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The nature of online business is changing fast, but that’s nothing new. In fact, managers in online companies are among the most adaptable, flexible, and forward-looking professionals out there. 

That’s primarily due to necessity. With an average growth rate of 25.6% in ecommerce sales over the years 2014 to 2017, cyber-entrepreneurs have had to scale their businesses pretty quickly. But now, with global ecommerce sales amounting to nearly $3.5 trillion worldwide in 2019, a new challenge arises: how to cement your place in a mature, competitive market.

As the pandemic has shown, both the future of retail and ecommerce can be challenging to predict in the short term. Take a broader view, though, and several trends become safer bets. In this article, we’ll look at five trends that are all but certain to have an impact on online businesses in the next decade and show you how to prepare for them.

For more information on what experts say about the future of retail:

The Future of Retail: What Do the Experts Say?

1. Look to Emerging Markets

Let’s start with the shift that will likely have the most significant impact on the global economy — the fact that the internet (and therefore internet retailing) is only just beginning to take off in the developing world. The impact of this new flood of consumers is hard to overstate. Research indicates that emerging markets might contribute a potential 3 billion buyers over the next five years alone.

Many sectors already look to these “new” online buyers as a key demographic for their products and services. Companies offering Fintech solutions, for instance, are making online payments easier in markets where they have historically been difficult. Similarly, as internet penetration increases in the developing world, there will be an increased demand for B2B services abroad. 

As an online business, you need to take these trends seriously — if you’re not already exploring how you can reach customers in emerging markets, you should do this research as soon as possible.

2. Get Physical

The second trend in online business over the past few years, albeit a slightly counter-intuitive one, has been companies reversing the decade-old trend of focusing on online sales instead of opening physical stores.

But this is not a complete reversal. Instead, brands like Nike (which have already expanded in both New York and Shanghai) are using physical stores not so much to sell products as to connect with their audiences more directly and put a human face behind their online brand.

As such, the increased popularity of physical stores, interactive experiences, and real-life marketing interventions should be seen as a symptom of a broader shift — an attempt by online brands to make a genuine emotional connection with their audience. 

And while video maker technology has gone a long way, especially during the pandemic to humanize brands, nothing completely replaces good, old, fashioned face-to-face contact.

The reason why this trend is such a certainty to continue is not due to technology. Instead, it is because the consumers that most value a “human” connection with a brand (Gen Z and Millenials) are the youngest audiences out there. This means that they will continue to exert a powerful influence on online brands’ operations (and profitability) for years to come. 

3. Explore B2B

It’s never been easier to set up an online business. This has resulted in an explosion in the number of companies trading online in the last few years. As a knock-on effect, this has contributed to a remarkable increase in the number of businesses designed to sell products or services primarily to other businesses. This is called B2B, in contrast to the business to consumer (or B2C) model most online businesses pursue.

Even if your business is primarily based on B2C sales, it’s worth exploring how you can dip your toes in the world of B2B. B2B ecommerce sales are predicted to grow to $6.6 trillion this year and encompass almost every sector of the economy from office furniture to SaaS solutions. Though getting into B2B sales can present challenges for companies traditionally focused on consumers, it’s more than possible to make exploratory moves in this direction if only to assess the potential profitability.

4. Automation

Marketing and sales automation is perhaps the most critical trend transforming online business today. Expect this to be a part of every online business of the future. Automating processes relies on four fundamental principles. The first three are largely technical — build a system to collect data, figure out how to process it, and install an outreach system to use it effectively. 

The fourth, and the most important for the future, is to ensure that you build (and keep) your customers’ trust as you move toward automation. Thanks in part to a series of recent and successful cyber scams, customers are warier than ever about receiving automated sales emails. Likewise, they are super protective of their personal information. This means that, while automation is crucial to future-proofing any business, there should be a plan in place to do it right.

5. Go Ethical

Last but not least, take a look at the values that your company embodies. For example, health and wellness brands are showing us the way forward when it comes to signaling their moral, ethical, and ecological values and tend to reap a reward for doing so.

For more information on how health and wellness brands are innovating:

How Health and Wellness Brands Innovate Their Way to the Future

As Gen Z and millennial customers grow to form an ever-larger part of the market for online businesses, the importance of ethical branding will only increase. It would be wise to start looking into this now.

The Bottom Line

As most thinking humans have realized by now, the future is uncertain. Some look at the next five years and foresee a coming robot apocalypse. Others fancy a return to normal after a period of Covid-driven chaos. There are, however, several near certainties about what the next decade will bring for online businesses. 

For more information on the coming AI-powered apocalypse:

The Coming Robot Apocalypse: Disruption and Opportunity in an AI-Powered Future

Author

Brian Skewes is a technologist into deconstruction. Over two decades of self-employment, he has accumulated a wealth of inadvertent real-world lessons related to building, running, and preserving a small company.