Ecommerce agency predicts 'automated and service-driven' future

Marketers need to be prepared for the rise of "screenless" e-commerce where purchase decisions will increasingly made by machines, according to a trend report by WPP's ecommerce specialist agency Salmon.

Hugh Fletcher, global head of consultancy and innovation at Salmon, said: "The introduction of new interfaces, such as voice and gestures, and ultimately the brain-computer interface, will change the way we search for, find and select products," 

Most organisations are still thinking with screens in mind, with some still proudly proclaiming to be "mobile first", he added. However last year, 41% of consumers told a Salmon survey that they want to use voice to purchase products. 

"As more customers transition to new interfaces such as Amazon's Echo and Google Home, marketers will need to think about how to break through to their customers in a world of new interfaces," Fletcher said.

Such moves by retailers to control the relationship with consumers are not new, but brands are getting edged further away from the customer, Salmon claims. 

"Think about how Amazon is looking to own all the key ecommerce interfaces – search, payment, voice. And that’s just in the West. Think about Alibaba, which according to the Economist is "a combination of Amazon, Twitter, eBay and PayPal, but broader And let’s not forget WeChat, the Tencent owned social media platform with almost a billion users, which offers a one-stop shop for all its users social media, ecommerce and payment requirements," the report said. 

"If you own the interface, you own the customer. If you own the customer you own the data. If you own the data, you own the future", Fletcher said. "It’s no longer about customer loyalty, but about customer ownership. Ownership is all based on offering a better, easier, quicker and more convenient service than a competitor's because customers are increasingly becoming loyal to service, not the brand."

One way some brands are fighting back is by automated ordering, although this too is a space Amazon seeks to dominate with its Dash buttons. Water filter producer Brita has a pitcher which reorders filters when required and Nepresso’s connected coffee machine which reorders coffee capsules when they’re running low. HP printers too automatically order print cartridges and toner when required. 

A future where machines make purchasing decisions on behalf of consumers is increasingly possible, said the report. While a survey in 2016 by Salmon found that only 13% of customers would be happy to enter into automated purchasing and replenishing relationships, this number went up to 46% in 2017. 

The report also identifies a number of mini-trends pushing consumerism towards this programmatic and automated future. 

One is the subscription economy, which now includes cosmetics, food, and even services such as Netflix and Spotify. Then, there's the trend of "just in time, small-scale replenishment" exemplified by Amazon Dash and Amazon Prime. 

"These make consumers happier to be 'locked in' to specific brands of our choosing," the report noted. 

This trend falls right in line with fact that customers are shifting their loyalty to services of this type and away from brands. If your brand isn't available for 24-hour delivery, it is liable to be rejected. Customers are already valuing service (88%) over brands (78%), said the report with consumers likely to reject brands they historically liked if their service is poor. 

"As Jeff Bezos says, customers are loyal to Amazon only up until the point that someone offers them a better service. Customers now choose products according to the service that they offer. This is the Amazon Prime effect in full throttle," Fletcher said. 

Marketers, who have long been schooled to value increasing brand equity above all, will be impacted, he continued. "With service diluting the power of the brand, brand equity will no longer have the effect it once had.  Getting the first bite of the customer therefore is increasingly important, and is why there’s a battle for the first digital mile."

Brands must not sit back and allow the tech giants to fight over who gets the first bite of the customer, Fletcher advised. "Brands need to think about how they drive customers directly to them, their products, and their experiences."