The consumer speaks: 10 trends that could define e-commerce in 2021

7 minute read

If you’re an online retailer right now, the future has never been so undefined. We’ve already seen massive changes in many sectors, but will they continue? What’s normal in the new normal? Any predictions are just that: predictions.

Fortunately, we have the voice of the consumer. And Canadian consumers are voicing their changing needs and preferences very clearly indeed. It can be difficult to stay on top of it all.

Canada Post is committed to improving your understanding of the e-commerce trends, and consumer trends, impacting your business today and tomorrow. Our goal is the same as yours: to help keep you one step ahead of consumer expectations – and your competition.

Here are 10 notable trends that can inspire your thinking and fuel your planning in 2021, and beyond.

1. Shoppers listen to other shoppers

User-generated content, or UGC, is created by consumers rather than businesses. And that’s precisely what makes it so effective. Consumers devour this kind of content, whether it’s in the form of reviews, ratings, comments on social networks, videos and more.

32 per cent of online shoppers state reviews and other user-generated content as a reason to frequent a specific retailer.

Shoppers appreciate retailers who showcase user reviews and other forms of user-generated content. UGC can also say great things about your brand. You believe in transparency and authenticity – attributes that can be absolute ‘tie-breakers’ when consumers are picking between brands.

So, if you’re not doing so already, encourage customers to share their reviews, ratings and other feedback on your website and social networks. Consider incentivizing them with an exclusive discount code or, if you’re on a budget, with a contest.

In short, user-generated content can help drive consumer engagement, establish credibility, and generate traffic – all great reasons to put it on your checklist.

2. Offering exclusive products is a powerful motivator

One of the best ways to differentiate your brand is by offering a unique array of products. In fact, you could make the case that carrying hard-to-find items is more appealing to consumers than offering them a wide selection of products.

42 per cent of online shoppers state selling things that are hard to find elsewhere as a reason they frequent a specific retailer.

Selling exclusive products may be a tall order for some businesses, so we’re not suggesting that everything you carry must be next-to-impossible to find. Start with products that are difficult to source elsewhere. For instance, you may be the only retailer in the province, city or town that carries a particular line of products. Or create your own exclusive line. Once you have products that stand out in a crowded marketplace you can make them a focal point of all your communications.

But what if unique products are off the table for you? You could align yourself with a local or national charity, giving back a portion of every sale to a good cause. Corporate social responsibility influences consumers’ buying decisions and will continue to do so in the future.

3. Thinking green appeals to consumers

The pandemic seems to have replaced sustainability on Canada’s news sites, but that is only for the short-term. Sustainability and other corporate social responsibility objectives will be top of mind for consumers for decades to come.

46 per cent of consumers will shop more often with retailers who are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint.

More than ever, consumers are aware that their buying decisions can make a positive, meaningful impact on the world. Younger consumers are known to actively look for brands that share their values. Think about ways in which you can establish and communicate a distinct corporate social responsibility message. It may involve, for instance, cutting back on the packaging you use during shipping, or choosing sustainably-sourced materials.

Learn how you can transform online shopping experiences to meet and exceed your customers’ expectations.

Contact an expert

4. Home is where your customer is

The pandemic has left many marketers searching for solutions to a host of new communications challenges. One of the top ones? How to reach and engage housebound consumers suffering from digital burnout. Direct mail may help your message resonate in an increasingly cluttered online environment.

More than half of Canadians say they will open and read advertisements that they receive in the mail in the next 6-8 months. 60 per cent of Canadians like receiving coupons in their mailbox.

It may be time to remix your marketing mix. Canadians are working from home more than ever – and consuming direct mail like never before. This channel doesn’t necessarily replace your digital efforts. If anything, direct mail’s unique combination of targeting, physicality and relevancy can amplify your digital marketing mix. If you need to deliver brand experiences right into the hands of the consumers that matter most, direct mail is worth considering.

[ For more on how you can boost marketing performance, check out Amp up your marketing mix with direct mail ]

5. A little peace of mind goes a long way

The increase in online shopping will continue to keep package security top of mind among consumers. It’s up to retailers to find ways to reassure their customer base.

73 per cent will shop more often with retailers that ensure their packages are secure when they are not home to receive them.

Your delivery partner’s ability to meet customer expectations is an important part of your brand promise. Responding to their need for safer, more secure package delivery can be yet another point of distinction.

Canada Post offers a unique range of solutions for enhanced delivery experiences. Community mailboxes, parcel lockers and P.O. boxes enable customers to pick up packages on their own time. For even more convenience and security, our extensive retail network, together with FlexDeliveryTM, provides a 15-day hold on pickups – 10 more days than our competitors.

[ Watch Designing your customers’ receiving experience, part of our e-commerce lab series ]

Subscription boxes increase revenue and build loyalty

What’s behind the phenomenal growth of subscription boxes? Consumers love the thrill of trying new products, without the hassles of shopping. For retailers, subscription boxes represent an additional source of recurring revenue – and ongoing consumer loyalty.

51 per cent of shoppers have purchased a subscription box for themselves or as a gift

Top subscription box categories: books; meal kits; art, crafts, hobbies; wine, spirits, beer; and health and wellness.

One of the fastest-growing trends in e-commerce, subscription models can be an amazing source of predictable revenue for your business and can seriously boost customer loyalty. Most models are sold monthly, enabling customers to experience your brand on a regular basis. This helps to entrench brand preferences. You also open the door to upselling and other selling opportunities.

The top categories for subscription boxes include books, meal kits, arts and crafts and hobbies. Wine, spirits, beer, health and wellness are also on the rise.

6. Loyalty is a two-way street

Loyalty programs are as old as marketing itself, but that’s no reason not to create one. Like subscription boxes, a loyalty program can generate recurring revenue, plus it can make your most valued customers feel special. Win-win indeed.

17 per cent of online shoppers cite a great loyalty program as a reason to frequent a specific retailer.

When considering a loyalty program, keep your customers in mind. What are they expecting? What do they truly value? What will incentivize them to keep coming back? While points, credits and discounts are common, you don’t necessarily have to build your program around them. Your customers may be happy with invitations to members-only events, or free shipping and returns.

[ And don’t forget the basics ]

7. E-commerce is here to stay

Over the past year, more Canadians have turned to online shopping than ever before, with millennials and Gen-Z driving the shift. While it’s reasonable to assume that some consumers will go back to their pre-COVID-19 shopping habits, not all will. Striking the right balance between the online and offline worlds will be key.

93 per cent of Canadians plan to either do more online shopping or the same amount.

48 per cent report buying more items online since the start of the pandemic and 30% report avoiding in-store shopping.

You’ll need to monitor how and when your customers are buying in the months ahead. Your marketing spend should reflect their preferences. Also, think about how changes will affect your targeting efforts and how you’re balancing in-store and online promotions.

8. Free shipping is a must

Free shipping has become table stakes among online shoppers. These days, most consumers don’t even look to see if you offer it – they just expect free shipping as par for the course.

84 per cent will shop more often with a retailer that provides free shipping.

Unexpected shipping charges at checkout is a major cause of cart abandonment. So, the question isn’t can you afford to offer free shipping, but can you afford not to?

It’s so important that companies devise and test free shipping strategies. You could offer free shipping on a minimum purchase value, consider free shipping during special promotional periods, or offer free shipping to your best repeat customers.

9. Returns is more than a process – it’s a strategy

As online shopping has ballooned, so have returns. Rather than looking at returns as a hassle, consider it an opportunity to further distinguish your business from the pack.

76 per cent will shop more often with retailers that provide free returns.

Customers have good memories. They won’t forget a returns process that’s complicated or costly.

So, your returns strategy should strive for optimal convenience. Make your returns policy clear and upfront on all key communication channels – from your printed advertisements to your website. And if you can, offer consumers free shipping on returns. Chances are your competitors already do.

10. Your customers can guide you

The turbulent shifts of the last year have made it challenging to plan for the future. There are no easy short-term answers. The best we can do is continually listen to our customers and monitor how their needs are changing. That way, we can quickly shift when they shift. Every year, Canada Post invests in delivering industry-leading e-commerce and marketing research to Canadian online retailers.

Canada Post. 2020 Fall Survey, 20-2014, October 2020.

Think like an e-commerce leader.

We’re dedicated to sharing the latest insights to set you up for success in 2021.

View latest research