How to use artificial intelligence was the big topic at the conference in London last week, but dig down and attendees were attempting to ask an even more important question.
I was fortunate enough to not only attend last week’s eCommerce Expo 2023 at London’s ExCeL Centre, but speak on a panel about how merchants can stay lean and prepare for tomorrow’s innovations, with Peyman Naeini, CTO of growing fashion brand Mint Velvet.
In many ways, the topic we discussed, “reimagining retail infrastructure”, was an apt summary of the entire two-day event. Across half a dozen theaters and hundreds of stands, much of the talk focused on artificial intelligence and how AI is poised to change how we all do business.
Some attendees were offering answers and insight, while others were there in listening mode, looking for advice on how to make the best use of AI tools when their abilities change, improve and integrate at breakneck speed.
Four themes stood out in particular for me, and while the potential of AI underpinned them all, another more fundamental question was being tackled on the showfloor and in meeting rooms, even if it wasn’t quite articulated. How can we use AI to keep shopping personal?
Customer retention takes centre stage
Retaining customers is often more cost effective than acquiring new ones – especially in a tough economic climate. How data is used to do just that was a major theme of debate at eCommerce Expo. Multiple sessions stressed the importance of using data to enhance retention, from optimizing the returns process to refining loyalty programs and sending targeted emails.
My colleague, Renata Rocha, Head of Customer Acceleration, EMEA at Shopify, doubled down on the latter point in a lively discussion with Mailchimp’s Head of EMEA, Jim Rudall, entitled “Why Email isn’t dead: how to use it to engage customers and sell more”. She made the point that “in times of crisis people often cut costs and reduce innovation.” But it’s exactly then that retailers “need to keep innovating.”
One way to do that is through AI, something Jim said Mailchimp customers were very excited about. Renata revealed a personal example, admitting that as she is training for a marathon, a recent email from a sports brand with advice for first-time marathon runners convinced her to make another purchase from the company. If AI can be used to identify more challenge points in a customer’s very literal and physical journey, merchants and shoppers alike stand to benefit.
Omnichannel means commerce everywhere
This may have been an eCommerce Expo, but selling across every vertical was front of mind for many, including high street stores. Many visitors stopped by our stand to ask about Shopify POS, keen to understand how one unified system can handle payments and keep track of inventory across online and offline. It's clear the border between high street shops and web stores continues to blur, and consumers expect the best of both worlds — the simplicity and convenience of online shopping, and the brand connection and experience of visiting a physical store.
New selling surfaces were also a major discussion point, meanwhile. Social commerce and TikTok in particular came up in several panels; I was fascinated to hear in a talk from Carl West, Sales Director at Foxintelligence that AOV on TikTok in the UK is now higher than online overall for the cosmetics space — £16 rather than £14, with a higher purchase frequency too.
“If you’re a mass marketer and you’re wondering where your share is going, you need to look at TikTok,” he concluded. “You need to look out for who’s eating your lunch.”
Cross-border selling: Expanding horizons with ease
Breaking down international barriers is a dream for every merchant, and the expo offered valuable insights into how to make cross-border selling painless and accessible for businesses of all sizes. The key to success in global ecommerce lies in providing a seamless shopping experience, regardless of location.
Speakers focused on removing friction from international transactions, providing localized shopping experiences, and helping merchants easily expand into new markets with tools to automated translation, currency conversion, customs paperwork, and more. Peyman from Mint Velvet in particular spoke eloquently on the subject, predicting continued acceleration of cross-border commerce as technology eliminates complexity.
AI: The driving force for tomorrow's ecommerce
Artificial intelligence (AI) was undoubtedly the hot topic at the Expo, however. Participants were eager to hear about how AI could revolutionize every aspect of ecommerce, from product detail page content generation – something Peyman mentioned Mint Velvet turned to Shopify Magic for help with – to uncovering entirely new customer journeys.
However, most agreed that even with all the leaps made so far, from ChatGPT to our own Shopify Sidekick assistant for merchants, the surface is barely even being scratched right now. Some were bolder than that. “Nobody is using AI in the post-purchasing experience to good effect,” said David Hicks, co-founder at XMCoach on a panel on machine learning and the impact on experience. His co-panelist, AI expert Nihir Vedd, agreed: “There’s so much data in CRMs not being utilized to the extent it could.” It’s certainly the case that we’re only at the beginning of the journey here. According to a Shopify merchant study conducted in 2022, one in three Shopify merchants have attempted to use some form of AI, turning to third-party AI tools to help with automation, support, and content generation to reduce toil, and spend less time on repetitive tasks. Which brings me to my final point:
How do we keep shopping at scale personal even as AI advances?
While AI may have been the most discussed tech at the show, ultimately human connection emerged as the real focus – the reason we all want to keep mining to explore AI’s potential.
New technologies can strengthen brands when used thoughtfully, but risk backfiring if poorly executed. Generative AI can help quickly make or generate product listings, it’s true, but if it doesn’t excite or feel authentic, it will do your business more harm than good.
I was most struck by CX consultant Karl Illrud’s keynote talk on enhancing potential in ecommerce. He mapped out a future where these tools become organically integrated – and fundamentally change how we list and sell products online.
“Right now [the browsing experience] is photo, video, text and buy button,” he explained. But consumers online are “long gone from that experience, we want to be greeted.” Imagining that near future, he outlined a product journey that was entirely generated on the fly for each shopper, showcasing an item in the environment specific to each visitor, with dynamically-rendered video and the recommendations that mattered to them.
And while he noted that we’re not there yet, he did stress we’re also not far off either. “We want to go into a store, and someone takes care of us.”
It’s an exciting prospect, and it resonates because beneath the tech is a truth we all recognize: people buy from people. Those who can use AI to that end will need to show us all how it’s done come next year’s event.