8 Big E-Commerce Trends to Look for in 2016

Editor's Pick: Originally Published Wednesday, Dec. 23

As the year comes to a close, it's time to both reflect on the past and look ahead to what's in store for the future of shopping.

E-commerce had a big year in 2015, with an industry growth rate of 15%, according to comScore, and some new holiday sales records. Cyber Monday was the biggest day for online sales in the history of U.S., Thanksgiving hit a new record for online sales, and Black Friday, typically the big day for in-store shopping, saw more online shoppers than brick-and-mortar shoppers, according to the National Retail Foundation.

And yet there's still room for growth, with e-commerce only making up 7.4% of total retail sales in the U.S. during the third quarter, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here are some trends will may help boost that percentage in the coming year.

1. The rise of the digital assistant

As artificial intelligence improves and digital assistants grow in popularity, e-commerce will begin to embrace a more human element online. One of the major downsides of shopping online versus in a brick-and-mortar store is that the customer loses the interaction with a salesperson who can guide him or her on a purchase. With digital assistants such as Apple's  (AAPL) Siri and Facebook's  (FB) M, consumers are now getting used to a different reality that could slowly but surely take over the e-commerce industry.

Some retailers are already making moves here. The North Face, for example, just rolled out a new tool called XPS that uses IBM's (IBM) Watson to provide recommendations for online shoppers. And companies such as Facebook and Amazon (AMZN)  are enabling e-commerce through digital assistants that will automatically process a transaction for a consumer. 

"As voice recognition technology becomes more sophisticated than ever and voice-activated web browsing becomes more common, look for digital assistants to also grow," Forrester analysts wrote in a recent report.

2. Chatcommerce will become a thing

In a trend intertwined with the rise of the digital assistant, chatcommerce, which is already popular in Asia, will make its way to the U.S.

Tencent's  (TCEHY) WeChat is currently one of the biggest players combining the worlds of messaging and commerce. Consumers use WeChat not only to send friends stickers, but also to order a ride or shop for physical goods.

Facebook's Messenger could potentially be the one to bring that success to the U.S. Just last week Facebook integrated Uber into Messenger to let users order a ride directly within the chat app. And a few retailers like Everlane and Zulily are testing Messenger to conduct transactions.

"Messenger is ahead and they're the most likely to win this one," said ChannelAdvisor Executive Chairman Scot Wingo. "The other one I would say has a shot at this is Snapchat. They're getting a fair amount of advertiser attention these days, and it'd be natural to look at that platform as part of this chatcommerce trend."

3. Content and commerce will blur

This trend has already begun but will ramp up next year as more e-commerce players get into content and more content players get into e-commerce.

Mashable, for example, recently opened up an e-commerce store on its site that will sell Mashable-branded products as well as some Kickstarter gadgets. And Conde Nast, too, is transforming style.com into an e-commerce hub. On the flip side, Amazon is adding content in the form of guides like these, which feature products alongside engaging content. As both industries fight for eyeballs and attention, each is taking practices from the other to try to make their sites more attractive.

"I hope to see greater integration of content and commerce, where the work that retailers do around curation and blog content is better integrated into the selling side so that the two support each other, instead of stand alone," said Nikki Baird, Managing Partner at RSR Research.

4. Retailers will tap into virtual reality

As virtual reality becomes more popular with devices such as Facebook's Oculus Rift headset, retailers will start to experiment with ways to leverage the new technology.

Virtual reality can be used to help consumers get a better idea of how an article of clothing will fit before they commit to purchasing, or to let someone browse a virtual store while sitting on their couch.

Some companies like Von Bismark are already on their way. Von Bismark has a shopping app on the Xbox that leverages Kinect technology to demonstrate what a piece of clothing would look like on the consumer. The technology is still in its early stages -- it won't be able to recommend a size yet, for instance --but it's a start.

Virtual reality could elevate the virtual fitting room to the next level, but it will likely still be pretty experimental in 2016. "We'll leave the year and a lot more people will be thinking about it for 2017," said ChannelAdvisor's Wingo.

5. Drone delivery will happen... just not in the U.S.

One day in the not-so-distant future, packages will be delivered via drone. But that day will probably come sooner in countries outside of the U.S., where this could actually become a reality in 2016.

Thanks to the stringent Federal Aviation Administration, though, drone delivery in the U.S. may not happen for several years at least.

"The U.S. is going to lag just because we're going to be a lot slower around the FAA type stuff, the rules and regulations," said ChannelAdvisor's Wingo. "But you'll probably see it in Europe and Asian countries before we get it here in the U.S."

6. Amazon will continue to dominate

Speaking of drone delivery, not surprisingly, Amazon should continue to gain market share in 2016.

Forrester predicts that Amazon's U.S. gross merchandise value will surpass $100 billion in 2015, which would make it the third-biggest retailer in the U.S. behind only Walmart (WMT)  and Costco (COST) . "We expect Amazon's retail growth in the U.S. to outpace overall retail through 2016," the analysts wrote in a recent report.

Cowen analysts believe that Amazon will displace Macy's (M) as the number one U.S. apparel retailer by 2017. 

7. Buy buttons will become a thing... just not on social media

The hype around buy buttons on Facebook, Twitter (TWTR) , and Pinterest continues, but the social buy button is unlikely to become a serious trend in 2016. These buttons have yet to really perform in a way that can make a huge difference for retailers.

But another type of buy button could actually be a game-changer in 2016, and that's Google's buy button. Google's button that appears in its mobile search results could be significant for retailers, since it has been notoriously difficult to convert customers on mobile devices. Google's buy button could transform mobile commerce in 2016.

8. The death of flash sales and the rise of ?

One thing seems to be clear, flash sale sites are on the way out. With rumors that Gilt Groupe may be being acquired, as well as layoffs at Groupon and Living Social, the limited time sales trend seems to be fading. The question now is which new business models will rise in its shadows.

The subscription model, used by the likes of Birchbox, will continue to be big, according to ChannelAdvisor's Wingo. Plus more and more retailers will shift to a direct-to-consumer model -- think Warby Parker, Bonobos, and Casper.

"Big brand names are starting to have relationships with customers," Wingo said. "It's been largely in apparel and I think you'll see an explosion of that stuff in consumer product goods."

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