The Internet has facilitated new ways to connect consumers with products that were previously unimagined. There’s basically nothing you can’t buy online today, from a penny to a yacht. But the real challenge isn’t rooted in finding something online anymore; it’s in getting products to people faster. The other big problem we’re grappling with is how to seamlessly connect consumers with SMBs both online and in the real world. After all, consumers don’t really care where they buy things; they care about getting what they want when they want it (and for the best price.)
Two e-commerce giants are duking it out over these very challenges, with two very different approaches. On top of that, a few startups have emerged with a unique take on how to connect consumers with the things they want and need in new and valuable ways. Here’s my take on why Amazon and Google, as well as a few cunning upstarts and savvy retail incumbents, could soon change the shopping experience completely.
Amazon: The Speedster
It’s no surprise that Amazon belongs in any article about the future of commerce. The e-tail giant has managed to corner a large portion of online sales, in no small part due to their innovative and very popular Prime program, which gives customers 2-day shipping on unlimited products for a flat fee each year.
Not content to rest on its laurels, in 2013, Amazon unveiled even more creative approaches to speedy product delivery. First, they announced an exclusive deal brokered with the U.S. Postal Service to ship packages on Sundays. This was an innovative way to tap into an existing delivery network and bring it to life on a day when people have historically been unable to receive packages.
Next, Amazon unveiled a proposal to start delivering packages using aerial drones. While this move created quite the uproar, it’s proof that the e-commerce behemoth will do whatever it takes to get people what they want faster. They even went so far as to patent a “predictive delivery” process that would allow them to ship packages before people even order them.
Finally, Amazon purchased mobile payments startup GoPago. This is seen by many as a move to tap into a network of local merchants and use their inventory to fulfill orders even faster.
Amazon’s commitment to getting products to people faster than ever before has produced a dramatic impact on every e-commerce platform. It’s no longer enough to offer free shipping; you also have to offer fast, free shipping if you want to compete. With its huge inventory and complex network of sellers, delivery networks and warehouses around the country (and beyond), Amazon is the hand to beat in today’s game.
Google: The Girl Next Door
Of course, delivery isn’t the only way to connect people with products. While Amazon is hard at work bringing the goods to you, Google is busy leading you to the goods. The search king recognized early on that what people type into that little box is hugely valuable information. Brick-and-mortar stores are always looking for ways to compete with the likes of Amazon, and Google may soon provide a seamless way to do that: connecting search data with location data.
When people are out and about, it’s often difficult to find the information they need as it relates to which stores carry specific products. As a result, people often give up and order things online that they could, perhaps ironically, easily pick up just down the street, if only they knew where to go. Google has set about solving this problem using its map listings.
Companies can use this tool in much the same way they optimize their websites for search engines, focusing on relevant keywords that customers frequently search for. It likely won’t be long before searches initiated on location-aware smart devices will pull up specific products on a map of local stores, showing consumers exactly where they need to go to get what they are looking for.
Drizly: The Best Friend You Can Always Count On
While Google and Amazon are dominating the delivery-vs-pickup battle, there are many interesting startups dedicated to connecting people with certain types of goods quickly and easily. One great example is Drizly, a mobile app that lets you order alcohol and have it delivered to your front door. While you can buy wine on Amazon, and Google can help you find a local store that stocks your favorite Pinot Noir, Drizly is an example of an app that fills an “in-between” need: sometimes you’re throwing a party and don’t want to leave to go grab a bottle. Problem solved.
Uber: The Chameleon
Though more famous for their on-demand cab service, Uber has done a great job with localized delivery campaigns around holidays and other special occasions. They have delivered everything from Christmas trees to ice cream and kittens (yes, really). While this might appear to be a gimmick on the surface -- nothing more than a clever way to garner more attention for the taxi replacement service -- the reality is that Uber appears to have long-term plans in the delivery space. This is another fascinating example of how a company can repurpose one network (in this case, an army of taxi and limousine drivers) to use it for an entirely new purpose (last-minute deliveries, for example). While Uber isn’t all-in yet, it’s worth keeping an eye on what this fast-growing, uber-successful company will do next.
Gap: The Personal Shopper
Another key dynamic that players in the hyperspeed commerce game must consider is how people like to mix their online and in-store research. To this end, the Gap recently started a program that allows shoppers to select items they’d like to try on in-store and have them set aside before they arrive. This is a smart way to combine the ease and convenience of online browsing with the satisfaction of being able to test out an item before actually purchasing it. It saves time in-store, while also saving people from the hassle of mailing their returns. Smart companies like the Gap are looking for opportunities to offer shoppers the kind of commerce experience that fits seamlessly with their lifestyles.
These are just a few examples of companies and products that are attempting to disrupt how people find and obtain the items they want and need. 2014 will be a big year for the evolution of commerce, and while it may be a bit of a bumpy ride, we can safely bet that the experience of shopping will only get faster and better from here.