New technologies are evolving the Internet, and are also assisting in the growth of the ecommerce industry.
In fact, first quarter 2012 saw online retail spending reach more than $44 billion - up 17 percent from a year prior.
This represents the 10th consecutive quarter of positive year-over-year growth, according to comScore. While the state of ecommerce is on an upswing, merchants cannot take a passive approach. Instead, merchants must stay on top of emerging technologies and strategies in order to stay ahead of their competition, attract consumers, engage site visitors and increase conversions.
And since everything from product images to promotions can impact a retailer's success, merchants should focus on these five key areas in order to gain the best return on investment (ROI) in the current state of ecommerce.
Few factors contribute more to a consumer's decision-making process than product images.
While basic best image practices - such as providing them in appropriate lighting and at the right contrast, as well as providing zooming and rotating features - are important, merchants should also push the envelope when it comes to how they showcase their products. This can be done by offering virtual fitting room technologies or augmented reality features.
For example, Fits.me offers apparel retailers the ability to bring virtual fitting rooms to the Web. The company uses shape-shifting robotic mannequins and photos to display how clothes look on various body types. Then, when a consumer visits a participating retailer's site, they have the ability to type in their measurements and gauge how specific sizes of an item would appear on their body.
However, Fits.me is far from the only solution that enables merchants to feature their products in a unique way. Other solutions, such as Shoefitr or the Webcam Social Shopper from Zugara, also offer interactive technologies to feature products within the ecommerce industry.
Learn more about these and other product showcase platforms here.
For consumers, the online shopping experience is significantly different from the brick-and-mortar shopping experience, which is why merchants should focus on customer service solutions.
At the minimum, merchants should offer their customers live chat, which is proven to help increase conversions. In fact, one Oracle study reveals that 57 percent of consumers believe that live help is among the most important features of a website. However, if you want to improve your customer service initiatives, look no further than virtual assistants from providers like CodeBaby and VirtuOz.
"It's really about online self-service and allowing the customer to engage with the brand how they want, versus how marketers might want to direct them," said Dennis McGuire, CEO of CodeBaby.
For example, CodeBaby's CIVA (CodeBaby Intelligent Virtual Assistant) technology provides clients with a virtual talking assistant, which pops up on a site and guides visitors to specific actions. This technology improves navigation and enhances the customer experience, and can also decrease abandonment rates and increase conversions. Additionally, by answering common questions, CIVA reduces the likeliness of users being escalated to the company's call center.
Learn more about bringing your sales team to the 'Net here.
Social media's popularity is another avenue that is boosting ecommerce sales, which means that merchants must leverage their networks within their online shopping destinations.
Aside from simply adding social sharing buttons to a site and maintaining a presence on popular networks - such as Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram - merchants can rev up their social strategy by adding social login options, which enable consumers to make a purchase without creating a new user profile. This technology isn't only convenient for customers. Social login also provides merchants with customers' detailed profile data, which can be used for segmenting future marketing campaigns.
Merchants can also create a community-type atmosphere by adding reviews on their product pages, which can encourage consumers to make a purchasing decision.
Merchants seeking a more innovative way to add digital consumer content should explore user-generated video reviews.
If your online shopping destination doesn't prominently feature promotions, you are most definitely missing out on valuable conversions. This is because many consumers use the 'Net to browse for products, but when it comes to making a purchase they will go to the nearest brick-and-mortar location to avoid shipping costs.
However, merchants can turn these browsers into buyers with the right promotion. According to Mitch Harper, co-founder of BigCommerce, merchants should be innovative and test multiple options when it comes to launching promotions.
"Look at what the big guys are doing and see if you can get some ideas. Typically free shipping and a 14/30 day return policy work really well, as do BOGO promotions," said Harper. "This is where you can really be creative as a merchant so try multiple promotions and test what works."
Another way to encourage consumers to purchase is with VIP promotions. For example, after a consumer completes a transaction, merchants can send a follow-up email that includes a 15 percent coupon code, valid for the customer's next online purchase. Merchants can also launch VIP coupon codes on social networks to reward brand enthusiasts and entice more customers to join their social following.
A recent IBM report reveals that mobile purchases made up 13 percent of total site sales in March 2012, which is more than double the percentage of the previous year. Furthermore, mobile devices accounted for 17 percent of overall site traffic in March, which is a three-fold increase from the year prior. This means that if your site is not optimized for mobile yet, you are in serious danger of falling behind your competitors in the digital shopping realm.
Many ecommerce shopping cart platforms, including BigCommerce, Volusion and Shopify, offer a mobile-optimized version of websites to their clients. However, regardless of the service a merchant chooses, simplicity and usability should always be top of mind when it comes to mobile
"Mobile shoppers are simply more likely to buy when they can get to what they need fast -they're likely on the go after all," said Harper. "Also optimize for the 'wow factor' upfront, putting your best product photos front and center, and not hidden farther down into the site."
The current state of ecommerce offers merchants an endless amount of plugins, extensions, strategies and technologies that can be leveraged to help boost site conversions and engagement. However, merchants must first be familiar with these trends and emerging technologies in order to successfully implement new features into their own sites. After all, by staying up to date with the current state of ecommerce, merchants can prepare for the future of ecommerce.
About the Author: Allison Howen is an associate editor at Website Magazine, writing primarily about ecommerce and social media.