is largely thanks to Daqri, Blippar, and Layar, who have provided technology and resources to help developers create their own applications, and then Apple, Google, and Facebook, who followed suit by providing toolkits to bring down the app costs for AR.

Other mobile ecommerce trends

What other trends are driving mobile commerce in 2021?

Voice assistants & voice-based search

The 2019 study from Juniper Research estimates there will be 8 billion voice assistants in use by 2023. Although the global leader in smart speaker sales remains Amazon, the Chinese are rapidly catching up. Baidu, the Chinese search engine, for example, has experienced incredible sales of its smart speakers over the last two years. In mobile search, Asian countries already outpace the US: 38% of all internet users in Indonesia, 36% in China, and 34% in India carry out voice-assisted searches on mobile devices compared to just 25% in the US. During the last 11.11 Global Shopping Festival in China, more than one million consumers used the Tmall Genie’s voice assistant to place and pay for their orders.

According to eMarketer, as many as 34.7 million people in the US are expected to use voice search features on their smart speakers to shop, representing a growth of nearly 12% from 2019. More than half of respondents admit using voice features to research products before purchasing, 30% – to track the status of their orders, 20% leave reviews, and 17% use voice assistance to reorder. The popularity of voice-based assistants and voice search on mobile devices has led businesses to join the race to optimize their websites and ecommerce stores for voice search and to integrate their mobile stores with voice assistants.

Mobile payments

Speaking of mobile payments, China is already outpacing the US and most of the developed world. People’s Bank of China claims that mobile commerce payments in the country have grown by 28 times in the last five years and will soon replace cash payments. While the latter assertion sounds like a stretch, especially considering the vast expanse of the rural area in China, a new digital currency, with the right technology and enormity of the consumer market, would put China miles ahead in the currency space.

In the West, pioneered with Amazon’s one-click purchase patent, one-click payment solutions (from Apple and Shopify to PayPal and Visa) are now mushrooming the market. The popularity comes with no surprises – the solutions reduce the friction around the most important part of mobile commerce, namely an actual transaction. Gen Z, in particular, loves the swiftness and convenience of one-click payments.

Gamification

The gamification trend is yet something else to watch out for. One of the brightest examples of gamification in ecommerce is AliExpress, which has been using games as part of the shopping experience since 2011. AliExpress offers numerous types of consumer engagement from collecting or winning coins to receiving or exchanging coupons. Users need to complete certain tasks to earn points, such as liking something or reviewing a recently purchased item. There are also different games within an app where users can grow trees or flip cards to win coins. Good Western examples of gamification include Starbucks, where users earn stars for a drink, or Nike, where people share their daily sprints with the community and achieve their running goals.

Mobile payments

Speaking of mobile payments, China is already outpacing the US and most of the developed world. People’s Bank of China claims that mobile commerce payments in the country have grown by 28 times in the last five years and will soon replace cash payments. While the latter assertion sounds like a stretch, especially considering the vast expanse of the rural area in China, a new digital currency, with the right technology and enormity of the consumer market, would put China miles ahead in the currency space.

In the West, pioneered with Amazon’s one-click purchase patent, one-click payment solutions (from Apple and Shopify to PayPal and Visa) are now mushrooming the market. The popularity comes with no surprises – the solutions reduce the friction around the most important part of mobile commerce, namely an actual transaction. Gen Z, in particular, loves the swiftness and convenience of one-click payments.

Mobile ecommerce trends for B2B ecommerce companies

In B2B, the main challenges lie in personalization, the complexity of installation-specific settings, and the prodigious variety of scenarios that account for contract specifications and pricing intricacies. The underlying differences between B2B and B2C mean that you can’t just replicate the scenarios that work for B2C to B2B. For one thing, in B2C, customers can purchase once or twice from the ecommerce store without committing themselves to a long-term purchasing contract, whereas in B2B, a customer can make the same order every week for years. The buyer’s journey, the fundamental logic behind the purchase, and the overall rules of the game are different. However, looking at B2C trends can help us envision what lies in store for B2B ecommerce companies. It goes without saying that gamification will probably never catch up in a B2B environment (we might be wrong!), and some other scenarios will have to be adopted to the B2B realities. However, social commerce, omnichannel, and AR trends, can be easily replicated in the B2B realities.

Instead of perusing print catalogs and talking to a salesperson, B2B buyers now are more willing to research companies on their desktop or mobile devices and then engage with self-service portals. Mobile apps are no exceptions. Millennial buyers, in particular, having been nurtured on B2C, prefer an easy streamlined checkout process, quick re-ordering, and in-app communication tools to negotiate prices with the seller.

Apart from that, leading companies recognize that desktops cannot support the entire customer journey. B2B buyers and sellers don’t live behind their desks – they are on job sites, in the field, commuting, etc – they need offline access to products, services, account information, and order tracking. This is where PWAs come in(to the picture). We’ll explore all of those trends in detail below.

PWA

PWA, or Progressive Web Applications, have been around for a while, but the adoption of a PWA-approach to development has been steadily growing. PWAs behave like mobile apps but are created with common web technologies. Consumers don’t necessarily have to download an app for your business from an App Store or Google Play: they can simply go online to your site on their mobile devices. PWA ensures your website works like an app on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or mobile phone with just as much speed and usability as a native app. PWAs can be integrated with smartphone functions like a camera, messaging, a broad range of other features to ensure as close to a B2C experience as possible. PWA works offline, which is especially relevant, for on-field sales where the quality of connection might leave much to be desired.

Virto Commerce’s experience shows that even though the three-letter abbreviation has been thrown back and forth a lot, it is only in the last two years that B2B has finally adopted the PWA technology. The “adoption” phenomenon has been conditioned by several factors, such as the technological maturity of browsers, frameworks, toolkits, components, and, of course, the companies’ willingness to try out the talk-of-the-town technology. Before, PWA was more in the R&D stages. Virto Commerce, in this sense, is currently on the crest of the wave, having successfully implemented the technology and helped clients address issues related to the availability of the service offline.

Virto Commerce had two clients with somewhat similar problems – connectivity issues while on site. A typical agent, who traveled from one place to the other to form orders and negotiate with customers, experienced problems with the internet connection. In Nigeria, the vast expanses of land completely lacked internet coverage, and in Moscow, some buildings had thick impenetrable walls where connectivity was poor, agents had to come upstairs into the street to complete their orders. The solution in such cases is to develop a Progressive Web App, which works on any device regardless of the internet connection.

In the case of a typical native mobile app, businesses have to invest in two types of development works – an ecommerce store that works on desktop, and a mobile app, which has to be built from scratch. In the case of a PWA, an application only has to be developed once. PWA has a functional capacity for integration with a customer’s device. Developers can determine if an app works online or offline and connect PWA to the internal storage on a device where data can be stored for later use.

Virto Commerce developed a Progressive Web Application that downloaded the catalog and other important information the agent might require so there would be no need to access the server during their visit to the client. While on-site, the agent went to the website in their browsers, walked customers through catalogs and prices, added items to the cart, and clicked on “place an order.” If there were no internet, the order would be automatically saved and then sent back to the server when there’s a connection. Since customers wanted additional confirmation, Virto Commerce added SMS functionality to the PWA – as soon as the agent placed the order, an SMS was generated with encrypted information about the contents of an order, which automatically traveled to the server. Besides, SMS-confirmations helped Virto Commerce ensure that all the information saved within the PWA was accurate and complete.

Social engagement

Getting back to the B2C trends discussed earlier, one can argue that what B2B ecommerce companies still seem to be missing is precisely what makes the B2C market so creative, attractive, and diverse – the user-contributed content and social engagement, the first major trend currently driving B2C. Enterprises should give their customers tools to research products and services, such as recommendations, ratings, and reviews from other customers. It goes without saying that detailed information on products and services, visual imagery, videos, and downloadables are an absolute must to support customer research.

During all stages of a B2B buyer’s journey – from awareness to purchase to brand advocacy – companies need to develop a socially driven shopping experience and promote sharing across social media. Word of mouth will ultimately drive buyers back to your landing or products’ pages to make another sale.

However, before entering the world of B2B social commerce, it’s imperative to develop a comprehensive strategy that outlines your objectives, creates marketing and promotional campaigns, develops a content plan, and thinks of ways to integrate social commerce into a multichannel strategy.

When outlining your objectives, you need to establish definitive goals of social commerce endeavors: is it converting your existing customers into brand advocates or acquiring new customers? Delineating goals will help you develop your strategy accordingly and determine the key performance metrics to measure your progress. We’re not talking about ‘likes” or “fans” or any other similar fluff often associated with social media, but instead – about clear-cut measurable outcomes of your social campaigns, such as conversion rates, for example.

When thinking of a promotional strategy, consider implementing an effective referral marketing campaign. Offer powerful incentives, new deals, and other exciting offers for anyone who refers your business. Now, it doesn’t only concern mobile commerce. It just so happens that people tend to spend more time on social networks while they use their mobile devices. So by investing in social media, you’re killing two birds with one stone and ensure the mobile social engagement works in your favor.

The content plan should take into account all types of media, blog posts, videos, and images. You’d wonder how on earth you’d incorporate live-streaming for B2B customers and if you indeed need to do that. We suggest you’d test different strategies and approaches and survey your customers as to what they might or might not expect from you. It certainly would not hurt trying. Suppose, you have just rolled out a new feature or have an unprecedented influx of new customers, you might use this opportunity to live-stream a training session or onboarding conference and hold a webinar or Q&A session. You may even consider asking a business celebrity to participate in a meaningful discussion on pressing and challenging topics to attract existing and potential customers to attend. To encourage people to stay till the end of the live session, think of incentives like discounts and prizes. The possibilities are indeed endless and are only limited by the expanse of your imagination.

It is obvious that every blog post you write, either within your app on mobile devices or on the desktop, needs to have social media sharing buttons so your content will promote itself when customers decide to share it.

Leverage the power of social media as a customer service tool. Encourage your customers to ask questions or leave feedback, and address each customer concern either publicly or privately. Social interaction with your customers not only increases customer satisfaction and ensures every single customer feels valued and appreciated but also humanizes your brand.

AI

AI chatbots are no longer an innovation, but they are still worth mentioning. Use AI chatbots both for your website and your app for customers to either leave questions when a live representative is not available or find information easily. Again, it’s important to get back to your customers as soon as possible whenever you discover AI was used and a live representative was required for assistance.

Omnichannel

Speaking of an omnichannel experience, mobile apps provide the necessary bridge between online and offline realities. As soon as your customer downloads your app, they take your business wherever they go. It’s an amazing opportunity to enhance customer engagement and loyalty, remind customers of reorder times, initiate regular marketing campaigns, and so forth.

In today’s fast-paced market, it’s increasingly common for multiple channels to be involved in a single purchasing decision. Therefore you need to make sure that your customers can seamlessly interact with your business across all channels, be it with a salesperson, on a desktop computer, or via their mobile phone while commuting.

Virto Commerce B2B ecommerce platform as a solution for all your mobile commerce endeavors

Virto Commerce B2B ecommerce platform is an API-based, fully customizable, composable, and extensible ecommerce solution that can support both headless and traditional ecommerce.

Thanks to the modern technologies that are at the platform’s core, Virto Commerce is capable of solving complex B2B scenarios, including those associated with making your business mobile-friendly. Besides PWA, Virto Commerce can help your business develop native mobile apps with all the pertaining functionality of a full-fledged ecommerce solution.

To learn how Virto Commerce and its ecommerce B2B platform can help your business, you may book a demo now!

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Marina Vorontsova
Author